Elon Musk gets last laugh on after a wild 2018
It was only a few months ago that Wall Street was bashing Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. One analyst called the stock “no longer investable,” citing Musk’s erratic behavior in tweets and taunts. A short seller bet on a dramatic drop, saying it’s “more and more apparent that Tesla is having difficulties paying their bills.”
But an unexpected thing happened: The company found its footing as an electric-car manufacturer. Its stunning third-quarter profit picture, boosted by its ability to ramp up production of Model 3 sedans, surprised naysayers, and marked the beginning of a turn in market sentiment.
Tesla’s stock is, somewhat improbably, back near the highs it reached on the day of that infamous “funding secured” tweet that caused a furious rally before landing Musk in trouble with the SEC. And so after a year of swings that saw the stock post half a dozen rallies or selloffs of 20 percent or more, it is up nearly 18 percent. Not bad when you consider that the S&P 500 is down 1.4 percent on the year.
All of this, of course, could easily shift again at almost any moment, given Musk’s penchant for impolitic remarks and the many operational challenges. But for now at least, Wall Street is bullish once again, expecting Tesla to be profitable and have positive free cash flow in the fourth quarter — accomplishments that would show the company has finally figured out how to produce cars at a stable pace and make money while doing it.
“Was the third-quarter a fluke? Time will tell,” said Roth Capital Partners analyst Craig Irwin. “But the reality is that when you produce 50,000 cars a quarter, that is a big milestone, and you can see these guys are here for the long run. Tesla is squarely on its own two-feet now, and learning and well prepared to keep learning.”
Tesla’s stock has always been priced for perfection, and Musk’s Twitter habits weren’t the only roadblocks investors faced in 2018. As it frantically tried to boost production of the Model 3, Tesla was burning cash at a rapid pace — as much as $8,000 a minute as it entered the year, according to Bloomberg calculations. Musk acknowledged how dire the problem was last month, saying the company’s earlier cash bleed had left it just a couple of months away from collapse.
Tesla’s fundamentals are now improving, helped by increasingly efficient manufacturing, strong prices of its cars, and the “slow and disappointing” competition in the electric vehicle market, Oppenheimer analyst Colin Rusch wrote.