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Tesla’s Musk is mum about coronavirus impact, except to say panic is ‘dumb’

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk has tweeted nothing about the current state of Tesla’s new Shanghai factory, nor has he publicly issued other corporate information related to the coronavirus. Above, Musk with Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong last year during the ground-breaking ceremony for Tesla’s factory in Shanghai.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Tesla had been hoping to score three profitable quarters in a row, for the first time in its history. But with the coronavirus slamming the overall economy, analysts are increasingly skeptical.

Wall Street analysts expect Tesla’s first-quarter sales to come in well under pre-virus forecasts and see net losses near $40 million when the company reports in late April, according to consensus estimates compiled by FactSet.

But they have little to go on.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk uses Twitter as Tesla’s primary communications channel. He’s not saying much there about how the coronavirus might affect the company.

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So far, Musk has tweeted nothing about the current state of Tesla’s new Shanghai factory, nor has he publicly issued other corporate information related to the coronavirus.

He’s said nothing about the current level of production in Shanghai, which reopened on Feb. 10 after a 10-day government-ordered shutdown. Nor about the company’s sales prospects in China, where the overall auto industry suffered an 80% decline in sales in February. Also, no talk about supply chain issues.

He did, however, tweet this on March 6: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

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The company’s stock price has dived with the rest of the market, plummeting 39% from a closing high of $917.42 on Feb. 19 to $560.55 as of Thursday’s close.

“We haven’t changed our [estimated] numbers even though there is more risk in the China targets and perhaps Europe,” said Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. The new coronavirus has “cast a dark shadow in the first quarter across the tech space,” he said. Ives counts Tesla as a technology company.

“In 20 years of covering technology stocks, I’ve never seen anything change as dramatically as this in the course of two to three weeks,” he said.

Tesla did not respond to inquiries from The Times.

Ives still expects Tesla to achieve its delivery target of 500,000 cars this year, assuming the pandemic significantly wanes by June. On Thursday, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas cut his delivery estimate from 500,000 cars to 452,000.

Tesla’s current stock price is still nearly double what it traded for a year ago. If the stock price holds roughly above $542 a share for over the next few weeks, Musk stands to reap a huge bonus.

Under a complicated pay plan Tesla’s board offered Musk two years ago, he gets about $1 billion in stock options if certain revenue and profit targets are met, and if the company’s market value averages $100 billion or more over both a six-month and 30-day period. (Its market cap is about $103 billion at today’s price.) If that holds up, Musk could grab that wad by mid-April.

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Tesla has lost money every year since it went public in 2010. For example, the automaker lost $775 million in 2019 under generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, the key profit measure authorized by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. But the pay deal measures “adjusted EBITDA,” or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. By that definition, Tesla’s profit in 2019 was $2.98 billion.

Using EBITDA to determine executive pay “allows a company to make adjustments to their GAAP income using their own judgment and discretion,” said Francine McKenna, who runs the accounting and auditing online newsletter, The Dig. Tesla is hardly the only company to use this method to determine compensation, she said, but Tesla is especially aggressive.

Musk’s payday could be indefinitely postponed depending on Tesla shareholders’ reaction to the company’s success in China and general economic conditions due to the coronavirus.

It’s unclear how many workers are back in action at the Shanghai factory, which was built in record time and began turning out vehicles in late December. Whether production is a trickle or a stream, or how supply chain disruption will affect Tesla production in Shanghai or its main auto plant in Fremont, Calif., is also unclear.

The new factory is sailing into a tail wind: EV sales in China fell in February 77%, from 49,000 vehicles in January to 11,000. The good news for Tesla: it accounted for 3,958 of those cars, according to the China Passenger Car Assn., or a bit over a third of all EVs sold in China.

Sales growth must burst well beyond current levels to support the China factory’s annual production capacity of 150,000 cars.

Further complicating matters in China are complaints from Tesla customers, which have drawn the attention of government officials. Some customers discovered outdated driver-assist computer chips installed in new Model 3s, even though Tesla promised buyers the latest version. Tesla advertised that the new chips are 21 times faster than the older chips.

CEO Mary Barra hopes to invigorate investor interest in GM’s stock with an aggressive electric vehicle strategy.
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China Daily, an English language news service arm of the Chinese Communist Party, paraphrased a statement it said it received from Tesla, saying that “upstream undersupply” was the reason the outmoded chips were installed, and that customers could swap them for the new version when available.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a statement ordering Tesla to “rectify immediately” the situation and “[fulfill] the corporate responsibility and ensure production consistency and product quality and safety.” The equivalent of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of consumers has been filed in China against Tesla.

Tesla’s China operations are backed in part by the national and regional governments in Shanghai. The Shanghai government, for example, gave Tesla $85 million toward its new factory, $46 million in cash and the rest in equipment and services.

If Tesla meets the $100-billion market value average, Musk can thank individual retail investors, said Derek Horstmeyer, a finance professor at George Mason University. Based on message board traffic at the no-fee millennial-focused stock trading app Robinhood, and class discussions with his own students, he said it’s clear that Tesla is buoyed in part by stock-market neophytes.

“A lot of the institutions hate him, but he’s just the darling of the common investor,” Horstmeyer said of Musk.


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