Tesla shares sink, extending months-long slide, after 4th-quarter loss

Tesla's big Q4 loss proves building a new car company is harder than it seems

Tesla Motor’s big fourth-quarter loss and an announcement that it will be investing double what investors expected in factory and product development are a sober reminder of how hard it is to build a new auto company.

It's even harder to build one that only produces electric cars, facing steep challenges in improving battery technology and bringing down costs.

The Palo Alto company’s latest financial report, released late Wednesday, “validated concern that crossing the chasm is tougher than it looks,” Barclays analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a report to investors Thursday.

Wall Street took notice. Tesla shares opened down more than 9% on Thursday. With less than 90 minutes left in the trading day, they were changing hands at $201.41, down $11.39, or 5.3%. The stock has lost about 30% since early September.

The automaker reported a loss of $107.6 million in the fourth quarter, compared with a loss of $16.3 million in the same period a year earlier. For all of last year, Tesla lost $294 million compared with $74 million in the prior year.

Tesla delivered fewer cars than expected, and production from its Fremont, Calif., factory will be lower than analysts pegged this quarter. It's also spending more on operating costs and capital expenses than anticipated.

Further, the automaker's results were "artificially" propped up by the sale of government-awarded environmental credits to other automakers, Johnson said.

The financial data reinforce the view that Tesla faces a difficult challenge in becoming a mass-market automaker. Right now, it sells critically acclaimed but expensive cars to wealthy buyers.

Johnson has lowered his price target for the company’s shares to $190 from $200. He also believes Tesla will deliver only 45,000 vehicles this year rather than the 55,000 that Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, has forecast.

The Barclays analyst wasn’t the only one questioning Tesla on Thursday.

Efraim Levy, who follows the auto industry for S&P Capital IQ, lowered his price target to $200 from $245.

“We see increased valuation and execution risk than we had previously factored,” Levy said.

Johnson also voiced skepticism about Musk’s prediction that Tesla’s stock market value will one day rival the $700 billion of Apple.

That “implies sales of nearly 8 million vehicles by 2025,” Johnson said.

Tesla’s current market cap is about $25 billion.

The automaker has a lot on its plate.

It plans to start selling the Model X, an electric SUV, in the third quarter of this year. The vehicle already has been delayed several times.

It is also developing the Model 3, a smaller electric car that will sell in the $30,000 range after state and federal incentives to buyers of electric cars.

In a venture with Panasonic, Tesla also has started construction in Nevada of a lithium-ion battery factory that would be the largest in the world. Tesla needs the huge factory to supply its cars as it ramps up sales.

“If Tesla is having trouble meeting near-term targets, how can they meet long-term targets?” Johnson asked.

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