This article on Tesla has been written by Aswath Damodaran and published on Musing on Markets on the 10th of August 2018.
After my last two posts in Tesla, I was planning to take a break from the company, since I had said everything that I had to say about the company. In short, I argued that Tesla, notwithstanding its growth potential, was over valued and that to deliver on this potential, it would need to raise significant amounts of capital in the next few years. In an even earlier post, I described Tesla as the ultimate story stock, both blessed and cursed by having Elon Musk as a CEO, a visionary with a self destructive streak. Even by Musk’s own standards, his tweet on August 7 that Tesla would be going private, adding both a price ($420) and a postscript (that funding had been secured), was a blockbuster, pushung the stock price up more than 10% for the day. The questions that have followed have been wide ranging, from whether Tesla is a good candidate for “going private” to the mechanics of how it will do so (about funding and structure) to the legality of conveying a market-moving news story in a tweet.
1. Tesla: Public to Private – The Why
The Trade Off
The Public to Private Transition
- that does not need access to large amounts of new capital to continue operating,
- where the market is under pricing the company, relative to its intrinsic value ,
- that feels the actions that it needs to take in its best long term interests will either create public backlash (layoffs and plant closures) or adverse market reactions (because of the effect that they will have on metrics that investors are focused upon).
The Tesla Case
- It is a growing company and it needs new capital to not only deliver on its growth promise but to survive for the next few years. If you are more optimistic than I am about Tesla, you may disagree with how much cash the company will have to raise to keep going, but I challenge even the most hardened optimist to tell me how the company will be able to increase production to a million cars or more without investing mind blowing amounts in new capacity.
- If markets are punishing Tesla by under pricing the company, they are doing so in a very strange manner, giving it a higher market capitalization than much larger, more profitable automobile companies, ignoring large losses and generally tolerant of Elon Musk’s errant behavior. In fact, if the critique of markets is that they are short term and focused on profits, Tesla would be the perfect counter example.
- It is true that there was substantial drama and market volatility around the 5000 cars/week production target, and there may be some in the company who have the drawn the lesson that since there will be more production targets to come in the future, the company needs to operate out of market scrutiny. That would be the wrong lesson, since almost all of the drama in this episode, from setting the target (5000 cars/week) to the constant tweets about whether the targets would be met, was generated by Elon Musk, not the market. In fact, a cynic would argue that by focusing the market’s attention on this short term target, Tesla has been able to avoid answering much bigger questions about its operations.
Tesla: Public to Private – The Funding
The Tesla Case
- They may be big enough to make the investment. As a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of $103 billion, making a $55-60 billion additional investment in Tesla would be a reach, but Softbank is capable of drawing other investors of its ilk into the funding.
- They have and are invested in young, growth companies: Unlike traditional PE investors whose focus has been on doing leveraged deals of cash-rich companies, Softbank has invested successfully in growth companies, many of whom continue to burn through cash.
- They have a history with Tesla: There were rumors last year that Tesla and Softbank had talked about taking the company private, but control disagreements caused negotiations to break down.
3. A Corporate Investor: There is one final possibility that I considered and it is that a corporation with deep pockets would provide the money needed to take Tesla private. Given how much money is needed, the list of potential buyers is small and perhaps restricted to the large tech companies – Apple and Google. While they have the cash and perhaps may even have the interest, Musk’s follow up that he would continue to run the company and hold on to his ownership stake strikes me as a poison pill that no corporation will want to swallow.
Occam’s Razor: A simpler explanation
- It has a CEO who is obsessed with short selling and spends a disproportionate amount of his time and attention on bringing them down. So, it is true that short sellers are a distraction to the company, but only because Elon Musk has made it so.
- On the other side, many of the short sellers in Tesla seem to be just as obsessed with Musk and are convinced that he is a scam artist. I have a sneaking feeling that for many of them, winning will mean not just making money on their Tesla positions, but seeing the company cease to exist (and taking Musk down with it). On my Tesla valuation from a few weeks ago, it is telling that the most heated responses that I got were not from Tesla bulls, accusing me of being too pessimistic, but from Tesla short sellers, arguing that I was being over valuing the company, even though my assessed value per share was half the prevailing price.