- Tesla CEO Elon Musk spends a lot of time on Twitter – as do his fans and critics.
- That combination has made Tesla one of the most talked-about companies online.
- A community known as $TSLAQ is betting on the company’s death and have found much success in irritating the billionaire executive.
- Business Insider spoke with a half-dozen outspoken Tesla fans – both bulls and bears – to piece together how Tesla garnered its fandom. They say the company is “perfect” for this kind of discussion.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
When Tesla employee Carlos Aranda got hurt and couldn’t do his assigned job at the company’s Fremont factory, he did what hundreds of thousands of Americans have done to pay for costly medical bills: He turned to the kindness of strangers for help.
Two days after Aranda created a GoFundMe page to “stay afloat,” as he put it, an anonymous Twitter account adorned with a cane-wielding, mustachioed avatar posted a link to his fundraiser.
“Let’s show Carlos what $TSLAQ is all about,” @TeslaCharts, an account with 12,500 followers, wrote. “Please consider chipping in.”
More than $US7,000 worth of donations have poured in over the past week, the page shows, including many whose names correspond with members of the $TSLAQ community referenced in @TeslaCharts’ tweet.
The online community is named for the electric-vehicle maker’s stock ticker – plus the “Q” notation added for when a company files for bankruptcy. For many in this group, the obsession with Tesla, and what they see as its eventual demise, runs deep.So much so that they urged other Twitter users to donate to a Tesla assembly-line worker some believe was treated unfairly by the company.
Mark Spiegel, a managing member of Stanphyl Capital and vocal bear on the name, has adorned his Porsche’s New York licence plate with those five letters: “TSLAQ.”
Tesla is the quintessential pioneering but polarising company – and it’s on Twitter, where these passionate bears who make up groups like $TSLAQ run into the bulls and Musk evangelists.
Armchair market watchers can interact with noted Tesla short-sellers – such as Jim Chanos, known for betting on Enron’s demise nearly two decades ago, and Marc Cohodes, whose hedge fund went bust during the global financial crisis – 280 characters at a time.
They exchange research, news articles, and sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories about the company and its celebrity chief executive, who, among other things, has sent rockets to outer space, smoked weed on podcasts and argued with federal regulators in court.
All the while they know they might just get a rise out of Musk. The Tesla CEO often interacts with users who mention him, including members of $TSLAQ. It’s his tweets that have led to his ongoing legal battle with regulators, which is set to be resolved this month. Some believe Musk doxxed a member of the community, formerly known as “Montana Sceptic.” (So-called doxxing is publicly identifying or publishing private information about someone, especially as a form of punishment or revenge.) More on that later.
‘How big is your short position? Just curious.’
One of the most vocal and widely followed $TSLAQ community members is @TeslaCharts, a mid-40s man in the Midwest. He spoke with Business Insider on condition of anonymity because he said he was concerned that using his real name would garner harassment online.
“How big is your short position? Just curious,” Musk tweeted at @TeslaCharts last June, to which the anonymous user responded: “It’s modest. Mostly an experiment in social media. Thanks for asking though.”
In a recent phone interview with Business Insider, the man behind @TeslaCharts said, “There is no well-run company that thinks a moment about short-sellers.”
In his Twitter profile, @TeslaCharts discloses that he’s short Tesla through put options, which is to say he’s betting against the company. He joined Twitter early last year after following developments around Tesla, but he didn’t think he’d last “more than six weeks” on the platform, he said. He drives a Chevy Volt, GM’s plug-in hybrid.
He said he doesn’t believe that Musk knows his true identity but knows there is a “sophisticated team of doxxers” who have exposed several $TSLAQ members, and added that he went anonymous in the first place because he never imagined he’d be on the platform for very long. He wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t anonymous “because of Elon Musk,” but because of the fear that an unhinged person would track him or his family down for his views.
“I view the role of short-sellers as being absolutely critical to a well-functioning market,” he said. “It is utterly naive to assume that somehow restricting or outlawing short-selling would be a net positive.”
That’s a common view among short-sellers, who see themselves as picking up on problematic issues that regulators or other investors are missing in plain sight. $TSLAQ vigilantes believe just this.
