Posts tagged ‘Boring Company’

An Update on Tesla in Advance of 4Q Earnings

Yes, I am like an addict on Tesla but I find the company absolutely fascinating.  Books and HBS case studies will be written on this saga some day (a couple are being written right now but seem to be headed for Musk hagiography rather than a real accounting ala business classics like Barbarians at the Gate or Bad Blood).

I still stand by my past thoughts here, where I predicted in advance of results that 3Q2018 was probably going to be Tesla's high water mark, and explained the reasons why.  I won't go into them all.  There are more than one.  But I do want to give an update on one of them, which is the growth and investment story.

First, I want to explain that I have nothing against electric vehicles.  I actually have solar panels on my roof and a deposit down on an EV, though it is months away from being available.  What Tesla bulls don't really understand about the short position on Tesla is that most of us don't hate on the concept -- I respect them for really bootstrapping the mass EV market into existence.  If they were valued in the market at five or even ten billion dollars, you would not hear a peep out of me.  But they are valued (depending on the day, it is a volatile stock) between $55 to $65 billion.

The difference in valuation is entirely due to the charisma and relentless promotion by the 21st century's PT Barnum -- Elon Musk.  I used to get super excited by Musk as well, until two things happened.  One, he committed what I consider outright fraud in bailing out friends and family by getting Tesla to buy out SolarCity when SolarCity was days or weeks from falling apart.  And two, he started talking about things I know about and I realized he was totally full of sh*t.  That is a common reaction from people I read about Musk -- "I found him totally spellbinding until he was discussing something I am an expert in, and I then realized he was a fraud."

Elon Musk spins great technology visions.  Like Popular Mechanics magazine covers from the sixties and seventies (e.g. a flying RV! a mile long blimp will change logging!) he spins exciting visions that geeky males in particular resonate with.  Long time readers will know I identify as one of this tribe -- my most lamented two lost products in the marketplace are Omni Magazine and the Firefly TV series.  So I see his appeal, but I have also seen his BS -- something I think a lot more people have caught on to after his embarrassing Boring Company tunnel reveal.

Anyway, after a couple thousand words of introduction, here is the update:  In my last post linked above, I argued that Tesla is a growth company that is not investing in growth.  Sure, it is seeing growth in current quarters due to investments made over the last decade, but there is little evidence it is actually spending money to do anything new.  It stopped managing itself like a growth company trying to maintain its first-mover advantage.

Tesla has explicitly chosen to pursue a strategy that needs a TON of capital.  Everyone understands, I think, that building a new major automobile franchise takes a ton of investment -- that's why they are not popping up all the time.  But Tesla actually has made choices that increase the capital needed even beyond these huge numbers.  Specifically, they chose not just to manufacture cars, but to also own the sales and service network and to own the fueling network.  Kia was the last major new brand in the US that I can remember, but when it started it relied on 3rd parties to build and operate the dealer/service network and relied on Exxon and Shell to build out and operate the fueling network.  So Tesla has pursued a strategy that they need all the capital of Kia and of the Penske auto group and of Exxon.  Eek.

And for years, they were valiantly trying to pull it off.  They created showrooms in malls and created a new online selling process.  They built some service locations but as has been proven of late, not enough.  They built a supercharger network.  It was a gutsy call that seemed to be paying off.

And then something weird happened.  Somewhere in late 2017 or early 2018 they stopped raising capital and greatly slowed down both R&D and capital investment.

  • They slowed expanding the service network at the very time that their installed base of cars was going up exponentially and they were getting bad press for slow service.  Elon Musk promised that Tesla would create its own body shops but nothing has been done on this promise.
  • They slowed the Supercharger network expansion at the same time their installed base has dramatically increased and at the same time new competitive networks were begun by major players like Volkswagen.
  • They stopped expanding the Model 3 production line at the same time it was clear the current factory could produce only about 5,000 cars per day (with some quality tradeoffs at that) and Musk continued to promise 10,000 a day
  • They promised production in China by the end of this year but so far the only investment has been a groundbreaking ceremony in a still muddy field
  • They promised huge European sales but only just now got European regulatory approval for sales, dragging their feet for some reason on this approval despite lots of new EV competition starting to hit the European market.
  • They pumped up excitement with new product concepts like the semi and the coupe and the pickup truck but there is no evidence they have a place to build them or even have started to tool up.
  • Everyone thinks of Tesla as having leadership in battery technology but that is the one area they have actually outsourced, to Panasonic.
  • Through all of this, through all these huge needs for capital and despite Tesla's souring stock price and fanboy shareholders begging to throw money at the company, they have not raised any capital for a year.

