Tesla (TSLA) raising funds

Last week TSLA announced that it is raising $1 billion in new capital, $750 million in convertible notes due in 2022 + $250 million in common stock.

The offering itself isn’t a surprise.  TSLA has been chronically in the situation where analysts can see a point on the near-term future where the company could easily run out of funds.  This is partly the lot of any startup.  In TSLA’s case, it’s also a function of the firms continuingly expanding ambitions.  Elon Musk has been saying for some time that TSLA will will need new capital, too.

What is surprising, to me at least, is that the offering is not bigger   …and, more significantly, that the stock went up on the announcement.

To the first point, why wouldn’t TSLA give itself some breathing room by raising more money?  Of course, it’s possible that the small size is a marketing tactic and that the underwriters will soon announce that, “due to overwhelming demand,” it’s raising the size of the offering to, say, $1.5 billion.  Otherwise, I don’t get it.

To the second, this is just weird.  TSLA shares rose by a tad less than 30% in the first six weeks of 2017 and have been moving more or less sideways since.  So the idea that investors are willing to buy the stock can’t be surprising positive news.  And I don’t see the plus in some commentators’ claims that the market is relieved the offering isn’t larger.  I think the market should be mildly concerned instead.

Something else must be going on.

The only thing I can think of is that Wall Street is beginning to believe that electric vehicles are going to enter the mainstream much sooner than it had previously thought.  At the same time, the Trump administration’s intended moves to make it easier for American car makers to sell gas guzzlers for longer may result in Detroit remaining stuck in the past, paying less attention to electric vehicles.  So market prospects for TSLA may be improving just as competition from the “Big Three” may be weakening.

However, that alone shouldn’t be enough to propel a well-known stock higher in advance of an offering.




Intel (INTC) and Mobileye(MBLY)

A week ago, INTC agreed to buy MBLY, an Israeli company that makes cameras and car safety devices, for $15.3 billion in cash.  Its plan is to merge its existing auto components business with MBLY and have that company spearhead INTC’s entire Internet-of-Things effort to enter the auto market.

Why buy rather than build?

The main issue is time, I think.  Part of this is that the timetable for development of autonomous driving vehicles is accelerating.  More than that, however, and the chief reason for the acquisition, to my mind, is the way marketing to the big auto companies works.

Auto companies plan new models several years in advance.  If you want a component in, say, a 2020 model, you probably need to have already convinced an auto maker of its merits by late last year.  Also, unless a component maker has a unique technology, auto companies tend to move slowly.  They’ll initially buy a single component, or they’ll put a part in one car model, just to see how the part–and the supplier–perform.  If things work smoothly, it will consider expanding that part’s use and/or buying other parts from the supplier.

The result is that convincing a car company to risk of using a new supplier takes a long time.  Without MBLY, which already makes key auto components and has an auto-oriented sales force, I think it could easily be a half-decade before INTC would make any significant inroads into the auto market.  INTC probably doesn’t have that much time.

This is not, of course, to say that INTC will be wildly successful in the auto-related IoT.  Without MBLY, though, its chances for success would be considerably dimmer.

what a good analysis of Tesla (TSLA) would contain

A basic report on TSLA by a competent securities analyst would contain the following:

–an idea of how the market for electric cars will develop and the most important factors that could make progress faster or slower.  My guess is that batteries–costs, power/density increases, driving range, charging speed–would end up being key.  Conclusions would likely not be as firm as one might like.

–TSLA’s position in this market, including competitive strengths/weaknesses.  I suspect one main conclusion will be that combustion engine competitors will be hurt by the internal politics of defending their legacy business vs. advancing their electric car position.  The ways in which things might go wrong for TSLA will be relatively easy to come up with; things that could go right will likely be harder to imagine.

–a detailed income statement projection.  The easy part would be to project (i.e., more or less make up) future unit volume and selling price.  The harder part would be the detail work of breaking down unit costs into variable (meaning costs specific to that unit, like labor and materials, with a breakout of the most important materials (i.e., batteries)) and fixed (meaning each unit’s share of the cost of operating the factory).  An important conclusion will be the extent of operating leverage, that is, the degree to which fixed costs influence that total today + the possibility of very rapid profit growth once the company exceeds breakeven.

There are also the costs of corporate overhead, marketing and interest expense.  But these are relatively straightforward.

The income statement projection is almost always a tedious, trial-and-error endeavor.  Companies almost never reveal enough information, so the analyst has to make initial assumptions about costs and revise them with each quarterly report until the model begins to work.

–a projection of future sources and uses of cash.  Here the two keys will be capital spending requirements and debt service (meaning interest payments + any required repayments of principal).  Of particular interest in the TSLA case will be if/when the company will need to raise new capital.



Elon Musk’s master plan for Tesla (TSLA)

Last week, Elon Musk issued his second master plan for TSLA as a blog post on the company website.

