Tesla Quietly Kills Car Buyback Program As Probes Reporter Reveals Undisclosed SEC Investigation

While much of the recent public attention surrounding Tesla has focused on the car's self-driving or "autopilot" feature, which was implicated in the May 7 deadly crash and has resulted in a NHTSA probe as well as a potential SEC inquiry into whether the company misled investors by not reporting the death at the time of Tesla's May equity offering, the real problems facing Tesla is not so much whether its cars are safe but the increasingly evident lack of demand at any price point.

Last month, Tesla cut the base price of its Model S sedan to $66,000; this happens at a time when Tesla has missed its sales targets in the first two quarters this year. Then earlier today, Musk also added a lower-priced version of its Model X crossover. The new Tesla Model X 60D is priced from $74,000, $9,000 less than the Model X 75D. Equipped with a 60kWh battery,

But the real sign that Tesla is concerned about flailing demand for its cars came later in the day, when Tesla said it had discontinued its resale value guarantee program that assured buyers that cars would retain value over time.

As Reuters adds, the discontinuation of the buyback program, as of July 1, shows the company stepping back on a pledge begun in 2013 that Tesla would buy back its cars financed through specified loan partners for a predetermined resale value after three years. The program was intended to help Tesla control its secondary market and assure buyers that cars would retain value.

This means that used Tesla values are dropping faster than the company had expected in its worst case scenario, and as a result it can no longer afford to fill the gap. With this program ending, demand for new vehicles is set to slump even more as concerns about resale prices emerge.

A Tesla spokesperson said the program was discontinued to "keep interest rates as low as possible and offer a compelling lease and loan program to customers."

What he really meant but would never say is that demand for Teslas, both new and used, is cratering, something which will promptly be reflected in prices of used Teslas as they suddenly hit the market now that the company is no longer backstopping all repurchases. And, we expect, once the public realizes what the true clearing price of these vehicles is, demand for new cars will slump even further in a feedback loop that ends with Tesla eventually running out of cash. 

But not quite yet.

The most recent publicly disclosed valued of Tesla's liability created by the resale value guarantee was $1.58 billion as of March 31. The resale value liability had increased by more than 20 percent since the end of 2015. Needless to say, the ending of the program simply means that Musk no longer wanted to accumulate a massive liability which would, sooner or later, have to be met with actual cash outflows by a company which already burn $2 billion annually in a good year.

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Meanwhile, courtesy of our friends at Probes Reporter, we learn of another potentially far more troubling problem facing Tesla: namely another SEC investigation, one which has not been previously disclosed. In a note titled "New Data Reveals the SEC Was Already Investigating Tesla Before Any News Surfaced about an Autopilot-Related Crash", John Gavin writes that "Through clever language and careful omission, we think Tesla is misleading investors about SEC investigative risk. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal broke a story claiming the SEC was investigating Tesla’s disclosure practices. The company promptly issued a widely-reported denial, leaving investors to wonder. Doesn’t matter. Tesla’s denial was too narrow; deliberately we say, and does not cover our newest data."

We now know, with certainty, that as of 06-Jul-2016, Tesla was involved in an undisclosed SEC investigation that was on-going at the time. It was and remains undisclosed. Further, and this is important, we received an earlier response from the SEC dated 27-Jun-2016, that makes it clear there was already an SEC investigation of Tesla before 30-Jun-2016, the day the company first disclosed news of a recent crash of one of its cars. That means the SEC was investigating something else, something unrelated to the disclosures of the crash. With the cleverly narrow language we saw coming from the company earlier this week, this is the SEC probe Tesla avoided speaking to. We explain in this report.

 

The best way forward is for Tesla to answer this very simple question: What contact has Tesla had with the SEC’s Division of Enforcement in the past two years regarding any matter? Monday’s denial did not answer that question. It only spoke to the issues raised in the Journal story. It’s time Tesla gives investors a more complete answer regarding its interactions with the SEC.

 

Facts of Interest or Concern: Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a story claiming the SEC was investigating Tesla’s disclosure practices regarding a recent Autopilot-related crash. As the story gained traction, the company issued the following denial, which was widely reported in the media: "Tesla has not received any communication from the SEC regarding this issue. Our blog post last week provided the relevant information about this issue." [Emphasis added to draw attention to the narrowness of this denial as it speaks only to a sole “issue”, on which we comment below]

 

For our part, in a letter dated 27-Jun-2016, we received information from the SEC suggesting Tesla Motors was involved in unspecified SEC investigative activity that was undisclosed at the time. We filed an appeal, and now, in a letter dated 06-Jul-2016, the SEC confirmed this company’s involvement in on-going enforcement proceedings (excerpt below). No clear disclosure of SEC investigative activity was found in a search of Tesla Motors filings dating back to Oct-2012.

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Our Take: Because of the timing of SEC responses to us, we think Tesla could easily be under investigation for matters related to governance, potential conflicts of interest, and/or proposed or past transactions of Elon Musk’s public companies. The SEC could even be investigating the pending SolarCity deal. We wrote on related matters before (See our report of 27-Jun-2016, Tesla/SolarCity: Governance Conflicts, Disclosure Shortcomings.)

 

Keep in mind the SEC also could be investigating something unrelated to the SolarCity deal. For that matter, the SEC probe may pertain to something investors might not even care about.

 

But couldn’t the SEC have been investigating the car crash at the time it gave us its response of 27-Jun-2016? Probably not. According to the company, the NHTSA had not even opened its “preliminary evaluation” of Autopilot until 29-Jun-2016. By then we already had in hand the SEC response of 27-Jun-2016. While the company had contacted the NHTSA earlier, on 16-May-2016, we strongly doubt the SEC was contacted by that agency about Tesla’s crash. There would be no reason to. This tells us the SEC was already investigating something unrelated to the car crash by the time that news came out on 30-Jun-2016.

 

Tesla’s cleverly narrow response to the Wall Street Journal story Again, after Monday’s Wall Street Journal story broke, a company spokesperson was widely reported to say, "Tesla has not received any communication from the SEC regarding this issue. Our blog post last week provided the relevant information about this issue."

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Dodgy statements from Tesla regarding SEC investigative activity are not new to us. In the past a Tesla representative called our work “rumor and speculation” as a way to avoid speaking directly to it. This is despite the fact that every single time we report on a company's involvement in an undisclosed SEC probe, like today, we can back it up with a response from the SEC – in black & white on government letterhead.

 

There is no rumor. The confirmation of an on-going SEC probe of Tesla is not speculation. It’s time Tesla speaks to this directly.

We hope Elon Musk will address these allegations head on, especially since the credibility of the company - intimately tied to any hope it may ever have of being profitable - in recent weeks has been significantly shaken.