Tesla reported third quarter earnings last week, and they should have been an opportunity for reckoning on Wall Street.
The numbers were more or less in line with expectations: Tesla brought in what was expected and lost slightly more than anticipated.
CEO Elon Musk and his management team guided a bit lower on deliveries for the full year: 55,000 vehicles was the number in early 2015, but that dropped to between 50,000-55,000 by midyear and dipped to 50,000-52,000 after Tesla reported.
Tesla shares, which had been flagging after the launch of the Model X SUV in September, responded by spiking the next day, to a level north of $US230 from $US208.
Tesla bulls published encouraging research notes about the company being well positioned for future disruptions in transportation and energy, while bears expressed concern about the car maker’s ability to execute.
“Tesla is essentially learning how to become a manufacturing company on the fly,” wrote analysts at RBC Capital Markets. “While we don’t have meaningful reason to doubt Tesla can eventually get to their targets, doing so in a timely matter without some growing pains could prove challenging.”
The confusion is palpable. The truth is that no one on Wall Street who covers Tesla can really generate an investment thesis that’s grounded in where the company is right now. And why should they? Their jobs involve positioning clients and investors for Tesla’s future.
But again, the confusion is palpable. In this respect, Tesla itself has the advantage of focusing on simple procedures.
Keep it simple, stupid
Put one foot in front of the other. Build enough Model S sedans in 2015 to come within striking distance of its total deliveries guidance. Work out whatever manufacturing kinks there are with the Model X SUV. Stay on schedule for the reveal of the Model 3 mass-market vehicle in the first quarter of the 2016. Get the Gigafactory battery manufacturing facility in Nevada up and running, to drive down the cost of battery supplies. Manage demand in the US while stoking it in Asia and Europe.
It’s been clear for some time that while Tesla takes its stock price seriously, it isn’t running its business to be optimised for quarterly performance. Musk did say on a conference call after earnings were announced that Tesla hopes to be cash-flow positive by Q1 2016, but really, who cares?
Tesla’s market cap is about as much as Honda’s — Honda’s! — and the stock price is up over 1,000% from its 2010 IPO. The money is giddy, for a car maker that’s only about 10 years old, and that until recently was building one car in one factory — and not very many of them. If Tesla constructs 50,000 vehicles this year, that will match what a company like Ford does in a week.
Musk is undoubtedly pleased that Wall Street bulls think his company could be worth twice what it is now. But he also knows that the financial story about Tesla doesn’t in any way match the car-making story. That why on several occasions over the past few years he’s expressed some doubts about Tesla’s buoyant share price.
Giving Tesla a break
In a sense, then, the markets’ reaction for last week’s earnings was refreshing. Tesla isn’t currently performing like a $US30-billion market cap firm, but why bother punishing it? The markets have punished Tesla for profit misses and downward guidance on deliveries before. But the stock typically recovers.
For a short period this year, Tesla looked as if it had shaken off its tradition of share-price volatility, but that didn’t last. And according to Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer, Tesla’s Q3 results were “close enough” to “keep wall Street happy.”
Happiness in this case translated into a 12% upward move for the stock. It’s entirely possible that at this stage, Wall Street has written off Tesla’s final quarter, which could be a smart decision. Tesla is after all effectively replaying the fourth quarter of 2014, with a mad manufacturing rush to the finish. This year, Tesla will have to build 17,000 vehicles to meet its guidance — more than it has every built before.
Perhaps the reckoning many might have expected is actually just a sort of throwing up of hands. If Tesla makes it, great. If not … eh. Seen this movie before.
So maybe Wall Street isn’t confused about Tesla. Maybe Wall Street thinks Tesla deserves a break.
NOW WATCH: Money & Markets videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.