Tesla

Musk to be investigated by SEC over tweets

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CM has always thought that Elon Musk is the ultimate salesman. CM has also wrote that the biggest risk to being a short seller was then”cult” status of the company. On any rational investment grounds the stock is ridiculously priced but as the old adage goes, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can remain solvent!

Tesla is a car company that is worth more than GM, Ford & FiatChrysler combined. One that trades at 5x Daimler in valuation terms, a luxury competitor that is in the sweet spot of its product line up and rudely profitable.

Back in June, Musk bought $35mn worth of shares in Tesla. The whole idea that someone is willing to fork out $75bn on a whim seems somewhat implausible. Is it safe to assume that all of 100s of lawyers, bankers and brokers would need a little bit of time to prepare the necessary documentation to cement such a ridiculous sum? Or is money now just so free and easy that a billionaire deploys a vault full of cash loaded full of Zero Halliburtons into a private jet after a few phone calls?

SEC enforcement attorneys had already been gathering general information about Tesla’s public statements on manufacturing goals and sales targets. Now SEC attorneys are investigating whether his tweets about securing funding were factual.

CM is not accusing Musk of insider trading albeit as a matter of course the SEC should investigate when he knew about his mega financier. One wonders how it is that we know so little about the buyer, the term sheet, the question of shareholder approval and how “secure” it is? Taking it private will remove the lens of quarterly reporting but it doesn’t remove the fact of how dreadfully the company is run or how amateur production is. Even if public scrutiny is removed, the problems of profitability don’t disappear and the need for funds, credit ratings etc if he taps public markets for debt capital remain.

If Musk pulls it all off and the company becomes a roaring success then CM will gladly eat a whole humble pie and openly admit it was wrong.

As to the SEC investigation let’s hope it has learnt the lessons of its bumbling incompetency over Bernie Madoff and doesn’t miss anything that might be bleeding obvious.

Tesla – Augmented Earnings Vehicle?

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Tesla is no longer a joke. It is a farce. CM has not been a fan for the following 30 reasons. The 31st has arrived although it ties in with point 4. Tesla is technically asking for suppliers to refund a portion of the monies they were paid since 2016 to the EV maker so it can post a profit which is borderline accounting manipulation in an attempt to give the impression of an ongoing concern. If suppliers willingly extend this “interest free loan/refund” back to Tesla then it is legit of course but it smells rancid and any investors worth their salt should be able to see through this disgraceful stunt. Is the idea that Tesla shares roof on the announcement of a profit? Then the company could raise capital on the basis of fictitious “earnings” which lowers the effective cost of capital if people are dumb enough to fund it? Will these auto makers get to claim a rebate when (if) it finds profitablity?

Elon Musk is the consummate salesman. He can’t be faulted for his brilliance in being able to sell the vision of a car business that is deeply indebted, unprofitable and still worth more than Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler combined.

Yet we questioned his state of mind – joking about bankruptcy, lambasting the families over deaths caused by the failure of his autopilot which he sold as virtually foolproof. Then his brazen publicity stunt to rescue kids in Thailand with a device the rescue squad believed was useless caused him to call one of the brave team a “pedo”.

These are recurring signs of stress with the charismatic CEO. That the game of pretending to be a real bonafide car company is fast unraveling. Sure, he has done amazing things to open the eyes of incumbent car makers of a luxury EV market.  They are coming through in short order with countless  competitor variants with distribution chains to die for. Moreover with quality that Tesla can only dream of. Not building car shells half finished and counting them as completed like Micheal Keaton’s “Working Class Man”.

The WSJ claims, “The auto maker’s memo, sent by a global supply manager, described the request as essential to Tesla’s continued operation and characterized it as an investment in the car company to continue the long-term growth between both players….Tesla declined to comment on the specific memo. But it confirmed it is seeking price reductions from suppliers for projects, some of which date back to 2016, and some of which haven’t been completed. The company called such requests a standard part of procurement negotiations to improve its competitive advantage, especially as it ramps up Model 3 production.

It is not the suppliers’ responsibility to pony up to help Tesla. They signed up on the basis of Musk’s vision at the time on being able to fulfill  his quest. His constant pushbacks, failures and delays have cost them a fortune already. Incumbent auto suppliers have long learnt lessons of teaming up with car makers that fail to deliver. That is why next to no recognized parts suppliers have signed up to the dreams of Musk.

