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Tesla Is The Next Netflix: Shortseller

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by valuewalk
Monday, May 02, 2022 - 17:37

Stanphyl Capital’s commentary for the month ended April 30, 2021, discussing their short position in Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA).

We remain short the biggest bubble in modern stock market history, Tesla Inc. (TSLA) which, despite a steadily sliding share of the world’s EV market and a share of the overall auto market that’s only around 1.5%, has a market cap roughly equal to the next 20 largest automakers combined.  Here’s why we remain short Tesla:

  • Tesla has no “moat” of any kind; i.e., nothing meaningfully proprietary in terms of its electric car technology (which has now been surpassed by numerous competitors), while existing automakers—unlike Tesla­—have a decades-long “experience moat” of knowing how to mass-produce, distribute and service high-quality cars consistently and profitably.
  • Excluding working capital benefits and sunsetting emission credit sales Tesla generates barely any free cash flow.
  • Growth in sequential unit demand for Tesla’s cars is at a crawl relative to expectations.
  • Elon Musk is a pathological liar.

Tesla Is Netflix

For years I’ve said “Tesla is Blackberry”—the maker of a first-generation version of a product that—once the market was proven—would be supplanted into niche obscurity by newer, better versions; now I can provide a much more recent analogy: Tesla is Netflix. For years Netflix had an absurd valuation based on its pioneering position in streaming media, but once it proved that such a market existed myriad competitors swarmed all over it, and in April the stock collapsed when we learned that not only is Netflix no longer in “hypergrowth” mode but for the first time since 2011 (when it transitioned from physical DVDs) it actually lost subscribers. I believe Musk knows that Tesla is “the next Netflix” (hence his recent “Twitter buying distraction”), with VW, Hyundai/Kia, Ford, GM, BMW, Mercedes, BYD & other Chinese competitors and, in a few years, Toyota & Honda, being the Disney, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Peacock, Hulu, Paramount +, etc., of the electric car market, stealing Tesla’s share and eventually pounding its stock price down 95% or so from today’s, into the valuation of “just another car company.”

In fact, in April Tesla reported that Q1 deliveries were sequentially nearly flat (just 1398 additional cars, a gain of just 0.45%) vs. the previous quarter, and even that was only “achieved” by a sneaky redefinition by Tesla of what “a delivery” is. Yes, the company is chip-constrained, but its competitors (who, unlike Tesla, are unwilling to delete safety equipment or use untested chips to maintain production) are even more constrained, and in fact waiting times are longer for Tesla’s direct EV competitors than they are for a Tesla; for instance, Ford’s Mustang Mach-E is so in demand that it has even halted additional orders for the 2022 model year. (Current annual Mach-E production capacity is around 65,000 for the U.S. & Europe and tens of thousands more for China, but in 2023 U.S. & European capacity will expand to 200,000.) The worst thing that can possibly happen to “the Tesla story” will be when its German and Texas plants are fully operational and the subsequent excess capacity stares the world right in the face, thereby ending its myth of “unlimited demand” (especially at current, drastically-raised prices, where the cheapest Model 3 now starts at $47,000 and the cheapest Model Y begins at $63,000); in fact, look for margin-destroying price cuts by late this year or early 2023.

Meanwhile, the “record” profits that accompanied Q1’s nearly flat delivery number were obtained via myriad one-time items, including $679 million of emission credit sales that will disappear over the next year or two as every automaker ramps up its EV sales, a mysterious $502 million reduction in SG&A expense (of which only $140 million was due to reduced stock comp) despite opening new factories in Germany and Texas (what is Tesla capitalizing instead of expensing???) and a combination of FIFO accounting and multiple sticker price increases that allowed Tesla to expense rapidly rising raw materials costs at older, lower prices while selling cars built from those materials at new, considerably higher prices. Adjusting for these factors, Tesla had GAAP earnings for the quarter that were at least $1/share lower than the posted $2.86, and annualizing that realistic $1.86/share to $7.44 means that at April’s closing price Tesla (on a no-growth quarter) had a PE ratio of around 117 vs. an industry-wide figure of less than 10. (Also, Tesla’s Q1 free cash flow was only around $1.8 billion, a drop of almost $1 billion vs. the previous quarter, despite a massive increase in net accounts payable.)

And for those of you who think that Tesla is “really an energy company,” in Q1 “Tesla Energy” had revenue of just $616 million (down 10.5% sequentially) and cost of revenue of $688 million, meaning it had a negative gross margin. So if Tesla is “really an energy company,” it’s even more screwed than if it’s just a car company!

