29 April, 2016
Two years ago I wrote about electric car maker Tesla Motors, its shares and brilliant founder, Elon Musk. I discussed the danger of confusing enthusiasm for the company with enthusiasm for the stock.
At the time, Tesla had been a top performing stock, lifting 344 per cent in 2013 and ending the year with a market capitalisation of $US30 billion. These were sizzling numbers for a company that sold just 22,000 cars in 12 months. In the same period, General Motors sold over 10 million vehicles and had market capitalisation of $US57 billion.
I concluded I would hold off buying Tesla stock because while the "sky might not be the limit for the company, its lack of profitability, capital and time just might be".
Fast forward to today and my decision to hold off was not a bad one. Tesla shares have lifted three per cent since then, despite the company having won countless awards, huge media coverage and delivered "the final step" in Musk's master plan: an affordable, mass-market electric car. The Tesla Model 3 was launched with much fanfare earlier this month.
Given these achievements, why is the share price just three per cent higher after two years?
Tesla is a celebrity stock of the same ilk as Apple and Google. They are companies constantly in the news, often with high profile, visionary leaders and announce big and exciting things relatively often.
The problem for investors is the hype invariably surrounding these companies needs to be separated from any rational analysis of the company's share price.
Investors clearly struggle to know how to value Tesla's shares.
The share price languished through most of last year, then rallied in the lead-up to the Model 3 launch, before stumbling when the company's profit numbers (or more accurately, loss numbers) were released. In subsequent weeks, investor enthusiasm has been re-ignited as Musk has reported a growing order book for the Model 3, even though it won't be ready for delivery until late 2017 at the earliest.
On the night of the launch, the company crowed that 115,000 people had plonked down $US1,000 deposits to order the car. Three weeks later and forward orders (with deposits) are up to 400,000 — four times the number of cars Tesla has produced over the last eight years.
The Model 3 order book is unique in 100 years of mass-market automobile sales. The only other car to be greeted with such frenzied enthusiasm was the 1955 Citroen DS which received 80,000 orders over 10 days at the Paris Auto Show.
One writer said Tesla had just had its "iPhone moment", referring to the original iPhone launch prompting 270,000 orders in the first two days.
So where does the Tesla share price go from here?
This is where it gets tricky. The forward orders will likely keep coming and the company says it is ready to deliver this much-hyped product (well, it will be in 2017/8).
Unfortunately, Tesla has a history of missed deadlines; the company is under-capitalised just as it needs to ramp up to deliver mass market quantities; and competing car manufacturers are planning electric vehicles that may well hit the market before the Model 3.
If Tesla delivers on time and on budget, and the Model 3 is as loved as its predecessor (the Model S was named the best car of the past 20 years), the Tesla share price will rocket. If not, it could easily plummet.
I think I'll hold off for now.