For months, Tesla stock has been on a bull run.
Now it’s a stampede.
On Monday, investors sent the electric car maker’s market value into entirely new territory, briefly ripping past General Motors in market value, putting Tesla in first place among U.S. automakers.
The run raises the stakes for the company as it prepares to begin assembling its highly anticipated mass-market electric sedan, the Model 3, which is scheduled for release this summer or fall, or perhaps later. The propulsive rise in Tesla’s stock — up more than 70% since December — amps up the pressure on the company and its visionary chief executive, Elon Musk, to deliver near-flawless performance.
Tesla stock closed up $9.85, or 3.3%, at $312.39; GM shares also ticked up 22 cents to end the day at $33.97. Both companies’ valuation hovered around $51 billion.
Tesla’s surpassing GM and Ford in market value, justified by financial fundamentals or not, signals a revolution in the global automobile industry as cars and trucks subsume ever more Silicon Valley-style technology and, essentially, evolve into the robots of the roadways.
“We’re in a new era of the automobile industry,” said Efraim Levy, an analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence. That shift is not just to self-driving cars, but to electric power and away from gasoline, he said.
Tesla’s stock run-up also demonstrates Musk’s magnetic power, he said: “People are definitely enamored with Elon Musk and Tesla.”
Still, Levy and many other analysts see Tesla’s stock price as overvalued given cash-flow projections even under Musk’s rosiest scenarios for the Model 3.
Plenty of short-sellers — investors who bet that a high-flying stock is due for a crash — agree. About 20% of Tesla’s shares are held by investors betting against the company.
Some analysts are even saying forget the financial underpinnings, for now.
Rational arguments “won’t matter” for Tesla’s stock price, at least for a while, Piper Jaffray analyst Alex Potter said in a note to investors, raising the firm’s target price to $368 a share.
Yes, the company is burning through cash and sets unrealistic production deadlines, he said, but “because of its superior products, loyal shareholders, and inspiring mission, [Tesla] remains unscathed.”
In other words, it’s a momentum stock right now, rising in part because it’s climbing and new investors don’t want to miss out. Investors can make big bucks on momentum stocks, if they sell before the peak is reached, or, if the company defies the naysayers and becomes a wild success.
Momentum stocks fueled the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Most crashed and burned. But a rare few — think Amazon — succeeded beyond expectations.
Tesla fans put Musk in the same stellar universe as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who fended off critics as he invested in future growth and lost money year after year. The company, which is completely upending the brick-and-mortar retail industry, is now considered one of the most successful in business history.
By almost any measure, General Motors dwarfs Tesla. Last year, Tesla sold 76,500 cars worth $7 billion in revenue. GM will finalize 2016 global figures when it announces earnings later this month, but in 2015 it sold 9.8 million vehicles globally, including nearly 4 million with joint venture partners in China.
But Tesla fans, and Musk himself, point out that stock prices are set by expectations of future growth.
Long investors in Tesla have harmonized themselves with Musk’s vision for the new-energy company, which last year bought solar roof installer SolarCity — a one-stop shop for customers who put up a Tesla solar roof, channel the energy into a Tesla storage battery and use it to power up their Tesla car.
They’re also excited by the prospect of Tesla sales in China. That nation’s government is far more serious about fighting global warming and pollution than today’s White House and the electric car market in China is the biggest in the world — in 2016, 351,000 plug-in vehicles were sold in China, both hybrids and pure electrics. In the U.S., 159,000 were sold.
Tesla sales are growing faster in China than in the U.S. Musk has talked about building cars there at some point, and expects that China one day will be Tesla’s No. 1 market.
Tesla’s investors include big institutions and corporations that keep funneling cash Tesla’s way. Last month, Tencent, the giant Internet company in China, bought 5% of company shares on the heels of a new Tesla stock offering.
Tesla has chalked up impressive market success with its high-priced luxury Model S sedan and Model X sport utility vehicle. This summer, it plans to start turning out the Model 3, more of an everyman’s Tesla, with a starting price of $35,000. The company said at least 375,000 customers have put down refundable $1,000 deposits on the car. The day the Model 3 became available for pre-orders, customers lined up for hours at Tesla showrooms around the world.
That’s largely because Musk has built a strong brand image for Tesla.
“Tesla’s vehicles are gorgeous and distinctive,” said Rebecca Lindland, analyst at Kelley Blue Book. Each Tesla, she said, “sends a message that the driver is dynamic, sexy and a risk taker. No other electric vehicle does that.”
The cars appeal not just to fans of electric cars and people concerned about the environment, they also convey the message that the buyer is cutting edge — like early Prius buyers, but richer and cooler. The car’s Autopilot function — widely considered the most sophisticated driver-assist technology on the market — adds to the brand’s allure.
To justify anything close to its current market value, though, the Model 3 manufacturing and distribution process will need to be relatively hitchless. Tesla wants to be building 500,000 cars annually by the end of 2018, but it has yet to prove that it can churn out vehicles at such high volume. Both the Model S and X were beset by delays and production problems.
And consumers must gravitate in large numbers toward electric cars. Right now, electric cars make up less than 2% of the total U.S. auto market.
This all matters for Tesla — a lot. But some automobile market analysts say one company’s stock price won’t affect the industry’s future.
“Tesla is viewed as a tech stock and the automakers are viewed as industrial manufacturing stocks, which isn’t the full picture for either one,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader.
“We’ve always seen these wild fluctuations with Tesla stock that we don’t see in the automotive stocks. So I’m not sure it means much in the long run.”
4:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the China market and Tesla’s production goals.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with closing stock prices and additional details.
11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details and comments from analysts.
8:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from analysts.
This article was originally published at 7:45 a.m.