Since my initial post, we have seen a few new pieces of news

  1. Tesla still has not raised capital and in fact faces a $1 billion bond repayment in just over 30 days
  2. Tesla admitted that it has not even started working on a refreshed design for the aging Model S and X, despite increasing EV competition coming at this high end from Audi, Porche, and others.  These refreshes should have been started years ago.
  3. In fact, Tesla announced it was cutting back on production of the S and X.  Ostensibly this was to focus on the Model 3.  Most skeptics think this is BS, and the real reason is falling demand.  But it doesn't matter -- growth companies with great access to the capital markets don't make these kinds of tradeoffs.  This is further proof that Tesla is no longer managing itself like a growth company.  These cuts are particularly troubling because the S and X are where Tesla gets most of its gross margins -- the Model 3 margins are much worse.
  4. Tesla laid off 7% of its work force.  Again, this is not the act of a company that is behind in implementing its growth initiatives, growth initiatives that perhaps 80% of its stock market valuation depends on.

Tesla has always had an execution problem, or more rightly an over-promising problem.  But it was still actually investing and doing stuff, even if it was disorganized and behind in doing so.  Now, however, it is a company valued as an exponential growth company that is no longer managing itself like a growth company.  It has billions of investments that are overdue -- in new products, in product refreshes, in the service network, in a second generation supercharger -- that should have been started 2-3 years ago and for which there isn't any major activity even today.

As a disclosure, Tesla stock is one of the most dangerous in the world to trade, either way.  You really need to understand it before you trade it and no one really understands it.  I have a couple of long-dated put options on Tesla that I consider more of a bar bet than anything else.  I also have a couple of cheap short-dated calls as I usually do in the runup to the quarterly Tesla earnings call.  Musk is great at the last minute stock pump during earnings call week, and the stock often pops only to fall soon afterwards as people dig into the numbers.  But again, these are "investments" that are less than 0.1% of my portfolio.

Postrcript:  When I wrote "Tesla is a growth company that is not investing in growth" I was picturing the Jim Cramer cameo in Ironman -- "That's a weapons company that doesn't make any weapons!"  Of course it took a work of fiction to see Jim Cramer advocate for the short side.  Doubly ironic given Musk sometimes styles himself as the real life Tony Stark.

On The Continuing, Pervasive Hatred of Short-Sellers

Readers will know that I have somehow been sucked into the Tesla vortex and spend too much time watching Tesla and Elon Musk's antics.  I tried to explain some of the reasons for this fascination here.  Every time I swear off following Musk, he does some new nutty thing, like his joke of a demonstration the other night of his Boring Company tunnel in LA  (as usual, Musk has come up with another idea that would look cool on the cover of a 1970's Popular Mechanics or Boys Life magazine but fails almost every engineering, physics, and business logic test).

Anyway, I am going to mostly resist writing about Tesla and discuss the strange bias many Americans (really, many Westerners) have against short-selling.  Here is a tweet from a random Tesla supporter that demonstrates what I see every day from Tesla fans:

This notion that short sellers are not doing anything legitimate, that they do not deserve legal protections (or else should be banned entirely), and that they prosper only by spreading false information are not just a staple of hard core Musk fanbois, but are actually quite common attitudes.  I saw it just the other night watching the movie The Accountant again (a family favorite in part because a streak of OCD and Asperger's runs through my family).  In this scene, the guy talking is called Brax and he is a gangster and a mercenary, but for a variety of reasons the film-makers need to make him more sympathetic than the average thug.  Watch the justification he gives:

The movie-makers are expecting that the average viewer will discount his thuggery here because he is beating up a short-seller, and we all know those guys are unethical and destructive (by the way, I too would be tempted to short a company that has stuffed its workers' pension fund with its own stock, that is a big red flag to me).

