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Elon Musk’s ‘science fiction’: Top analyst calculates Tesla’s true worth is just $138 a share

February 3, 2022, 12:00 AM UTC

For David Trainer, Elon Musk is the slickest of slick hucksters, a master mountebank who has sold the world on the illusion that his domain’s worth multiple times its true value. “He’s done good stuff, but he’s leading the market’s new genre of snake oil salesmen,” says Trainer, CEO of research firm New Constructs. “You’d think the quick, universal spread of information would show people when these kinds of claims are wrong, but instead they go viral and attract more followers.” For Trainer, a prime example of the phenomenon is Musk’s knack for generating a wave of enthusiasm for a fresh, glamorous venture that’s supposed to lift Tesla’s fortunes way beyond the fruits of electric cars—only to gin up excitement for the latest brainstorm so few notice that the last newbie flopped.

In his Q4 earnings call, Musk was true to form, rhapsodizing about Tesla’s future in robots. Trainer hit back in a Jan. 27 report Nothing New to See Here, asserting that “Musk’s promises of riches from non-EV businesses are only getting more and more outlandish. Remember the Cybertruck, FSD, paradigm-shifting battery technology, solar panels, and now robots?” None of these forays, charges Trainer, “has produced meaningful profits.”

For Trainer, these side ventures are only distracting investors from Tesla’s core problem: It can never capture a big enough share of the global EV market to be worth anything like its current share price of $920, and its resulting $920 billion valuation, let alone its summit of $1.2 trillion, notched in mid-November. To prove his point, Trainer forecasts the metrics Tesla must achieve to justify its pre-Thanksgiving apex. “If you believe $1.2 trillion is reasonable, and a lot of people think Tesla will exceed that benchmark and keep rising, it’s important to understand the future sales, profits, and market share required to be worth that figure right now,” Trainer told Fortune. He ran those required numbers and found them closer to “science fiction” than the grinding gears of carmaking. Trainer also made his best estimate on Tesla’s most likely results going forward and reached the shocking conclusion that Musk’s kingdom is really worth $138 a share. If he’s right, and his numbers look plausible, its shareholders are facing staggering losses of 85%.

What it would take for Tesla to regain the old, trillion-plus peak

Last year, Tesla sold 930,000 EVs, nearly double the volume in 2020. “That’s no small feat,” writes Trainer. But how many cars must it deliver in the years ahead to really deserve its peak valuation of $1.2 trillion based on fundamentals, a landmark such top money managers as Ron Baron expect Tesla to reclaim, then keep zooming? And what’s the bogey for profits? Trainer created a model that sets the marks Tesla must hit to be worth $1.2 trillion today. Every metric is an outsize, super-stretch goal, and the chances of reaching any one of them are remote. Add the virtually unachievable factors all together, and the probability of success reaches the mission impossible range.

First, Trainer posits that $1.2 trillion would make sense only if Tesla hits annual sales of 21 million EVs by 2030 at an average price of $38,000, America’s median sticker for new wheels. The International Energy Agency’s base forecast for the entire global electric-car market is 26 million units by the end of the decade. That means Tesla would need to be selling eight in 10 EVs by 2030. Yet Tesla’s global market share now stands at 15%. Such dominance can only happen, says Trainer, “if all of its competitors exited the business.”

But the big automakers are reaching for the same crown as Musk. Ten rivals, a group that encompasses Ford, GM, Stellantis, and VW, have announced plans to deliver a combined 19 million EVs a year by 2030, and that doesn’t include newcomers such as Rivian, or the Chinese giants from BYD to Xpeng. Just four competitors, VW, GM, Ford, and Stellantis, have unveiled campaigns to spend $280 billion on EV research and manufacturing through 2030. “They have a lot more money to spend than Tesla,” says Trainer. By his numbers, Tesla can deserve a $1.2 trillion market cap today only if it achieves a winner-take-all sweep that leaves the rest of these titans fighting over a sliver of the market.

Besides selling 21 million cars a year, says Trainer, Tesla needs to earn much more on each one than any automaker makes now, by a big number. Tesla now enjoys an operating margin after interest and taxes of 7.7%, but reaching 17% is required to justify a current market cap of $1.2 trillion. The only way investors should reasonably pay $1.2 trillion, or $1,200 a share today, says Trainer, is if they see a clear to path to $136 billion in profits by 2030. That’s 46% above what Apple, America’s most profitable colossal enterprise, earns today.

How does Trainer arrive at that $136 billion number? He deploys a classic “discounted present value” model for future earnings needed for a current valuation to make sense. In Tesla’s case, he picks the stream of profits from now until 2030 that when discounted back at the cost of capital—the returns investors can generally expect in big-cap stocks—would give Tesla a market cap of $1.2 trillion today. In his playbook, Tesla would need to pile one gigantic earnings increase on top of another, year after year, getting to $136 billion by the close of the decade. That’s over 20 times the just over $6 billion Tesla posted in 2021. It won’t happen.

What is Tesla really worth?

After running the fantasy scenario, Trainer plugs in realistic market share and margin numbers that sketch how Tesla will probably perform in the fierce battle ahead. He thinks Tesla could reasonably be selling 7.3 million EVs 10 years hence, not far from the 8.1 million projection from Morgan Stanley. He reckons its margins could expand a bit, from today’s 7.7% to GM’s level of 8.5%. But producing, and getting customers to buy, seven times as many Teslas as roll off the lines today is no gimme. Even under Trainer’s “most likely to really happen” outlook, Tesla would still be a fast-grower, expanding revenues at 20% a year for a full decade.

What’s Tesla worth if indeed investors lower their expectations and come to accept Trainer’s still challenging numbers? His best forecast, he says, puts its current value not at today’s $920 a share, but at $138, or 85% below where the market’s gauging the EV leader. Once again, that’s based on a discounted present value model of future earnings. Trainer figures that in 2030, Tesla will be making $24 billion, not the $136 billion it would need to merit a market cap of $1.2 trillion.

At $138 billion, Tesla’s cap would exceed VW’s and log around half of Toyota’s. “But if Tesla fails to meet any of those sales, revenues, and profit goals, its current value is less than $138 billion,” warns Trainer. Musk’s a visionary who makes an outstanding product. But in dollar terms, his greatest accomplishment is creating the fantasy that his carmaker is worth almost $800 billion more than any conceivable fundamentals could show.

As a grizzled newspaper man from an old movie western once said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Even today, investors are still buying the Musk legend. The onslaught from a horde of hungry rivals will soon shatter the myth.

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