Automotive

Apple to buy Tesla? Is Tim Cook on autopilot?

If Apple truly stumped up for Tesla that would make two companies that are complete novices at auto manufacturing. It would be the Apple Lisa of the auto world.

Worse for Apple it would signal that the world’s largest company is completely out of creative ideas and its existing product line up was truly approaching stall speed. It already is but and the lack of transparency only adds to doubts.

Rumours circulated that Apple considered a $240/share purchase back in 2013. 6 years ago Tesla was full of hope. Now the stock is full of hype. It has been a litany of disasters from fatal crashes, production hell all the way to complete wishful thinking on Level 5 autonomous driving which Israeli company Mobileye, a leader in the field, believes is decades off.

Let’s assume a $240 per share deal was done. Apple would pay around $40bn and assume another $12bn or so in debt.

The most dangerous strategy for highly successful companies is to throw spaghetti at a wall and hope some sticks. Tesla is by no means an overnight repair job. It needs the skills of Toyota to turn it around. Don’t forget Apple has no manufacturing expertise as its products are all built by 3rd parties. Toyota rescued Porsche several decades back and Lockheed Martin called in the production efficiency king to help build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter better.

It reminds CM of the time Hoya bought Pentax back in 2007. Such was the earnings dilution against the incumbent high margin business, hunting for growth sent Hoya shares down 50% soon after the deal. Hoya was completely dominant in glass photomasks. Yet the $1bn merger of a 2’d tier camera/optics maker was thought of by the founder’s grandson as a total failure and divested many divisions.

Losses continue to mount at Tesla, senior management departures are a revolving door and demand is slowing. The recent cap raise sees investors well under water. The Maxwell Tech deal looks a dud for the management to accept an all share rather than an all share deal (if the tech is so leading edge).

If Apple truly wanted a car deal, it could buy an established maker like Fiat Chrysler with decades of production expertise and global reach for half the price. Not to mention a wide choice of vehicle styles to broaden the appeal to customers.

Although the history of car mergers, even between industry players, has led to some pretty disastrous outcomes. Daimler overpaid for Chrysler so badly that its shares cratered 80%. BMW bought Rover from Honda. Fail. Even Land Rover had to be sold by the Bavarians. Ford ended up selling most of its Premier Automotive Group stable – Aston, Lincoln, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. Just Lincoln remains.

Tech companies meddling in the automobile sector reveals a graveyard of sad stories. Korean analysts jumped for joy when Bosch sold out its stake in the Li-ion batteries JV SB Li-motive. How could a Korean tech company proclaim to have a better read on the global auto industry than Bosch, a supplier to the major auto makers for over 100 years? Panasonic is already kicking itself hrs over the Tesla deal and management is highly unimpressed with Musk after his disparaging remarks made about production.

Have investors ever wondered why Tesla has no mainstream suppliers? Many are obscure parts companies from Taiwan. More established auto suppliers have been burnt by experiments before and they’ll only sign up for makers who have much better prospects and track records.

If anyone thinks Apple buying Tesla makes sense they need their heads read. The last 6 years have detracted value. Pre-pubescent fund managers who have never seen a cycle might see the value of millennial nirvana but the damage to Apple would be considerable. Just because Apple has been so successful doesn’t mean it won’t make mistakes. Tesla would be a disaster. It is in the product creativity blackhole of following the path of Hoya. It would be better to flutter at a casino.

Ding dong the switch is dead

Morgan Stanley has finally lowered its bearish scenario on Tesla from $97 to $10. CM wrote in October 2017 that the shares based on production of 500,000 vehicles was worth no more than $28 (refer to report page 5). That was based on rosy scenarios. Sadly CM thinks Tesla will be bought for a song by the Chinese. Maybe $4.20 a share instead of $420 “funding secured” levels.

The stock breached $200 yesterday for the first time since late 2016.

Morgan Stanley analyst, Adam Jonas, has still kept its base case scenario at $230 per share. His bull case is $391.

Where is the conviction? To drop a bear case target by 90% must surely mean the base case is far lower than presently assumed.

Jonas must assume the bear case is actually the base case. Sell side brokers love to hide behind scenario analysis to cop out having to get off the fence. His compliance department probably prevents him from realizing $10 is his true heart.

Tesla was always playing in a market that it had no prior experience. It is not to say the products didn’t have promise. The problem was the execution. Too much senior management turnover, missed targets, poor quality and too many Tweets from Musk.

The amount of bad press arising from a lack of service centers has driven customers to moan on social media at its amateur approach. The fragile dreams of being an early adopter are being shattered. Cash burn remains high and deliveries remain low. Some pundits think Tesla orders are under real pressure in 2Q 2019.

The recent all share deal with Maxwell Technologies has seen those holders -20% since the transaction a few weeks ago. CM argued how a company with such revolutionary technology could sell itself for all shares in a debt-ridden loss making like Tesla? If the technology was of real value PE funds would have snapped it up or at the very least made a bid in cash. That none was made speaks volumes about what was bought.

