Wall Street is making the same mistake about investing in space as it did with self-driving cars

  • Space: the final investment opportunity. It sounds like science fiction, but Morgan Stanley is taking it seriously.
  • Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the key company, just as Tesla has been for electric and self-driving cars.
  • But investors should be wary of that story.

It only a matter of time before Wall Starting to take serious note of the Final Frontier.

In a sprawling research report published on Thursday by a team of Morgan Stanley analysts, the investment opportunities of space were considered in deep detail.

Driving much of this is of course Elon Musk and SpaceX, the private rocket company he serves as CEO of and that is expected to launch an IPO at some point in the next few years, as it builds investment confidence by firing off and recovering reusable rockets and charts a course to colonize Mars.

To that end, Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas — bullish on Musk’s other company, Tesla, and its ability to create a $US60-billion market cap and 1,200% return since its 2010 IPO — offers some sweeping thoughts on how space could become a trillion-dollar-plus opportunity.

Critical to his argument is the rapid develop of enthusiasm about self-driving cars.

“The Autos & Shared Mobility team’s work on autonomous vehicles teaches us how quickly a topic can move from

complete obscurity and scepticism to a dominant investor theme, influencing the allocation of many hundreds of

billions in capital,” he wrote.

“With autonomous vehicles, it was a combination of technical milestones, capital markets events, and investment allocation that accelerated the topic. With space, we face a similar event path … with SpaceX sitting at the

starting point.”

Don’t buy the hype

The problem here is that space is actually nothing new. Launching satellites into orbit and even visiting distant worlds is still based on 1960s-era science. The computing power has greatly increased, but the physics is the same. And SpaceX’s current business is concentrated, in a practical sense, on lowering the cost of launching satellites.

Autonomous vehicles are new, but the “investor theme” Jonas highlights is largely a function of the former investment theme — electric cars — failing to gain the traction that was predicted in 2010, when some analysts maintained that 15-20% of the global auto fleet would be electric by 2020. It’s almost 2018, and the global market for EVs is only about 1%.

About a year ago, the investment narrative shifted, and autonomous mobility became all the rage.

The only way to directly invest in electric cars and self-driving vehicles is to buy Tesla stock, which explains why the company’s shares have boomed in 2017, up 65%. (One can invest in the technological supply chain for EVs and autonomy, of course, but those companies are largely hidden from consumer view, just as parts suppliers are in the auto industry.) SpaceX will be a similar story and could yield similar returns.

It’s the story that will hook investors, just as electric cars and self-driving vehicles have already. But what about making money? Morgan Stanley’s two-pronged thesis stipulates that future bandwidth demands will require more satellites; and that space is on the verge of being more aggressively militarised for national security reasons.

Space doesn’t need to be disrupted

A disruptive narrative about launching satellites into various orbits, in this context, is unnecessary. And from SpaceX’s perspective, it might be viewed as something of a swindle: the satellite business exists to fund the interplanetary missions, but it’s unclear whether the government is prepared to allow private companies to assume NASA role. In fact, SpaceX is probably counting on NASA to accept some type of cooperative model, as it has with Space Station servicing contracts, to avoid that fight.

The weaponization-of-space story, which Morgan Stanley spends a substantial amount of time on in the report, is simply troubling, from a moral perspective. It suggests a kind of Weyland-Yutani Corporation taken from the movies and made real and has often been discussed, usually “Don’t do it!” terms. The ethical exploration of space has actually been legally and diplomatically considered since the 1960s.

Self-driving cars are a long way from being fully autonomous and making anybody any money, just as electric cars are very unlikely to take over the world. Investors should remember that whenever they’re told otherwise. They should also be sceptical that what is in fact a sluggish and halting story when applied to transportation will be any different when taken to the Final Frontier.

Get the latest Tesla stock price here.

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