In honor of Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) approaching new highs, I went back to a Aswath Damodaran and I wrote in early 2014. At that time, we were trying to explain the run-up in Tesla’s stock price for the 30s to over $250. We failed. We found that the most optimistic Discounted cash flow (DCF) model that we could defend did not lead to a value exceeding $100. To get to that level we had to make aggressive assumptions regarding growth in revenues and profits. How aggressive? By 2016, we projected that Tesla would have revenue of about $7 billion and operating profit of about $200 million. Those projectsions rose to $11.5 billion in revenue and $450 million in operating profit in 2017.
In fact, Tesla Inc’s actual revenue in 2016 was $7 billion, close to our projection, but the company’s had an operating loss of $667 million. Despite the introduction of the new Model 3, the company is almost certain to lose money again in 2017.
All this has had no effect on the stock price. Elon Musk’s TSLA today, from a valuation standpoint, is Tesla 2014 all over again. The value depends on the massive and profitable future growth. This waiting for Godot type of valuation is not unique to TSLA. Amazon, now more than thirty years old, still trades at a P/E of over 170 based on future growth expectations that have continued to ramp up over time despite the relatively low level of earnings and earnings growth. But Tesla Inc is not Amazon, it is primarily an automobile manufacturer and as such has to make cars profitably and in volume. That is not something that can be postponed indefinitely a la Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com. By December, we should finally know where Tesla Inc stands.