The plan has four parts:

autonomous driving, with the goal of making self-driving cars 10x as safe as those operated by human drivers.  The main issue here is, according to Musk, compiling enough safety date to convince governments to allow autonomous driving on public roads

expanding the product line, to include pickup trucks and compact SUVs, plus heavy trucks and urban buses.

Although what he writes on this topic is not 100% clear, one goal under this heading seems to be to reinvent the auto manufacturing process in a way that the new/improved factory is 5x – 10x as efficient as current ones.  One ambiguity I see is whether this means 10x the efficiency of, say, a Toyota plant, or 10x the efficiency of the current TSLA operation.  I presume he means the former.

Another is exactly what “efficiency” is.  I’m taking it to mean that Musk intends to create factories that, for the same capital investment, will produce 5x – 10x as many cars in a given time as current factories do.  My cursory inspection of auto 10Ks (other than TSLA, I don’t think I’ve owned an auto stock since the 1980s) tells me this won’t mean a huge jump in unit profits for any auto firm, including TSLA, since most of the costs of making a car are in materials and labor, not capital equipment.  Greater efficiency would boost overall profits, however, as well as allow TSLA to dramatically increase its vehicle output.

sharing.  Musk thinks that in an era of autonomous driving, some people won’t own cars themselves anymore.  They’ll simply call for one from a sharing service when they need it.  Other people will own cars but will allow their vehicles to be used in a sharing service when they don’t need them.  TSLA intends to organize sharing services for its vehicles.

This is a much more revolutionary statement than it seems.

The average car is used only 10% – 15% of the day, according to Musk.  If sharing boosted that usage figure to, say, 30% in highly populated areas, then those regions would need only half the cars they do today   …maybe fewer.  At some point, this would mean an implosion in demand for new autos–and the end of the car manufacturing industry as we know it.

merger of TSLA and SolarCity (SCTY).  In his Master Plan, part deux, Musk says he wants to create a “smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works, empowering the individual as their own utility, and then scale that throughout the world. One ordering experience, one installation, one service contact, one phone app.”

He says this can’t happen while TSLA and SCTY are separate companies, something he describes as “an accident of history.”

I’m not sure I buy this.  I do think that Musk created clear economic superiority of TSLA over SCTY when he decided to place the Gigafactory for solar batteries inside TSLA.  To my mind, that makes SCTY radically dependent on TSLA today.  Merging the two companies would put SCTY back on an even footing.  For TSLA shareholders, arguably the main benefit of the combination is obtaining SCTY at a cheap price.

Tesla (TSLA) is bidding for SolarCity (SCTY)

The offer is an all-stock deal, with TSLA willing to exchange 0.122 – 0.131 of its shares for each outstanding share of SCTY.  The exact figure will depend on a closer examination of SCTY’s books.  The proposal was announced after yesterday’s close.

My thoughts:

–in today’s pre-market trading, SCTY shares are up by about 14% and TSLA’s stock is down by around 12%.  This has little to do with the merits of the deal.  It’s all about arbitrage.  To the degree the market regards the acquisition as a done deal, it ceases to look at SCTY as an independent entity.  SCTY becomes instead equivalent to a deferred issue of TSLA stock.  Because the bid is at a premium to the pre-offer price of SCTY, SCTY is a relatively cheap way to own TSLA.  So arbitrageurs sell short the “expensive” form of Tesla, i.e. TSLA, and use the money they receive to buy the “cheap” form of Tesla, i.e., SCTY.  So SCTY goes up and TSLA goes down.

–my guess is that there’s no other bidder.  Elon Musk, who owns 20%- of TSLA also owns 20%+ of SCTY.  As is often the case with family-owned empires, one firm ( TSLA) is the heart of the enterprise.  Other companies are arrayed as satellites around the central hub.  Those tend to be more highly specialized, sometimes riskier–and invariably dependent on the main core for essential goods/services.  In this case, the Gigafactory being built by TSLA is going to the be the source of the batteries that SCTY will be distributing to customers.  Who else needs one of these?

–price is the main motive, I think.  SCTY is less than a tenth of the market cap of TSLA, so acquisition won’t make a radical difference in the latter’s fundamentals.  In most cases I’ve seen, the hub-satellite relation persists for decades, with third-party shareholders content with their stepchild status as an adequate tradeoff for the satellite’s narrower focus and faster earnings growth in specific circumstances.

–arguably, this is a good chance for adventurous to buy TSLA shares toward the lower end of its recent trading range.  I’m going to sit on my hands for a while, though, to try to gauge how severe selling pressure on TSLA may turn out to be.


what I find most surprising about Tesla (TSLA)

a concept stock

My California son got me interested in TSLA a couple of years ago.

It’s a “concept” stock.  That is, the stock trades on the dream or vision of future revenue and profit.

…like Amazon

In many ways, it’s like Amazon (AMZN) was in the late 1990s.