Short selling, in which one is betting the value of an asset will go down in the future, is a perfectly legitimate and valuable way to participate in markets.  For those who are unsure what short selling is, here is how it works.  People who own large blocks of a stock, let's say Exxon-Mobil or XOM, can lend their stock, for a fee, to other people.  They do this as a way to generate extra income for their portfolio, particularly if they intend to hold the stock for the long term.  The people who borrow the stock then immediately sell it.  I know, this seems weird -- your neighbor who lent you his mower might be ticked off if you immediately sold it.  But folks who lend their shares know you are going to sell it.

So I borrow and sell 100 XOM shares for, say, $90.  If the price drops to $70, I can buy the stock back at that price and I make a $2,000 profit.  The risk, though, is that if the price keeps going up, I am going to have to buy back at a higher price and lose money.  If the price goes up too much, the broker is going to issue a margin call and likely force me to pony up more cash or buy back at the unfavorable price to cover my position.  If I had to sell at $110, I would lose $2000.

Note that short selling has a more dangerous risk profile than going long, or buying the stock.  If you buy 100 shares of XOM at $90, the most you can lose is $9,000 -- your losses are capped.  On the other hand your upside is unlimited -- if XOM goes up to $500, you make a fortune.  For short-selling, this is reversed.  The short-seller's gain is limited -- the most they can ever gain is $9,000 if the stock goes to zero.  But their losses are uncapped -- if XOM goes up to $500, they will have lost over $40,000.  And even if the stock shoots up to $500 and eventually falls to zero (as do many bubble companies that get shorted), it may be hard to ride the short position to the end, either due to margin calls or failure of intestinal fortitude.

Short selling makes a ton of economic sense in part because it HAS to improve markets.  First, it increases the liquidity of the market and the number and diversity of participants.  The more subtle reason is because markets and pricing are information discovery tools.  Short selling allows more people with information about a security to participate in this information exchange, which almost by definition improves the market.  As Don Boudreaux wrote years ago:

To ban short-selling of stocks is to short-circuit an important mechanism through which people share their knowledge and expectations with others.  Banning a mechanism that better allows share prices to reflect the expectation that the underlying assets are not worth as much as current market prices suggest does nothing to change the underlying reality.  Such a ban merely distorts knowledge of this reality

I like to think about economics and business issues but I am not an economist.  My layman's way of thinking about short selling was outlined in a post 10 years ago, written in reaction to a temporary ban in short selling during the market turmoil of 2008.

Someone noticed that just before certain stocks crash in value, there is a lot of short-selling.  So the US government has banned short-selling, at least temporarily.  Classic cargo-cult logic.

Boy this sure makes perfect sense in a time when we are concerned about speculative bubbles -- let's ban one of the most important tools that exist for bubbles to be shortened and made less, uh, bubbly.  Here is why (very briefly and non-technically) short-selling takes the edge off speculative excesses.

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

If you want to understand the volatility of a stock like Tesla ($tsla), the issue often is not short-selling but the extremely tiny float -- only a very small percentage of the equity in the company actively trades, while the rest sit in hands of folks who are not going to trade or even lend the stock (e.g. Elon Musk).  With such a tiny float, small changes in sentiment lead to huge price swings, making it a hair-raising investment for both longs and shorts.  This situation would likely be worse without the shorts.

As for the supposed false information spread by shorts, I am sure that happens.  But information gathering by shorts is one of the reasons we should treasure short-selling.  Here is my analogy -- one of the few good things about having Donald Trump as President is that the media actually is doing its job and is skeptical of everything he says and does.  It digs into the truth of his every single statement.  And sometimes what the media comes up with is fake or wrong.  But I would still argue we are better off with this sort of accountability than we were with the media as lapdogs to Obama.  Just look at the problems and potential rights violations at the border.  The media ignored most all of this same activity when it was happening under Obama, but is rightly (finally) highlighting it under Trump.

Trump supporters hate the media, and argue that it was "long" Obama and "short" Trump, but whatever the reason, we are learning things we did not know before and knowledge has value.  Shorts play this same role in the market.  For years everyone fawned over Elon Musk and Tesla.  The dedicated EV magazines were basically house organs of Tesla, a sort of Tesla Pravda.  The longs did not want to see or hear any criticism.  Essentially, no one wanted to be skeptical of the Tesla story except the shorts.   The shorts may turn out to be wrong, but they are finding holes in the Tesla love story and that is valuable.

Postscript:  If you do not invest and want a tiny taste of the hate short-sellers engender, go find the hottest, rowdiest craps table in a Vegas casino and start betting the Don't Come line.