All of the arguments hold true in the above link, “Tesla – 30 reasons why Tesla will be a bug on a windshield

Tesla below $200 after a successful cap raise is not a good sign. It’s the faithful slowly tipping out. Await another imaginary Musk-inspired growth engine to be announced shortly to try prop up the stock price. Yet the momentum will continue to sink. The market is losing confidence in Musk. The 1Q results were diabolically bad.

Major holder T Rowe Price has stampeded out the door. The stock is too risky. Musk is a brilliant salesman but he has bitten off more than he can chew.

CM always thought that Toyota selling its Tesla stake was a major sign. Acknowledging that under the hood the company possessed no technology that Toyota didn’t already own.

Watch the free fall. The Tesla stock will be below $100 by the year end.

(CM does not hold Tesla stock)

Vale Nikki Lauda – A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends

A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends”

An amazing F1 World Champion. To survive that horrible Nurburgring fire and return to be a champion again.

Ron Howard’s Rush was a great film which captured the meticulous nature of Lauda.

Mercedes – “grant us tech neutrality“

As CM has argued for over two years – let the industry have full technological freedom (point 13, page 15) to hit government vehicle emissions targets. Mercedes Benz is requesting the same as they have no plans to phase out diesel or petrol by 2039 because “no one knows which drivetrain mix will best serve our customers in 20 years”. The free market is a funny thing – it works well.

How many renewables companies were sent to the wall thanks to generous subsidies that brought overproduction to a market the government couldn’t afford to sustain?

Was Tesla/Maxwell deal smart?

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Tesla (TSLA) has bought Maxwell (MXWL) for an all-stock transaction at US$288m notional value. The question is why any company would accept an all share transaction from a chronic loss-making company to buy its supposedly “amazing” futuristic dry capacitor technology? Are shareholders of MXWL as hooked into the EV cult as those at Tesla? Clearly not all of them. A group of MXWL investors launched a class action to block the deal. Sadly they failed.

If the management of Maxwell truly believed this deal was a winner and the technology was game-changing, why not demand cash? Why didn’t Tesla invite Panasonic’s battery boffins to assess whether the technology had merit? One must question how good is Maxwell’s IP to only find one buyer and for an all share deal? Where were the private equity (PE) vultures circling? How little confidence in one’s product or how much faith in Musk’s cult-like status to fall for such terms?

Maxwell at the 9 month FY2018 stage reported US$91.6mn (-8%YoY) in revenue and a net loss of $30.2mn. Cash halved from $50.122m in 9M 2017 to $23.561mn 9M 2018. The company did sell its high voltage product line to Renaissance Investment Foundation for $55mn with a 2-year $15mn earn out. That involved an upfront payment of $48m making pro-forma cash as at Sep 30, 2018, total $69mn. The company has an accumulated deficit of $277mn.

While the two companies had been in conversation for several years, Musk seemed to get serious in December 2018.

Forget the technological merits of Maxwell. It is easy to work out the quality of the deal based on the structure and the lack of appetite from the mega battery makers or PE firms to validate it. There is no way that MXWL didn’t show its wares to the majors. Given the deal was announced in February 2019, the EV battery and PE world would have at the very least done some back of the envelope calculations to value the business.

All that Musk has done has absorbed another loss-making business into the same cult and give himself another “dream” to add to the smoke and mirrors story.

Maxwell’s management must have channeled Don Adams, “good thinking, 99” but will undoubtedly end up saying, “sorry about that, Chief!”

Nippon Carbon – hidden black diamond

Nippon Carbon (5302) is a hidden gem. CM stumbled over this company in 2012. A decade prior to this, one of the commercial jet engine makers spoke of a new space age technology on the horizon. He mentioned there was a secret sauce that went in to make ceramic matrix composites (CMC). However, because of the secretive nature of R&D, the supplier wasn’t disclosed. So 12 years after that meeting and years of trying to hunt down this miracle ingredient, CM stumbled into meet Nippon Carbon to discuss its mainline graphite electrodes business. In the lobby, a dusty glass trophy cabinet revealed a mysterious cotton reel with black fibres wrapped around it (pic above).

Needless to say on application, the investor relations director told CM it was Hi-Nicalon which goes into CMC! Bingo. Forget the mainstay graphite electrodes! CM found the missing link. In the process, he told CM that the company had spent 40 (yes, forty) years developing it. Who does that? Only in Japan. What the material does is enable jet engines to burn hotter which means longer life, more efficiency with fewer emissions and lower weight. Win, win, win, win.

CFM International (GE/Safran JV) has 8,000 jets (16,000 engines) in the order book. Nippon Carbon’s JV to make Hi-Nicalon was lifted 10 fold in recent years to 10 tons (full capacity will be hit this year) and GE has licensed another 100% capacity increase from Nippon Carbon to produce locally in the US. It is black gold of another dimension.