That company seemed to me to be on the verge of financial disaster for most of the first decade of its existence.  It only began to be profitable after it expanded from its original virtual bookstore idea to becoming an online department store.  In my view, had AMZN not aggressively raised a lot of capital during the Internet Bubble, it would not have survived.  After all, it lost money eight (?) years in a row before breaking into the black.

the center of an empire

TSLA is the seat of the Elon Musk empire.  Some say it’s a car company (me included); some would characterize it ultimately as a battery company, with cars as the wrapper that contains the principal TSLA product.

the stock

The stock is now trading at $260 or so a share, giving TSLA a market capitalization of about $39 billion.  Suppose we think, to make up a number, that the stock should trade at 30x earnings.  If so, the current price expresses investor belief that at some point the company will be making $1.3 billion a year and still have, say, 20% growth in annual profit in prospect.

back of the envelope numbers

Let’s say TSLA is a car company and that it will be making on average $7,000 a car, after tax, on its output at some future date.  If so, the current market price already factors into it that TSLA will be selling about 200,000 cars a year–and expanding rapidly.

I think that’s possible.  More important, the market says that’s what investors are willing to believe, and pay for.


There are risks, yes, the most obvious of which is that the company keeps pushing back the date when it will turn cash flow positive.  What cash flow positive means is that the company will be able to generate enough cash from operations to cover costs, and will no longer be eating into its cash reserves to make ends meet.

what I find surprising

What’s stunning, though, is that less than two months ago the stock was trading at just over $141, or just over half today’s price.

New information has come out since then:

–TSLA began taking deposits for its $35,000 base price Model 3.  In less than a week, it has collected $1,000 each for about 300,000 units, with enough add-ons to bring the average selling price to $42,000. Most won’t receive their cars until 2018.  This support seems to me to show there’s potentially huge demand for electric cars, even at today’s lower oil price.

–the company announced that it missed its 1Q16 sales target because of parts shortages.  Presumably this means it did not turn cash flow positive as anticipated during the quarter.  That’s bad, especially since we’ve heard this song before.

the stock price

The stock is up $10-$20 a share on the two items, which were announced at roughly the same time.

What I find interesting is that a relatively large market cap company can move from $140 to $240 in a matter of weeks on a change in sentiment.  That’s about 70%!

So much for efficient markets and investor rationality   …not that anyone outside the ivory tower believes in this stuff.  But this is a huge move.

algorithmic trading?

I think it’s evidence of relatively naive algorithmic trading at work (based ultimately on two other wacky academic ideas–that the most important thing in investing is to control costs, and that there’s no craft skill/specialized knowledge involved in investing).

I also see it as support for my view that trading can be unusually profitable in this environment.   We should look for other instances where this may be happening.




3Q15 for Tesla (TSLA); do an extra 4,000 cars make a difference?

Yesterday, TSLA shares were up by 11% after reporting an in-line quarter the night before.  This was in a market that was down slightly.

The reason?

The company modified its full-year guidance for production from 50,000 – 55,000 units to 50,000 – 52,000 units.  With 4Q15 almost half over, investors took this new guidance as relatively reliable.  But the key factor is that the guidance, while down, was not the 45,000 – 50,000 that Wall Street had been fearing.

Wild gyrations are a fact of life for highly speculative stocks like TSLA (I own a small position).  That’s not the interesting part.  After all, what sustains the sky-high valuation of the stock is not the current results is the dream that one day the company will be selling millions of units and earning billions.

What is an important investment lesson is the reason that a production difference of around 5,000 cars in a quarter, which sounds like a small amount, should make such a difference to investors.

It’s all about cash burn, or the question of how long a company that ‘s using more cash than it’s taking in can sustain itself without turning cash flow positive.  This also happens to be one of the few things in a “dream” stock that’s important and that we can know for sure.


In the TSLA case, the firm realized–at the start of 2015, in my view–that the multi-billion dollar bond offering it made in 2014 wouldn’t be enough to sustain it until it began to generate more cash than it used.  Contact with investment bankers resulted in a spate of glowing reports being issued by brokerage house analysts–and then a $750 million stock offering.  What investors has been panicking about a few weeks ago (and may begin to worry about again;  who knows?) is that this extra three-quarters of a billion dollars might not be enough.

If we figure that a fully loaded Tesla retails for $100,000 ( figure I just plucked out of the air), a shortfall of 4,000 cars translates into a cash shortfall of $400 million.  So, “Poof!,” half the cash cushion created by the recent equity offering is gone.  (I’m assuming that everything else for TSLA remains the same, which is probably too pessimistic.  But the exact dollar amount isn’t the point.)

Arguably, TSLA could simply issue more stock or bonds to raise extra cash.  However, if TSLA were actually seen to be needing a loan, the terms it could expect to get would probably not be as favorable as before.  Another offering so soon after the last equity raising would also risk shattering the investor “dream” of the inevitability of TSLA’s success.

TSLA now expects to turn cash flow positive during 1Q16.  This does not imply that it will be cash flow positive for the entire quarter, or for the quarter as a whole.  Instead, it means that it will begin taking in more money than it spends by March 31st at the latest.  We’ll know more when Tesla reports 4Q15.