Tesla's latest executive turmoil provides fuel for a group of sceptics hated by Elon Musk

  • It was announced over the weekend that Tesla‘s senior vice president of engineering, Doug Field, would take a leave of absence.
  • The departure fuels a popular argument used by Tesla bears and short sellers, which is that frequent management turnover is a sign of corporate weakness.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk has forged an adverserial relationship with short sellers over time.
  • Watch Tesla trade in real time here.

Score one for Elon Musk‘s least favourite group of people.

Tesla short sellers – or investors wagering on the company’s stock to drop – rejoiced over the weekend after it was announced that Doug Field, the firm’s senior vice president of engineering, would take a leave of absence.

Field’s departure is particularly significant considering he was one of just four executives listed on Tesla’s last proxy statement, along with the chief financial officer, chief technology officer, and Musk himself. Musk has praised Field in the past, calling him “one of the world’s most talented engineering execs” in a recent tweet.

Screen Shot 2018 05 14 at 8.53.24 AMSEC.govFrom the ‘Executive Officers’ section of Tesla’s most recent proxy filing.

The announcement is also problematic for Musk’s long-standing battle against Tesla short sellers, considering one of the main bearish arguments against company is how unstable its senior-level management team has been.

Perhaps Tesla’s most outspoken opponent on the topic is Jim Chanos, the billionaire investor who runs Kynikos Associates. In late April, Chanos went on CNBC to lament Tesla’s “stunning” rate of executive turnover.

“The number one sign of impending problems is mass executive departures,” Chanos said in the interview. “This is becoming a torrent at Tesla.”

Field’s leave of absence is sure to complicate Musk’s already-adversarial relationship with short sellers. Just last week, the CEO bought $US9.85 million of Tesla stock – his largest purchase since 2017 – seemingly to wreak havoc on short sellers, whom he’d taunted on Twitter the previous week.

The conflict has been brewing for the better part of a year. In a Rolling Stone profile in November, Musk called short sellers “jerks who want us to die” and characterised their behaviour as “hurtful.” Before that, in June, he fired off a tweet in which he said short holders “want us to die so bad they can taste it.”

And prior to that, in early April 2017, after a period of considerable Tesla stock strength, Musk tweeted that there was “stormy weather in Shortville,” an apparent dig at the company’s detractors.

And despite Musk’s myriad efforts, Tesla remains the most popular short in the US equity market – a designation it has held for much of the past two years. Short interest, a measure of bets that a stock will drop, sits at $US11.75 billion, outpacing the next-most-shorted company, Apple, by more than $US1 billion, according to data compiled by the financial-analytics firm S3 Partners.

Screen Shot 2018 05 04 at 7.37.38 AMS3 PartnersShort interest as of April 25. Tesla’s is now $US11.75 billion, according to S3 data.

With all of that established, it doesn’t yet look like short sellers have much to celebrate, considering Tesla’s stock is trading roughly 1% higher in Monday pre-market trading.

Have Tesla stock traders become numb to the company’s regular turmoil? Are they simply taking advantage of a recent rough patch to increase long positions? Or are they waiting for Musk to respond before reacting?

It’s anyone’s guess at this point, but for the time being, Musk can rest easy.

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