Tesla posts 1st annual profit but misses analysts’ estimates

Tom Krisher
AP Auto Writer

Riding a sales surge amid a global pandemic, Tesla Inc. on Wednesday reported that it posted its first annual net profit in 2020.

In a year that saw its stock soar to make it the world’s most valuable automaker, Tesla earned $721 million, capped by a $270 million profit in the fourth quarter. It was the company’s sixth straight quarterly net profit after years of mostly losses.

A year earlier, Tesla lost $862 million. Data provider FactSet says 2020 ended a string of annual red ink that began in 2006.

In this March 9, 2020 file photo, Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition in Washington.

Once again the company needed regulatory credits purchased by other automakers in order to make a profit. Without $1.58 billion in credits for the year, Tesla would have lost money. Other automakers buy the credits when they can’t meet emissions and fuel economy standards.

Tesla said that excluding special items, it made $2.24 per share for the year, falling short of Wall Street expectations of $2.45. Full-year revenue was $31.54 billion, beating estimates of $31.1 billion.

From October through December, the company made an adjusted 80 cents per share, below Wall Street estimates of $1.02. Fourth-quarter revenue was $10.74 billion, surpassing estimates of $10.47 billion.

The per-share earnings misses sent shares of the Palo Alto, California-based company down almost 3% in extended trading after the earnings announcement. Still, the stock is trading at about about 10 times its value at the start of 2020, closing Wednesday at $864.16.

Tesla said in its investor letter that over a “multi-year horizon,” it expects 50% growth in annual vehicle deliveries. Some years, like 2021, may see faster growth, it said. Tesla also said its operating profit margin will keep growing as factory capacity expands.

Tesla’s vehicle sales rose 36% last year, but the company fell just short of its annual goal to deliver 500,000 vehicles. The company delivered 499,500 vehicles for the year.

The sales jump came even though Tesla was forced to close its only U.S. assembly plant for almost two months as the novel coronavirus surged in the spring. The factory in Fremont, California, reopened in May with Musk defying orders from local health authorities.

Musk had promised 500,000 deliveries before the pandemic hit, but aided by sales from a new factory in China, the company almost hit the number.

The meteoric stock price rise generated big payoffs for Musk, making him one of the world’s richest people.

Critics say Tesla’s sales and profits are puny compared with established automakers such as Toyota and General Motors, and its huge valuation is not justified by financial fundamentals.

Tesla faces challenges this year from traditional automakers, which are rolling out more electric vehicles. Edmunds.com Executive Director of Insights Jessica Caldwell says the number of electric vehicles on sale in the U.S. will rise from 17 to 29 this year.