There it is. Eight months after Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk uttered the words “In the second half of 2018, we expect, for the first time in our history, to become both sustainably profitable and cash-flow positive,” Tesla slipped back into the red, and remains cash-flow negative, sending Tesla stock down more than 5% as a result.
Oh, and his comment “We will not be raising equity at any point” made in August of last year? Now Musk “sees merit” in the possibility, following last quarter’s loss of $702 million.
Granted, Musk went on to qualify last year’s assurance that no funds needed to be raised by adding, “At least that’s – I have no expectation of doing so, do not plan to do so.”
CFO Deepak Ahuja underscored Musk’s message in August.
“We’re executing on an operating plan that keeps us sufficiently self-funded, despite our [capital expenditure] needs and our debt maturing, and still keep a very healthy balance on our balance sheet,” he said.
Except, the then-previous quarter wasn’t an indication of the shape of things to come.
If any of this rings familiar to investors who’ve followed the Tesla stock saga since its early days, it should. Musk has developed something of a penchant for overpromising and underdelivering. Indeed, it would be surprising and unusual if that didn’t continue to happen.
Things are changing though. Analysts have finally grown collectively weary of the company never reaching the carrot Musk has been dangling in front of investors.
Even the Good News Isn’t Good
There’s anecdotal evidence of that argument, but not just anecdotal. Long-time bull Daniel Ives, with Wedbush, has even changed his tune. And he’s not just a little frustrated with the company’s inconsistency.
“In our 20 years of covering tech stocks on the Street we view this quarter as one of top debacles we have ever seen while Musk & Co. in an episode out of the Twilight Zone act as if demand and profitability will magically return to the Tesla story,” he said.
Ives subsequently lowered Wedbush’s rating on Tesla stock from “Outperform” to “Neutral.”
Needham analysts led by Rajvindra Gill are concerned about, “deteriorating margins combined with decelerating revenue growth, pushing out profitability” for the electric carmaker that’s yet to turn a full-year profit.
Not all analysts were put off by the quarter or rhetoric though. Deutsche Bank sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and Piper Jaffray’s Alexander Potter said, “Although logistical challenges-long with lower transaction prices-had an obvious impact on Q1 profitability, we think this was temporary. Guidance implies a second-half recovery for both deliveries and margins, and this seems reasonable to us.”
It was Potter’s justification of the poor quarter, however, that may have inadvertently cast a dark cloud on TSLA shares for years to come. He explains Tesla “suffered from a particularly nasty combination of headwinds, including seasonality, a big buildup of non-US deliveries (negative for logistics costs and working capital), as well as the expiration of tax incentives in the United States.”
The seasonality matter is legitimate, but given that Musk has been counting on huge sales growth in overseas markets that can’t be satisfied by overseas production, that logistics cost isn’t going to abate. The lack of tax incentives in the United States is also never going to abate.
Then there’s the simple question of demand.
Though still not as cool as anything Tesla makes, the auto industry’s biggest names like Ford Motor (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) are wading deeper into the EV arena while higher-end names such as Jaguar and Audi are taking dead aim at Tesla this year right in Tesla’s backyard… the United States. China’s Nio (NYSE:NIO) is eying an eventual invasion of the U.S. market too.
Evercore ISI Group’s Arndt Ellinghorst sees those rivals as yet another dent in demand.
“If you claim that demand is huge and unlimited then the key question is, why do you lower your mix? Why do you lower your pricing?,” he asked.
Cowen’s Jeffrey Osborne is entertaining the same basic fear.
“Tesla appears to be entering into an era of uncertainty as a period of normalized demand approaches after enjoying the last 18 to 24 months of pent up demand for the Model 3 from the deposit list,” he wrote. “We see lower prices as largely indicative of a demand fishing expedition.”
And, it’s no surprise Wedbush’s Daniel Ives chimed in on the demand issue too. “We continue to feel robotaxis, insurance products, and other endeavors are distractions from the growing demand woes that are not being addressed which is a critical worry of ours at this juncture,” he wrote.
He’s right. If Tesla can’t sell more cars at higher profits, nothing else matters.
Bottom Line for Tesla Stock
The change in the rhetoric surround Tesla, and Tesla stock, has been anything but sweeping. Rather, it’s been slowly and gradually inching in this direction. A few years back, investors shrugged off losses because they were participating in a pioneer’s vision.
Today, too many of them are wondering if they’ve simply been lured in by what Accipiter Capital Management’s founder Gabe Hoffman describes as a lying magician.
Whatever the case, it’s difficult to argue Thursday’s post-earnings response wasn’t a major, game-changing bite out of the story Elon Musk has relied on telling, and selling, for years now.
Tesla stock just became leaps and bounds more difficult to own.
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