“I really think of short-sellers as the cops in the market,” Ed McCabe, a former Wall Street analyst and money manager who tweets from @eddiemac3356, said earlier this year in an episode of the “TSLAQ Podcast.”
“They take a tremendous amount of risk being short,” he added.
The doxxing of ‘Montana Sceptic’
Some of these fears can be traced to the absence of Montana Sceptic, whose real name is Lawrence Fossi, from the conversation. Once a bearish fixture in the Tesla Twitter community, he left the platform last July.
Fossi said in a blog post that his identity was revealed after a Musk follower revealed his identity on Twitter, prompting Musk to complain directly to his employer in a move that FT Alphaville joked was “the sort of thing leaders of well run companies do all the time.”
@TeslaCharts described the event as a watershed moment for many features of the Tesla saga – short-sellers who express their views online, what it means to be anonymous online, and even Twitter as a platform.
“When Elon called his boss, it unified and motivated $TSLAQ to the point of what we see now,” he said. “When he doxxed Sceptic, it created a deep, deep well of highly motivated people.”
Some investors, such as Peter Rabover, a portfolio manager at Artko Capital, a small- and micro-cap hedge fund in San Francisco, believe the company would be better off without its current leader. “I would love to invest in an Elon-less Tesla,” Rabover said. “I think it would be a great long.”
I would love to invest in an Elon-less Tesla. I think it would be a great long.
He adds that out-of-the-money Tesla put options comprise 1% of his portfolio. In other words, he’s betting the stock will go down from current levels.
He typically does not short companies, he said. To be sure, selling a stock short is different than owning put options, but they’re both investing strategies that express bearish views.
Rabover tweets from the handle @ArtkoCapital, which prominently features his company’s logo, and said he thinks TSLAQ members’ role “is to take all this insanity and put it into some kind of coherent story.”
More broadly, he’s concerned by what he sees as the prospect of Musk’s tweeting creating a “bad precedent” in the microcap industry, where Rabover invests, thereby spurring “a thousand little Elons” who take to Twitter in a reckless fashion.
Of course anonymity has long been a feature of social media of all stripes and TSLAQ is no exception. But other users, like Rabover, wade into the discourse with their identities front and center.
“I don’t really have anything to lose,” Mark Johnston, an Irving, Texas, investor who tweets from @CovfefeCapital, said. His handle is a nod to President Donald Trump’s infamous Twitter gaffe.
“I don’t have an employer that someone can call to complain to. No children. No reputation,” Johnston said. “Some of the people in $TSLAQ do not wish to risk those things. In my eyes, I have very little downside to staying public.”
Johnston, a Bitcoin miner who manages his family’s money and their short Tesla position, said he thought it was important to stay public as he began to “do more ground work on Tesla.” He’s been short Tesla since early 2017.
“Many of the arguments that you see from bulls is that the work of $TSLAQ should be discredited because the accounts are anonymous,” Johnston said. “Many of those in $TSLAQ do have their livelihood at stake regarding being public. They may have employment or family risk when it comes to commenting about Tesla.”
‘If you have good info, I don’t care who you are on the other side’
One of the more prolific $TSLAQ contributors uses the handle @bloodsportcapital.
The person behind the account, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from his employer, explained in an interview with Business Insider that he recently made the account private because responses from people outside his immediate circle weren’t generating any productive discussion.
For the full-time professional services employee who works from home, $TSLAQ is a hobby that fills gaps in the work day. But it’s anything but fun and games.
Your whole reputation relies on your information being good.
“Your whole reputation relies on your information being good,” he said. “I don’t get a cachet of a blue checkmark to say ‘this is my authority and this is what I’m telling you and you will believe me because I’m from a position of authority.’ I could be a dog on the other side of the internet.”
@bloodsportcapital said the $TSLAQ community has enough members with distinct interests and skills that it can live beyond any one person or leader.
“If you have good info, I don’t care who you are on the other side,” he said. “Some of these people are retired private investors with lunch breaks, or people dropping their kids off for soccer practice and saying ‘I’ve got an hour to kill, I’ll swing by this lot I know is around the corner to take some photos and jot down some numbers’ that people want to see.”
That’s essentially how the group ended up with eyes in the air and their photos in The New York Times.
