Tesla's holiday update took the art of the after-hours news dump to a new low

This past weekend, most Americans were celebrating the nation’s birthday by eating hot dogs, watching fireworks, and
not expecting disappointing news about Tesla’s second-quarter vehicle deliveries.

Well, all three happened.

On Sunday afternoon, Tesla reported that in the second quarter it delivered 14,370 vehicles, below its projected 17,000 deliveries and putting the company on pace to miss its annual guidance.

Of course this wasn’t just any Sunday: it was the middle of a three days break for US markets which remained closed on Monday for the July 4 holiday.

In other words, Tesla’s vehicle deliveries were just about the last thing anyone was thinking about. Second quarter deliveries were, in fact, down from the 14,820 cars delivered in the first three months of the year.

And while an individual quarter that misses expectations is not in and of itself a particularly big deal, Tesla’s current struggles to produce and deliver as many vehicles as it expected leaves the company woefully short of two impending milestones.

For one, the Elon Musk-run company has said it would deliver 80,000-90,000 cars this year. And so in each of the next two quarters Tesla will now need to produce about 25,000 cars — a number it has never hit in any one quarter — to meet its 2016 guidance.

And perhaps the bigger issue is that the company’s long-stated goal of hitting an annualized delivery rate of 500,000 cars a year (or 125,000 per quarter) by the end of 2018 seems as far out of reach as it ever has.

As my colleague Matt Debord noted in a post on Monday, the company would fall short of this goal even using very generous bogeys of 90,000 vehicle deliveries in 2016… then doubling this figure twice.

But aside from any pie-in-the-sky projections about future Tesla sales that seem ever-likely not to materialise, the company’s disclosure is a most poignant an example of how little it thinks of disseminating clear and timely information to shareholders.

News Dumps

Companies and governments have a long tradition of disclosing bad news at times that are inconvenient to the press, or when they think it will be buried by something else.

Hillary Clinton’s emails have regularly been disclosed on Friday nights. Jos. A. Bank, in an absolute classic of the genre, once disclosed earnings would be down 20% year-over-year in a released published at 8:05 p.m. ET Friday night. In this light, Tesla is doing nothing new.

But this is not the only recent move from Tesla that has been anything but shareholder friendly.

A bit less than two weeks ago the company proposed an all-stock deal to acquire SolarCity, a struggling non-competitor in a different industry with which is shares a co-founder (Musk), and deeply entangled board connections.

And though it made clear a capital raise was coming, Tesla recently issued more than $2 billion of common stock, diluting existing shareholders who were already owners of a company burning cash at an absolutely stunning rate (about $2.1 billion in the last year).

Take all these together and Tesla has shown a particularly paltry amount of respect for its shareholders, elevating Friday night news dumps to an entirely new level by using a very lazy Sunday afternoon as the time for an ugly reveal.

Elon Musk’s Reality Distortion Field

The entire Muskiverse — Tesla, SolarCity, and SpaceX — is by now well-known to be a complicated financial web mostly backed by Musk’s vast personal fortune.

And in addition to providing much of the financial juice for these operations, Musk has also certainly taken up Steve Jobs’ mantle as the leading creator of a reality distortion field which gives him and his companies more leeway with shareholders, customers, and fans than might otherwise be warranted.

Certainly no one investing in Tesla should be expecting a stock buyback or dividend program anytime soon, and at this point investing in the company probably requires a long-term belief that in 10 or 20 years Tesla’s technology sets industry standards for battery-powered, self-driving vehicles. Also, those types of vehicles probably need to be ubiquitous.

The SEC’s rules on what information shareholders are entitled to and when are clear. But like all rules, there is grey area. Releasing a key financial metric in the middle of a holiday weekend would fit this bill.

There is a conversation to be had about what shareholders ought to expect of management teams — certainly no one investing in Tesla should expect to see similar corporate governance practices to those in place at Procter & Gamble, for example — but if we again acknowledge the Elon Musk Reality Distortion Field® is real and potent, then complaints and what gets disclosed and when are very much beside the point.

Elon Musk and his companies do what they want. And when.

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