Investors can’t get enough Tesla bonds

Claire Boston

Days after Elon Musk put 20,000 flamethrowers on sale to help pay for his proposed transportation tunnels, investors are clamoring to get their hands on a more conventional source of funds for Musk’s Tesla Inc.

They’ve put in orders for as much as 14 times what the electric-car maker intends to sell on some slices of an asset-backed security, according to people familiar with the matter.

Tesla has been marketing $546 million of bonds backed by leases of its Model X and Model S vehicles. It’s the company’s inaugural auto ABS deal after charming buyers in the equity, convertible bond and junk-debt markets. Tesla dangled juicy yields — as high as 2.9 percent over benchmarks on lower-rated portions of the debt — to lure investors. But the fact that it’s a well-known innovator with a charismatic chief and a hotly anticipated product didn’t hurt.

“It’s got the Elon Musk magic to it,” said John Kerschner, head of securitized products at Janus Henderson Investors, which manages $360.5 billion. “It just makes for an easier sale.”

Tesla didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A successful deal bodes well for Tesla’s future fundraising efforts, a perpetual concern for the company as it ramps up production for its Model 3 mass-market car. The company could burn through $4.2 billion this year, according to Barclays Plc analyst Brian Johnson. The automaker plans to become a regular issuer of auto ABS, according to people familiar with the matter.

Demand for debt backed by consumer payments such as auto leases has been booming, sending risk premiums on auto ABS deals to some of the lowest levels since 2007, according to Bloomberg Barclays index data.

With Tesla, investors had to weigh uncertainties about the resale value of electric cars — a relatively sparse data point — against the fact that lessees on average had high credit scores and the bonds mature in less than three years.

“It’s definitely a split market,” said Jennifer Thomas, an analyst who studies mortgages and structured bonds at Loomis Sayles & Co., which manages $268 billion. “We preferred to play it cautious.” She called investor demand for the deal “extreme.”

Musk is marketing $500 flamethrowers through his Boring Co. as a way to raise money for two tunnel projects, one in Southern California and the other connecting New York and Washington.

Tesla’s previous forays into the debt markets have been mixed. Investors greeted its August junk-bond sale with euphoria, allowing the Palo Alto, California-based carmaker to upsize the deal. But the notes plunged below their selling price almost immediately after the deal closed on concerns about Tesla’s cash flow. They haven’t recovered. A slate of convertible notes, however, trade well above par, and the company has become the most frequent issuer in the market for bonds backed by solar contracts.

Though investors were ravenous for the deal, Kerschner said it was unlikely that many potential buyers were Musk superfans dabbling in the ABS market. But investors who might typically look at investment-grade and high-yield debt have increasingly fallen in love with the structured-credit market as yields shrink across fixed income.

“What we’ve seen is a lot of crossover buyers,” said Glenn Bowling, head of ABS credit at Invesco Ltd. “Depending on where you are, further down in the capital structure you can pick up a little bit of yield.”