He is without a doubt a visionary. A maverick and full credit for him to date in keeping the ideals of what will undoubtedly be a future trend. Unfortunately there are no short cuts in the auto industry. He is now painfully facing that reality. Experience is a hard teacher. You get the test first and the lesson afterwards.

Power prices hit $1200/kWh in SA

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When the wind doesn’t blow, South Australia’s 40% reliance on renewables gets exposed for it’s Achilles heel – lunatic power prices. At one stage today, power prices hit twelve hundred dollars ($1200) a kWh. Put into layman’s terms, if you accidentally left the porch lights on when you went to work and they were powered by two 100 watt light bulbs, in 10 hours each would rack up 1 kWh of energy. So that little mistake would cost $2,400 at those prices! So much for Elon Musk’s mega battery saving the day for South Australians during power shortages. No wonder Jay Weatherill’s government was turfed.

Tesla Elongates Fight against ‘unfair’ media

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CM totally sympathizes with clickbait media cycle. Tesla CEO Elon Musk railed at the negative coverage surrounding the company in recent times. The memories are clearly short. The media is generally effusive with praise of Tesla. How most newspapers and magazines fawn over Musk! Dan Primack made this point well:

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Edmunds has also written a damning review of the Model 3 announcing how many problems the car has faced since it was bought.

Some things from the Edmunds long term test were as follows:

The most annoying of those issues was a repeated, uncontrollable increase in stereo volume, sometimes when we weren’t even in the car. Basically, the stereo would suddenly go to full volume without explanation. This and other issues are cataloged from our notes below:

• Would not recognize keycard in or on the console and hence would not go into gear. It did, however, unlock the car. Workaround was to force quit the app and restart the app. Then it would allow the choice of Drive or Reverse.

• The backup camera screen did not appear when reversing.

• Nav screen going haywire: zooming, scrolling, pinching, pixelating all at once.

• Audio system turning on by itself at full volume.

• Audio display randomly moving up and down the screen without any command from a human.

• Audio system came on and went to full volume all by itself while the car was off, locked and unoccupied. I heard it from 100 yards away. “Who is that joker playing his stereo so loud I can hear it from here?” Oh, it’s Elon. I turned it down, but it kept wavering up and down as I started driving, working against my repeated attempts to dial it down. Then it blasted all the way to maximum. My ears are still ringing two hours later. Fixed after reboot. Not sure about hearing damage.

• Audio page leaping up and down rapidly like the up-caret button to expand the source menu was being played with by a kid who ate too much candy. Concurrent with the volume problem above. Same reboot.

• Icons on the map screen flickering.

• The passenger vanity mirror fell off completely. Installed and held on only by double-sided tape. Reinstalled by pressing really hard on the mirror.

• The screen went completely dark on startup, no music or operation. Restarted the car. The screen worked; the backup camera did not.

• The car will not shift into Drive or Reverse upon startup. “Vehicle Systems Are Powering Up. Shift Into D or R After Message Clears.” Have to wait for it to power up. A loud click comes from the rear of the car as if a drive shaft is engaging and the message on the screen goes away.

• The car displays a new message: “Cannot Maintain Vehicle Power. Car May Stop Driving or Shut Down.” No shutdowns yet, but keeping an eye out.

• With 170 miles of range, the car displays a “Regenerative Braking Limited” message. Plenty of available space to store regen power. Logged the issue, then reset the screen with a reboot. The message has not displayed since.

• While the car was parked, the passenger sun visor was left down and the mirror fell out. Pressed back into place. Hoping it won’t fall out again.

While no one should expect reliability to be at levels of mainstream manufacturers that have been at it for decades longer, quality remains a big issue for Tesla. For Musk to slam the media will only lead to responses as this.

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If only Elon Musk could summon institutional questions

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Elon Musk has apparently terminated the question of a Bernstein analyst ((followed by the rest of the institutional queue) on the basis of it being “uncool”. He said, “We’re going to YouTube [for retail investors]. These questions are so dry. They’re killing me!” If only the Tesla CEO could summon the right type of questions that deflected criticism of the company as easily as maneuvering a parked Model S from a tight parking spot.

While he urged non-believers to sell the stock, there is little to be gained pushing a line of  opacity for a company with production issues, continuing losses and $10.6bn in debt. Earnings results are not about having fun but for investors/analysts to probe and qualify assumptions in the interest of making rational investment decisions.