Another $TSLAQ user under the pseudonym “Machine Planet” happens to be a private pilot with two decades of flight under his belt. After noticing most online imagery from sources like Google Maps had a tendency to be weeks old, the professional marketer sent his first direct message to someone else in $TSLAQ.
“I said, ‘Hey, would current aerial photography of this facility be useful?'” he asked, referencing a BNSF Railway Co. transfer yard that the community had been focused on recently. “His response was almost too enthusiastic.”
That initial flight wasn’t particularly rewarding, Machine Planet told Business Insider, but it set the wheels in motion for what’s now known as “Shorty Air Force,” complete with a logo, to do more research than most everyday investors could dream of.
July 2018 “was really the moment at which we began to seriously unravel the puzzle,” Machine Planet said. He and other $TSLAQ digital sleuths went to investigate an industrial site in Lathrop, California, where some users had seen automotive carriers loaded with Tesla’s entering the facility. From the air, they saw what the community had expected to find: brand-new Tesla cars just sitting underneath the Central Valley sun.
“It always surprises me that they don’t seem to have any budget to do their own research,” he said. “Nothing we’re doing is unique or couldn’t be duplicated. It’s creative, but you just have to do it.”
Enter the bulls
Of course it takes bulls and bears to make a market.
One of the most outspoken Tesla supporters on Twitter is Ross Gerber, a California-based chief executive and investment adviser whose firm, Gerber Kawasaki, has about $US778 million in assets under management. Gerber also has more than 57,000 Twitter followers.
“I talk about Tesla much more than I care about the company, because it gets engagement,” Gerber said. “I have a big position in Disney and love the company, but I tweeted about it yesterday and very few people cared.”
I talk about Tesla much more than I care about the company, because it gets engagement. I have a big position in Disney and love the company, but I tweeted about it yesterday and very few people cared.
All but one of Gerber’s most retweeted posts in the past year dealt with Tesla in some capacity. The only outlier was about another prolific tweeter: Trump.
That’s no coincidence. Posts about Tesla blow other popular tech stocks out of the water. On StockTwits – a Twitter-like site where 160,000 retail investors discuss companies large and small every day – Tesla gets roughly 20% more posts than other “FAANG” stocks (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Alphabet’s Google).
“Tesla is the perfect storm for retail investors for why it’s so popular,” Michael Bozello, a StockTwit’s product manager, told Business Insider. “The brand is cool, the product is cool, the technology/process is controversial, and it’s lead by a very polarising and outspoken character with Elon.”
It all comes back to Musk’s love for Twitter
Nothing happens in a bubble, and Musk’s willingness to interact with strangers, as in his response to @TeslaCharts, only helped popularise the stock.
An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of Musk’s 4,925 tweets in 2018 found that he’s replied to more users with fewer than 500 followers than those with more than 2,000 followers.
They have caused Tesla’s stock to drop – 7%, for example, when Musk tweeted an April Fools’ joke – but are all in good fun, Musk has said, defending his sometimes strange style.
“The actual amount of time I spend on Twitter is tiny,” Musk tweeted in June 2018. “My tweets are literally what i’m thinking at the moment, not carefully crafted corporate bs, which is really just banal propaganda.”
That’s exactly what landed Musk in federal court to spar with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The two factions originally reached a $US20 million settlement, in September, in which Tesla agreed to retain more control over Musk’s tweets following his failed go-private bid from July.
Now lawyers for Musk and the Securities and Exchange Commission have been ordered by a federal judge to put on their “reasonableness pants” and craft a new agreement on how to monitor the billionaire’s tweets after the SEC asked Musk to be held in contempt.
That hasn’t slowed him down, though. Over the weekend, Musk took time to lash out at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg for what he perceives as bad reporting. He also tweeted information about Tesla’s agreement with Panasonic after multiple Nikkei reports said the Japanese battery maker may be rethinking its investment, a report Tesla vehemently disputed.
Plenty of followers said that those tweets also seemed to contain material information that would be materially important to shareholders as defined by the SEC, bringing us back to where it all began: Musk himself.
“The key element of the Tesla bull case and the Tesla bear case is the same thing,” @TeslaCharts, on camera in a hooded silhouette, said in a short Real Vision documentary earlier this month. “It’s Elon Musk. Elon Musk is willing to do anything to win is the bull case, and Elon Musk is willing to do anything to win is the bear case.”
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