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Elon Musk makes good on Tesla ‘short burn of the century,’ 18 months later

Elon Musk
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, during a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in March.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

As if Elon Musk wasn’t already having a good day.

With Tesla Inc.’s surprise quarterly profit pushing shares to an eight-month high, the automaker’s CEO is finally making good on his May 2018 warning to investors who bet against the company, when he infamously tweeted the “short burn of the century” was imminent.

It may have taken longer than he expected, but Tesla’s surge Thursday hit short sellers -- those who have bet the stock price will drop -- with about $1.36 billion in mark-to-market losses, according to S3 Partners’ Ihor Dusaniwsky. That’s enough to erase about 70% of the $2 billion in profits they’d accumulated this year.

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The stock gained as much as 20% as the market opened, to $304.93, its highest intraday price since March 1, and closed up 18% at $299.68. Tesla shares had lost 24% since the beginning of the year before Thursday’s rally.

It’s a sharp turnabout for the bears, who in August had the most profitable short among U.S. stocks, at $2.75 billion in mark-to-market gains, more than triple the profits for pessimistic calls against Abbvie Inc., the second-best short play at the time. Bearish bets on Tesla had amounted to profits of about $5.16 billion in June, when the stock slumped to a three-year low.

Short interest in Tesla has come down from its September peak but still represents about 23% of the float -- the shares available for trading -- or about $8.1 billion in notional value, according to S3. Short positions in about 1.53 million shares were covered in the week leading up to the earnings, as bears anticipated strong earnings after Tesla reported record third-quarter deliveries earlier this month. Covering involves buying back borrowed shares to close out short positions.

“We are expecting more short covering and the continuation of this long-term short squeeze as Tesla’s stock price continues to show strength,” S3’s Dusaniwsky wrote Thursday.

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