What is often underestimated, is that passing new technology in commercial aerospace is way harder than seeking new drug approval in the pharmaceutical world. A new drug might have drowsiness as a side effect. A jet engine can’t have that level of failure risk. So now that this product is already flying in the B737 MAX and A320neo, the technology will be rolled out on all new commercial jets from this point. The next generation Boeing 777x will sport Hi-Nicalon in its GENx engines which will use about 5x the material than a B737. 340 orders for the B777x have already been placed by airlines. Deliveries begin in May 2020. GE will be the only engine choice on 777x.

Nippon Carbon is the sole CMC source ingredient producer for GE, the world’s largest jet-engine/turbine maker. The wonderful part about that is the fact that no substitutes will replace it. There are no competitors because in aerospace, quality of material matters. Only source suppliers get a look in. Nippon Carbon owns 50% of the NGS Advanced Fibers business where Hi Nicalon sits. GE & Safran own 25% each of the remainder. 

Ube Industries (4208) has Tyranno-fiber and is partnered with Rolls-Royce. Yet it is tiny part inside a business dominated by construction cement.

Nippon Carbon shares were hit hard the day before 1Q earnings on the back of a downward revision by competitor Tokai Carbon (5301). This is what happens when stocks have no official stockbroker coverage and get tarred by having “Carbon” in the name.

Nippon Carbon’s 1Q results came out after the close the following day, reporting a 46% increase in sales vs last year and a 168% increase in EPS. Full-year earnings were left unchanged.

Nippon Carbon mentioned tougher pricing position in graphite electrodes like Tokai Carbon, but the volume side appears healthier. It would not disclose customers but said demand was still healthy.

Sadly, disclosure is not a strong point of many Japanese companies and Nippon Carbon is no exception. Yet Japanese retail investors get hysterical over homegrown technology winding its way onto globally famous products. Toray (3402), the massive textile manufacturer, signed an exclusive supply contract with Boeing for the 787’s carbon fibre needs. The share price did the following. The slump came on the back of GFC.

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Toray’s stock trebled. Carbon fibre was only 12% of its earnings at the time. It is around 20% today. The rest of the Toray business was low margin textiles. Buying Toray to get exposure to 787 was like buying a fruitcake to get some raisins.

Osaka Titanium

Osaka Titanium Technologies (5726) had an even more bonkers reaction to the 787 which was loaded with titanium parts. Coupled with a global production shortage of titanium sponge and sharply higher contract prices, OTT shares jumped 28x! From relative obscurity, the stock became the most liquid stock in Japan. This is what happens when the small-cap retail lunatics are running the asylum.

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Based on Nippon Carbon’s FY2019 EPS forecast of ¥1,148 it trades on a 3.6x PE ratio. It trades below replacement cost and invested capital. CM thinks that if it manages to hit 20t of Hi-Nicalon by 2020 its EPS could approach ¥1353. That would put it on 3.05x.  Writing in an Armageddon scenario (literally nuking the core graphite electrode business) of ¥210 EPS the stock would be trading at a trough 19.6x. Normally industrials in a downturn would face losses or 50-100x multiples. 

To be honest its biggest problem is that the Nippon Carbon has such woeful marketing of itself. A visit to its Tokyo HQ reveals a 1950s lobby. It doesn’t spend a lick on itself which is also a relief. No frills. It is a proper engineering company. Unlike Toray and Osaka Titanium (at the time), Nippon Carbon has no official broker coverage meaning it remains in obscurity.

Hi-Nicalon is truly revolutionary. It is a once in half-a-century product. It will become the defacto standard jet engine material. At the moment it stands at around 5% of revenue and minimal profit as it ramps up but by next year it could be as high as 15-16% in a few years, which maybe conservative. Depending on the demand for aircraft, it may head higher. It is worth noting at the time of GFC, airlines many upgraded to more efficient aircraft to lower operating costs. Leasing companies obliged. That isn’t to say that Nippon Carbon is isolated by any means but the product itself is unique which provides relative stability.

Worth taking a long hard look at the story. This is a game changer material. We only need for the retail investor to cotton on to this story and let the Pride of Nippon push it to absurd valuations. We have the history of Toray and Osaka Titanium. At 3.6x it is already at absurd valuations (just at the opposite end).

How to predict market bubble tops?

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Triumph Motorcycle is about to launch the 750 unit limited edition Rocket 3 TFC. The bike will sport the largest engine ever fitted to a production motorcycle – a 2,500cc 3-cylinder behemoth. 170ps power and 221Nm of torque. Triumph has really got its act together with its motorcycle line up. In 2012 the UK maker sold 49,000 units. In 2018 that topped 60,697. There must be customers who wish to tow caravans. The bike is sure to annoy every environmentalist.

Although there is something of a pattern with “limited edition specials” and economic cycle tops. Honda released a homologation special 3000-unit RC-30 in 1987 ahead of the stock market crash. At the height of the tech bubble in 2000, Ducati sold a 2000-unit limited edition MH900e replica on the internet for 15,000 euro ahead of market collapse. CM bought one. Ducati sold the 1,500-unit US$72,500 limited edition Desmosedici RR in 2007/8 right ahead of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Triumph’s Rocket 3 TFC will retail for US$36,000. Has Triumph signalled the top?

The idea of buying one to annoy climate alarmists is desperately tempting.