Shareholders need to accept a hard truth about Tesla

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 15: The new Tesla Model S is displayed at the Tesla stand at the 2015 IAA Frankfurt Auto Show during a press day on September 15, 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany. The IAA, Germany’s biggest auto show, which takes place every two years, will be open to the public from September 17 through 27. (Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)

Tesla shares have been on an impressive run since the company’s IPO, up over 1,000% and topping out in September of last year near $300. The biggest Tesla bulls on Wall Street think that the automaker could got to $450.

But the bears see the stock tanking. Some analysts have put the bottom in the mid-two digits, while others figure a plunge to the $150 ballpark is possible.

You might think that Tesla is concerned about this wide divergence of opinion.

But it isn’t.

In fact, Tesla sees its stock price as at best a nice piece of leverage for raising capital, as it did earlier this year, and at worst as a huge distraction for its actual mission. That mission — to accelerate humanity’s departure from the fossil-fuels era — is the signal. The stock price is noise. And even the very sexy cars are really just a means to an end.

Is that a great expense to shareholders? Yes. But if shareholders don’t realise that they have signed onto Musk’s larger-than-life vision, then they should probably sell now.

This reality was evident in a recent SumZero exchange between a Tesla bull and a Tesla bear. Michael Frazis of Torchlight GP is long Tesla and sees tremendous upside for investors. John Pangere of Windy City Advisors, on the other hand, is short Tesla and thinks it’s a bad bet.

Pangere’s thoughts on what Tesla is effectively costing shareholders are instructive:

Tesla may be setting sales records, but the company is also setting records of a dubious nature as well. When taking a deeper look at the numbers, the company lost an astonishing $19,810 per car sold last quarter, up from a loss of $15,975 in the previous quarter and a loss of $9,956 per car sold in Q3 of 2014. Tesla may in fact reach its production goals, but it will be at great expense to shareholders.

Pangere correctly observes that Tesla is losing money at a furious clip because it’s trying to scale from being a 50,000-per-year car maker to being one that builds 500,000 by 2020.

Cooler heads might tell CEO Elon Musk to put the brakes on and aim for at least a medium-term profit of some sort, which is conceivable given that Tesla is currently selling cars for $100,000 and up.

But Musk doesn’t want to do that. Rather, he and Tesla want to spend a “staggering” amount of cash to ramp up the business. The whole point of building pricey luxury electric cars is to lose a lot of money of them — because the cash flow is being relentless invested in growth.

TSLA Chart 12/11/15Screenshot via Yahoo FinanceIt’s been a very up-and-down six months for Tesla shares.

Tesla’s balance sheet is one of those things that can be picked to pieces. It’s a smorgasbord of pitfalls and problems, and if you want to bolster a short case, then it’s as good a place as any to start.

However, you don’t actually need to do that much work to argue that Tesla will fail. Musk has already done the job for you. He never thought Tesla would succeed — or more accurately, he’s said he thought that it was likely to fail.

But against the odds, it didn’t. And at the moment, the automaker is no longer facing the existential risks it confronted in late 2008, when but for a (literally) final-hour outside investment, it would have gone out of business. It’s also a long way from the period when it was burning all the cash it had on hand over the course of a few days.

Musk knows that you don’t get a second chance to do something truly transformational, so he’s put Tesla on an absurdly ambitious path. This is baffling to sceptics, who think that Tesla should at least pretend to care about making money. But Tesla is focused on caring about be a bigger and better car company — and on alleviating global warming.

If it succeeds, that will be worth much more to shareholders than making a few thousand bucks per car in the next year or two.

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