Howes: Saudi-backed buyout solves Tesla's biggest problem — scrutiny
Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk used a company blog Monday to do what he should have done last week in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: tell shareholders that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund apparently is interested in helping take the electric-car maker private.
That is, away from the public scrutiny of shareholders. Away from intellectually inferior Wall Street analysts and journalists who ask, in Musk’s mind, “boring questions.” Away from nosy automotive competitors poised to flood their own EVs into Tesla’s space — and to use their far-superior dealer networks to do it.
Last week, Musk roiled markets when he tweeted his interest in taking the company private at $420 a share, adding: "funding secured." From whom he didn't say or tell employees, sparking days of speculation and at least two lawsuits from disgruntled shareholders.
"Going back almost two years, the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund has approached me multiple times about taking Tesla private," Musk wrote in his post. "They first met with me in the beginning of 2017 to express this interest because of the important need to diversify away from oil.
"Obviously, the Saudi sovereign fund has more than enough capital needed to execute on such a transaction. I left (a) July 31 meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving. This is why I referred to 'funding secured' in the Aug. 7 announcement."
The first question: Is Musk telling the truth? He says the Saudi fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to diversify its holdings away from oil. With the fund so far declining comment, according to two wire services and The Wall Street Journal, investors are left to rely on a self-serving account almost any other publicly traded company in the United States would treat seriously and detail in an SEC filing.
If Musk’s recent Twitter-fueled boasts and distortions are any guide, that’s not much to go on. It's also why time and patience are running short for Musk and Tesla. Even as the compact Model 3 is finally beginning to gain production momentum, the automaker continues to lose money on every car it produces.
And that raises yet more doubts Tesla can negotiate its growing pains, and the gyrations of its erratic CEO, without seeking more capital from public markets. The most definitive way to answer the skeptics would be to go private — to short the short-sellers and give the metaphorical bird to the dummies on Wall Street and in the business press.
Few would be better to deliver that blow of retribution than a figurative Saudi knight on an Arabian horse with access to almost limitless amounts of cash. He'd also have a vested interest in understanding the threat EVs pose to the kingdom's oil-based economy, which could be diversified but can't be denied.
Big Money from the Middle East is not new to foreign players in a global auto industry hungry for patient, long-term investment. For years, the Kuwaiti Investment Authority has owned roughly 7 percent of Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG. Qatar Holding LLC owns 14.6 percent of Volkswagen AG. And Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund already has amassed a 5-percent stake in Tesla.
Still, the prospect of a sovereign wealth fund associated with the complicated — and geo-politically controversial — Saudi Arabia taking a much larger stake in a highly visible American automaker would invite all sorts of reaction. Some of it would be decidedly negative, provided Tesla could go private given its current number of shareholders.
Whether a deal actually could be consummated requires a willing and able partner. The Saudi investment fund is pumping millions into technology plays, including Tesla, but Reuters reports that it's not yet clear the massive fund actually is interested financing a buyout deal pegged at a whopping $72 billion.
That's the problem, yet again, with another Musk proposal: It feels rushed, unprepared, a tactical reaction to pressure elsewhere. Going private might alleviate quarterly earnings pressure and mostly end impertinent questions from industry know-it-alls, but it wouldn't guarantee Musk & Co. would run the automaker better than they so far have.
In the real world, a plan to execute perhaps the largest corporate buyout in American history would be accorded more than a tweet and a carefully worded skin-back six days later. But this is Elon's world.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.