After years of dominance in the booming electric vehicle (EV) market, Tesla’s competition is gaining ground. Legacy U.S. automakers are taking market share from the EV giant in North America, and the Chinese firm BYD is now the world’s top EV seller globally. But Elon Musk and company are fighting back, and they may have just started “a major EV price war” in the process, according to Wedbush tech analyst Dan Ives.
Tesla slashed the prices of some of its most popular vehicles by up to 20% in mid-January, leading Ford to respond with 6% to 8% price cuts on its all-electric Mustang Mach-E this week. Ives, who has long been a Tesla bull, believes that Tesla’s price cuts will force other EV makers into “similar moves” in a scramble to gain market share in February.
“There is a window of opportunity to gain share…and 2023 is a pivotal year that will establish the winners and losers in this EV landscape,” he wrote. “It’s now or never for Ford, GM, and the others.”
A price war over market share?
A price war in the auto industry is coming, according to Ives, but not because of falling demand—it’s all about market share. Ives said that Ford, GM, and European automakers believe that if they lose an EV customer, they might lose them forever due to Tesla’s Apple-like brand loyalty, so they’re getting aggressive with price cuts.
“It’s the Apple iPhone concept that Steve Jobs built Cupertino around…once a consumer buys an iPhone they will stay within the Apple ecosystem going forward. Tesla and Musk built the EV castle and revolutionized the automotive industry, gaining unique customer brand and loyalty for its cars, which is its key recipe for success,” he said.
Ives went on to argue that Musk’s EV giant has a few key advantages—including the scale of its EV production and superior battery technology—which could prevent legacy automakers’ price cuts from having the desired effect. Ford and GM will have to use aggressive price cuts to increase sales, even if it means sacrificing margins, according to Ives.
But not every analyst believes a serious price war is coming.
“At this juncture, we don’t expect the industry will break out into an all-out price war that was the defining character of the industry in the 2000s,” Bank of America analyst John Murphy wrote in a Monday note.
Murphy said he was confused by automakers’ latest EV price cuts, arguing that they fly in the face of executives’ comments about supposedly strong demand. Typically, price wars are caused by manufacturers’ attempts to capture fading demand, not to gain market share in a growing industry.
Murphy noted that Musk said in a recent press release that the latest price cuts at Tesla have led to orders that are “almost twice the rate of production.” And Ford didn’t mention demand issues when announcing its cuts, arguing that it made the move to “reduce customer wait times” and offer “competitive pricing.”
“The current EV price cuts appear to defy logic,” he argued. “Both TSLA and Ford are citing demand that exceeds supply, which means that cutting prices would be a direct hit to the bottom line today and unnecessarily degrades future earnings power.”
While Murphy doesn’t see a price war incoming, if there is one, he admitted, it amounts to a “significant risk” for the entire sector.
The competition ‘comes out swinging’
The good news is that GM’s latest earnings report revealed EV demand remains strong—for now.
GM grew revenues 28% year over year to $43.1 billion in the fourth quarter, topping analysts’ estimates for $40.65 billion. And the company managed to earn $2 billion net profit for the fourth quarter as supply chain issues faded.
“With all Street eyes focused on GM’s earnings this morning, the company came out swinging and delivered an exceptionally strong performance on the top and bottom line, further showing that demand is still strong and the shift to EV is increasingly underway,” Ives wrote.
GM isn’t cutting jobs either, or prices, and instead announced a $650 million investment to develop a lithium mine in Nevada with Lithium Americas this week. EV companies have been looking to bolster their supplies of key elements like lithium used in the production of EV batteries.
“Demand for our vehicles remains quite strong—both for our EVs and for our ICE [internal combustion engine] portfolio,” GM CFO Paul Jacobson told Bloomberg after the earnings report Tuesday. “Competition is no stranger to us. We’ve been in the business for over 100 years and the team is really, really good at competing. And we see consumer demand for our vehicles at our price points is really strong, we just need to make sure that we can get production up to meet that demand.”
Ives said that the “exceptional performance” of GM is evidence that demand concerns and supply issues are “a thing of the past,” calling it “bullish for the overall auto market.”
But EV industry critics believe that a slowing global economy will eventually affect EV sales, and hurt Tesla’s stock in particular because it trades at a high valuation relative to its peers.
Gordon Johnson, CEO of GLJ Research, told Fortune earlier this month that Tesla is valued as a “hyper growth” company, and typically price cuts aren’t associated with hyper growth.
“We’ve been saying this all along, but nobody wanted to listen,” he said. “It’s just a car company that can’t sell its capacity.”
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