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Bears in despair! Five key takeaways from Tesla’s record-breaking quarter

April 21, 2022, 2:33 PM UTC

Spring has arrived at last, but Tesla bears might want to crawl back into their caves to hibernate some more.

Elon Musk made a surprise appearance on Wednesday’s earnings call to personally present the record first-quarter results and reassure investors the future of their company is very bright indeed.

“I’ve never been more optimistic or excited about Tesla’s future than I am right now,” he told listeners dialing in, despite just enduring weeks of lost production at its Shanghai factory due to COVID lockdowns. 

Analysts would not need to revise their 2022 expectations to be lower as some had feared, he said, since he remained confident the company can achieve its average annual volume growth target of 50% this year.

Maintaining this furious pace of growth is considered fundamental to earning the high valuation multiples that underpin Tesla’s $1 trillion market cap. Musk even went so far as to predict his network of factories around the world could squeeze out a 60% increase to hit the mark of 1.5 million vehicles. 

The key, according to the Tesla CEO, is a record finish for the year. While first-half sales should come in around 600,000 units, the final six months will more than make up for the April shortfall at its Shanghai plant.

Typically shares in the carmaker tend to rally on the days leading up to results only to immediately sell off afterward. Yet Musk’s bullish message—backed up with record profitability, a very healthy order backlog that would keep factories busy for months, along with a consistent rise in average selling prices—means the stock opened 10% higher. 

With that in mind, here are the top five takeaways from Wednesday’s Q1 earnings.

Rock-solid financials

Tesla boasted a record operating profit margin of 19.2% for the quarter, a level virtually any automaker would drool at and at least comparable to the industry’s best-performing brands like Porsche and Ferrari. Part of this is cyclical as automakers overall are enjoying a sweet spot: Long-term supply contracts are shielding them temporarily from inflationary pressures on key raw materials that they can nonetheless already begin passing on to their customers. 

Yet Tesla’s efficiency and economies of scale are difficult to beat with one single family, the Model 3/Y, accounting for over 1 million units of its volume over the trailing 12 months. With Musk’s costly stock-based compensation barely making a dent in the past quarter, operating expenses were actually running at a lower rate than Rivian, despite being roughly 300 times the size of its smaller rival. Some bears were so despondent about the results, in fact, that a number questioned their very validity.

Dedicated robotaxi coming in 2024

First confirmed earlier this month at the opening ceremony of its Texas factory, Musk said his team is at work on a dedicated robotaxi vehicle that would maximize space by doing away with controls such as steering wheel and pedals. Whether it may become the $25,000 car announced back at Battery Day in September 2020 is unclear, but the Tesla CEO did predict at the time it would take three years to develop and be fully autonomous.

“A robotaxi ride will cost less than a bus ticket, a subsidized bus ticket, or subsidized subway ticket,” Musk promised on Wednesday. Volume production of the vehicle is slated already for 2024, which would be only a year after the Cybertruck finally launches.

Musk, however, is notorious for his overly ambitious reach targets. Customers are still waiting on the Semi and Roadster that were promised for 2019 and 2020, respectively, and which won’t arrive until next year at the earliest. Achieving full self-driving (FSD) is also a goal Musk has failed to deliver, and without that the prospects for offering a dedicated robotaxi model won’t be of much help.

Optimus bot more important than cars

Musk took a lot of flak in January for his sudden pivot toward humanoid robots, even though he has not showed so much as a prototype as proof of concept. But he explained his reasoning on Wednesday: He expects the business to become larger than either its core car operations or the sale of FSD software currently priced at $12,000 per car. This suggests the Optimus bot and any various derivatives would eventually rake in a minimum of $50 billion in annual revenue, if not more—something even hard-core bulls like New Street Research’s Pierre Ferragu found hard to believe.

Why the pivot to robots, given Tesla expressed no interest in the market until its AI Day last August? Simple. Musk believes a prerequisite to completing FSD is developing actual artificial intelligence. Once that is completed it would be in his estimation less complex and less costly to build a humanoid robot capable of performing monotonous tasks compared to a Tesla car.

Lithium bottlenecks hurting

Prices for battery-grade lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide have been soaring so fast, Tesla is already factoring in the higher costs into its current vehicle prices now. Otherwise by the time Tesla delivers a car ordered today some six months later, if not longer due to waiting lists, it may see its own costs rise. Even long-term supply contracts can often include periodic hikes to reflect spot market prices.

Musk consequently pleaded with mining companies to dig faster. “Lithium margins right now are practically software margins,” he said, adding spot prices were in some cases 10 times the cost of extracting the metal. “Do you like minting money? Well, the lithium business is for you.”

No chatter on Twitter

As soon as Musk revealed his intention to participate in Wednesday’s call, expectations mounted that his planned $43 billion bid for Twitter would dominate the conversation. Instead, an on-message Musk combined with a disciplined Martin Viecha, head of investor relations, to provide little opening for debate over Twitter.

The name of Musk’s favorite social media platform didn’t come up so much as once during the call. The downside, however, is shareholders are none the wiser as to whether the centibillionaire may need to liquidate some of his Tesla holdings to finance his pet project.

Judging by a Wednesday SEC filing from Musk, he won’t need to. A banking consortium is willing to provide him $25.5 billion in debt and a further $21 billion in equity.

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