Hype From Tesla Bulls

Meanwhile, many Tesla bulls sincerely believe that ten years from now the company will be twice the size of Volkswagen or Toyota, thereby selling around 20 million cars a year (up from the current run-rate of around 1.3 million); in fact in March Musk himself even raised this as a possibility. To illustrate how utterly absurd this is, going from 1.3 million cars a year today to 20 million in ten years means that in addition to one million cars a year of eventual production from the new German and Texas factories, Tesla would have to add 35 more brand new 500,000 car/year factories with sold out production; i.e., a new factory nearly every single quarter for ten years! And what then? Well, then you’d have a car company approximately twice the size of Toyota (current market cap: $239 billion) or Volkswagen (current market cap: $97 billion). If that would make Tesla worth, say, $500 billion in 10 years, discounting that back at 15%/year and allowing for enough share dilution to pay for all those factories, Tesla—in that absurdly optimistic scenario—would be worth just $100/share today, down almost 90% from its current price. (To be clear, I think it’s going much lower than that!)

Another favorite hype story from Tesla bulls has been “the China market,” but Tesla’s Q1 2022 domestic China sales sequentially declined by approximately 8000 units vs. Q4 2021, and it had only around 1.9% of the overall Chinese passenger vehicle market and just 11% of the BEV market.

Meanwhile,  as Tesla continues to sell its fraudulent & dangerous so-called “Full Self Driving” the head of that program recently took a four-month sabbatical; the last major Tesla executive who did that (Doug Field) never returned. In a sane regulatory environment Tesla, having sold this garbage software for over five years now…

…would be prosecuted for “consumer fraud,” and indeed the regulatory tide may finally be turning, as two U.S. senators continue to question its safety and last year the NHTSA appointed a harsh critic of this deadly product to advise on its regulation. (For all known Tesla deaths see here.) Are major write-downs and refunds on the way, killing the company’s slight “claimed profitability”? Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, Guidehouse Insights continues to rate Tesla dead last among autonomous competitors:

Another favorite Tesla hype story has been built around so-called “proprietary battery technology.” In fact though, Tesla has nothing proprietary there—it doesn’t make them, it buys them from Panasonic, CATL and LG, and it’s the biggest liar in the industry regarding the real-world range of its cars. And if new-format 4680 cells enter the market some time in 2024 (as is now expected), even if Tesla makes some of its own,  other manufacturers will gladly sell them to anyone.

Tesla Build Quality Remains Awful

Meanwhile, Tesla build quality remains awful (it ranks second-to-last in the latest Consumer Reports reliability survey) while the latest survey from British consumer organization Which? found it to be one of the least reliable cars in existence. And Tesla’s worst-rated Model Y faces current (or imminent) competition from the much better built electric Audi Q4 e-tron, BMW iX3, Mercedes EQB, Volvo XC40 Recharge, Volkswagen ID.4, Ford Mustang Mach E, Nissan Ariya, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6. And Tesla’s Model 3 now has terrific direct “sedan competition” from Volvo’s beautiful Polestar 2, the great new BMW i4 and the premium version of Volkswagen’s ID.3 (in Europe), plus multiple local competitors in China.

And in the high-end electric car segment worldwide the Audi e-tron (substantially improved for 2022!) and Porsche Taycan outsell the Models S & X (and the newly updated Tesla models with their dated exteriors and idiotic shifters & steering wheels won’t change this), while the spectacular new Mercedes EQS, Audi e-Tron GT and Lucid Air make the Tesla Model S look like a fast Yugo, while the extremely well reviewed new BMW iX and Mercedes EQS SUV does the same to the Model X.

And oh, the joke of a “pickup truck” Tesla previewed in 2019 (and still hasn’t shown in production-ready form) won’t be much of “growth engine” either, as it will enter a dogfight of a market; in fact, Ford’s terrific 2022 all-electric F-150 Lightning now has over 200,000 retail reservations (plus many more fleet reservations), GM has introduced its fantastic 2023 electric Silverado with over 110,000 reservations and Rivian’s pick-up has gotten excellent early reviews.

Regarding safety, as noted earlier in this letter, Tesla continues to deceptively sell its hugely dangerous so-called “Autopilot” system, which Consumer Reports has completely eviscerated; God only knows how many more people this monstrosity unleashed on public roads will kill despite the NTSB condemning it. Elsewhere in safety, the Chinese government forced the recall of tens of thousands of Teslas for a dangerous suspension defect the company spent years trying to cover up, and now Tesla has been hit by a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. for the same defect. Tesla also knowingly sold cars that it knew were a fire hazard and did the same with solar systems, and after initially refusing to do so voluntarily, it was forced to recall a dangerously defective touchscreen. In other words, when it comes to the safety of customers and innocent bystanders, Tesla is truly one of the most vile companies on Earth. Meanwhile the massive number of lawsuits of all types against the company continues to escalate.

So Here Is Tesla’s Competition In Cars…

(note: these links are regularly updated)

And in China…

Here’s Tesla’s Competition In Autonomous Driving...

Here's Where Tesla's Competition Will Get Its Battery Cells...

And Here’s Tesla's Competition In Storage Batteries...

Thanks,

Mark Spiegel

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