The 3 most important things to look for in Tesla's earnings

Elon muskJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesTesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during an event to launch the new Tesla Model X Crossover SUV on September 29, 2015 in Fremont, California.

Tesla reports fourth-quarter and full-year 2015 earnings on Wednesday, after markets close. CEO Elon Musk and his team will join analysts on a conference call later in the day.

The focus will be on three critical things.

Model X SUV production

Tesla launched the Model X last October, but by the end of the year, it had delivered less than 1,000 vehicles. Overall, with the Model S sedan factored in, Tesla just made the low-end of its guidance on deliveries for the year: slightly more than 50,000, down from a projection of 55,000 made early in 2015.

The Model X endured some issues prior to launch. The now famous “Falcon Wing” doors had to be redesigned at the last minute; and the rear seats, which Musk called “sculptural” at one point, were handled so badly by a supplier that Tesla is now doing them in-house.

Consequently, numerous analysts over the past two weeks have dialed back their target prices for Tesla, and the stock has declined to its lowest level since 2014 ($148 was the Tuesday close, and the one-month slide has been 30%).

Suddenly, everyone is in a panic about the Model X. This is sort of hard to understand, as the Model X wasn’t supposed to make up a huge amount of Tesla production in the short term. The priority was to continue to execute on the Model S. The questions coming up now are mostly about how many Model X’s Tesla will be able to build every month. If you take Tesla at its word, it will be about 750.

If Tesla were Ford or GM, we could expect a rapid ramp-up on a new vehicle in a very competitive segment (crossover SUVs). But Tesla, prior to the Model X launch, was a one-car car maker. The growing pains of going from building one car in one factory to building two will take some time to work through.

The timetable for the rollout of the Model 3 mass-market vehicle

Elon Musk has said that Tesla is building the Model X — which at its current pricing, around $100,000, is a luxury vehicle — to get to the Model 3, a mass-market car that is expected to hit the streets in 2017, but that’s being revealed in March.

The Model X will provide the additional cash flow to develop and produce the Model 3, which Tesla says will cost $35,000.

Investors will be looking for insight into whether all is well with the Model 3’s rollout process. They now know that the Model X was anything but easy, and they may transfer anxiety to the Model 3. However, in the grand scheme of automotive engineering, the Model 3 shouldn’t be a heavy lift. It’s going to be shown first as a compact sedan, with a compact crossover also in the picture (the 3 is actually a platform off which numerous cars and SUVs could be built).

The Model 3 will be constructed using sheet metal rather than aluminium, a more typically approach in the industry. And while it’s reasonable to expect that Tesla will put as much technology and amenities in the vehicle as possible, we shouldn’t anticipate that the 3 will be aimed, ultimately, at the luxury buyer.

This means that Tesla needs to hit its marks with the Model 3. The reveal needs to happen in March. We should then see a production version toward the end of the 2016, if not sooner. As with the Model X, we should then start to see test “mules” on the road in 2017, if Tesla hopes to launch the Model 3 in the third quarter, as it did with the Model X.

Production and deliveries guidance for 2016

For the past year and half, this is what investors have zeroed in on. For this earnings report, however, vehicles — not overall deliveries — are going to be of greater interest.

Early guidance in 2015 was 55,000 deliveries, but Tesla later downgraded that and ended that year at about 50,000. Adding in a Model 3 ramp, the company should be able to add at least 10,000 Model X’s to the 2016 guidance. Assuming a modest increase in Model S production, 2016 guidance will likely be something like 75,000.

And remember, developing a new vehicle, Model 3, while getting Model X production right and continuing to execute on Model S will be a drag on what Tesla could do if it were, so to speak, firing on all cylinders.

Tesla shares have swooned 30% in 2016, falling to levels not seen since 2014. The stock closed Tuesday at $148.

The Model 3 reveal is the next big market mover that Tesla has to offer, so we shouldn’t expect anything Musk or his team says on Wednesday to drive a rebound. And by the numbers, Tesla isn’t likely to report particularly stirring fourth-quarter earnings: analysts expect the company to lose money, but less money that it lost in the same quarter in 2014 (-$0.34 per share, versus -$0.48).

That said, Tesla is never a boring ride. Musk may have a surprise or two up his sleeve.

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