CM has made constant reference to Musk’s amazing ability to sell. He is coming up to the pointy end of having to deliver. There are countless distractions which perculate below the surface – copyright infringement trial launched by Nikola Motor, the NTSB autopilot probe, countless resignations and recent calls to cut the staff canteen cookies. By blowing off the main investor pool that feeds him, the question of CEO capability becomes a bigger factor than the dreadful earnings themselves.

There is no better disinfectant than sunlight but Musk continues to deflect. Cash flow continues to decline  The production shutdown in April will thump Q2 earnings, not to mention the capex spend should rise plus the write off of equipment that has proven to be surplus to requirements. Here he is talking of 10,000 units a week down the line to fill the hearts of the faithful followers. Perhaps his comments about not needing to raise capital are best addressed by the fact he’s raised 7x since that statement.

Today’s results meeting is more telling in that snake oil salesman tactics of talking up the situation was replaced by silence and stonewalling. Telling.

Cutting back on the Tesla staff cookie tin

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Where have we heard this before? When companies look to tighten the belt, bosses often pat themselves on the back by cutting back on ‘unnecessary expenses’ like staff coffee room biscuits. That somehow over a 12 month period a company hemorrhaging millions has saved $832.67 on cookie cutting. Maybe $1,239.31 on fewer newspaper subscriptions. Well it seems Tesla’s Elon Musk is getting tough on approvals. Well he might especially after claims he doesn’t need a capital raise and made wise cracks about going bankrupt on April fool’s day.

Musk tweeted that his finance team were going to be out to trim back on any expense deemed not vital to the cause. All $1mn approvals must be solely signed off by the CEO himself. Suchnis the extent of ‘production hell’ he has moved to 24-7 shifts to hit his slated targets.

His email also bragged,

It is extremely rare for an automotive company to grow the production rate by over 100% from one year to the next. Moreover, there has simultaneously been a significant improvement in quality and build accuracy…

Indeed it is extremely rare to have auto companies doubling production year over year because most companies never plan to improvise their manufacturing  methods to start with. Toyota doesn’t meet a week before starting a new vehicle build and have a thought bubble. “Tanaka-san, did you get hold of Fanuc to see if they have any spare robots they can install by Friday?” Moreover the quality improvements are also a celebration of dreadful moving to mediocre. These aren’t achievements in any manufacturers book. They’re a candid admission of ‘amateur hour’

Musk continued,

Any Tesla department or supplier that is unable to do this will need to have a very good explanation why not, along with a plan for fixing the problem and present that to me directly. If anyone needs help achieving this, please let me know as soon as possible. We are going to find a way or make a way to get there.”

Seriously? It is a rather frightening prospect now that the CEO, whom took over the production floor several weeks ago, is sending a  crisis stations email to staff and suppliers.

His levels of lashing out of late seem somewhat concerning. Two weeks ago he accused the NTSB of lacking credibility by kicking off Tesla in the investigation panel into the recent death caused of a driver in California who had relied on autopilot Attaking the regulator is never a wise move. Worse, he blamed the driver in response to a lawsuit launched by the deceased’s family claiming he put too much faith in a system he champions as smarter than humans. Which is it?

Musk’s full letter to employees is here but perhaps he should take a lead out of the Riva Aquarama production line book. Carlo Riva built the Ferrari of yachts with excruciating attention to detail. All the different stages of production crew had different coloured jackets on. When looking out his window if he ever saw colours mingling he knew he had a problem.

Musk talks the confidence game but the pressure is bearing down on him. Senior departures, impending court actions and a production system that has been found wanting after such a short period of time that major changes need to be enacted because the original concept was so poorly thought out. So much for sensible factory capex allocation.

Elon Musk also made surprising remarks about the new found existence of sub suppliers. Musk can’t  lick his finger to find the direction of the wind forever. This is rookie level discovery. Frankly shareholders should be very concerned.

Do as I say not as I do

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Tesla’s senior VP of engineering Doug Field has been selling down his stake in the company despite suggesting he’s  insulted by those shorting the stock. Field has sold over $6.5mn in stock since Sep 2015, selling $500k worth in recent months according to filings. Surely any company that has signed off on an incentive package triggered at a $650bn market cap (12x today) would be nuts to sell any of the stock now. Will Musk’s April Fool’s joke about Tesla’s bankruptcy actually become a self fulfilling prophecy? Be careful why you wish for!