Tesla EV Of $70 Billion Is Heading To Zero: Stanphyl Capital

Mark Spiegel’s Stanphyl Capital had a killer year up close to 31% in 2016 and some small caps are up several hundred percent– see below for an excerpt on Tesla Inc (TSLA) from their June 2017 letter. But first… although he is known as Elon Musk’s number one enemy, Mr. Spiegel makes most of his money from killer small cap picks. His under the radar small caps which could pop just based on this piece (if we discussed it publicly) were profiled in ValueWalk’s 2nd edition of our quarterly premium newsletter. Below is an excerpt on Tesla stock.

Also see:  Tesla Tax Incentives: When Will The Federal Credit Start To Wind Down?

Specific to Tesla, the size of our short position has ranged anywhere from approximately 2% of the fund (when I first put it on in the high $90s back in 2013) to as much as 1/3 of the fund more recently, when—in my judgement– the stock’s price went from “crazy” to “insane” and Tesla became “the greatest fundamental individual stock short opportunity I’ve ever seen.” However, despite my strong belief that Tesla is still “the greatest fundamental individual stock short opportunity I’ve ever seen,” in mid-June I drastically reduced the position size to a range of approximately 5% to 15% of AUM (depending upon technicals and news flow) and– despite the company’s ongoing disastrous fundamentals– shall only upsize the position (as a percentage of AUM) upon the appearance of what I judge to be “company killing” news; i.e., a major fraud indictment, a major safety recall accompanied by clear evidence of a company cover-up, a disastrous Elon Musk-related item, etc. Furthermore, if I happen to judge such news as “company killing” and yet the stock shows technical strength in the face of it, I shall again drastically reduce the position size. In other words, as a fundamental investor I’ve always adhered to the old adage to “respect the technicals but not defer to them,” but going forward with Tesla I shall defer to them…

Why haven’t I done this continually? Because Tesla isn’t a typical short position that I expect to decline “linearly”; rather, it’s a land-mine filled story-stock that could literally be cut in half overnight when one of those mines detonate and I’ve wanted to be sure to be there “in large size” when that happens. Well now we’ll be somewhat less likely to be there “in large size,” but if the equity component of Tesla is truly the “zero” that I strongly believe it is, there will still be plenty of money to be made in 100% downside from a stock that’s already been cut in half…
Many people have said to me “You’re 100% right about Tesla but it’s un-shortable.” Well, they’re all “un-shortable” on the way up! And as someone running a fund much larger than this one said recently: “If you wouldn’t short Tesla, what would you short?” This is a long-short fund and unfortunately during the latter stages of a bubble (when we swing from a long bias to a short one, as we’ve done now) we may go through this kind of pain prior to coming out successfully on the other side. I thus hope you’ll stick with me as I work to turn things around. And now onto the fund’s positions.

As noted at the introduction to this letter, we remain short shares of Tesla, Inc. (TSLA), this bubble-market’s largest individual bubble, as well as the operator of what may be the world’s least efficient car factory which—according to new insurance industry data– produces cars that crash 37% more often than those of its competitors with overall losses that are 124% higher!

What else happened lately with Tesla? Well, there was this Tweet from Musk, endlessly repeated in the breathless fanboy media:

Having hinted in December that those same future Superchargers would be at least 350kw, let’s do some basic math: in sunny areas a highly efficient solar array generates an average of around 5 watts per square foot net over eight hours a day (assuming 9 watts peak and considerably less non-peak). This means that to run just one 350kw charger for eight hours a day would require 350,000/5= 70,000 square feet of solar cells, and to store enough power to run that charger the other 16 hours a day you’d need to triple that to 210,000 square feet, then add in 10% more for storage efficiency loss, thereby upping the requirement to 231,000 square feet. Thus, if this mythical Musk Supercharger station had six connections (the Tesla average) at 100% utilization, it would require approximately 1,386,000 square feet = 32 acres (!) of solar cells (plus room for all the batteries). And the cost? Well, existing grid-connected Supercharger stations seem to average around $350,000 each, so let’s start with that. Then add the necessary 6.3mW of solar capacity (350kW chargers x 6 x 3)  @ $1.25/watt = $7.9 million, plus 33,600kWh of battery storage (350kw chargers x 6 x 16 hours/day) @ $250/kWh = an additional $8.4 million. So Tesla’s cost of each “disconnected” Supercharging station would soar from $350,000 to almost $17 million! Even if you cut the solar and battery capacity by 1/3 (assuming significantly less utilization), the per-station cost would still be over $11 million! Anyone who can’t see that Tesla’s CEO is full of shit (pardon my French!) is just a sucker at his poker table.

Also in June yet another Tesla “Head of Autopilot” departed (the second in six months). This apparently occurred nearly simultaneously with the departure of three other key people on the team and followed the escape of the “Head of Autopilot Hardware.” But then if you saw this (watch from 11:30) or this (watch from 3:35) video of the latest system, you’d understand why they’d depart before more Tesla drivers become “dearly departed.”

As for June’s “Tesla China factory” rumors (i.e., the search for a local JV partner to share half its losses), here’s a great story that puts it all in perspective.

Then there was this hilarity (headline below), further proving that Elon Musk is simply allergic to businesses that make money:

And finally in June we learned that when you own shares of Tesla you’re investing with a CEO who jokes about Tweeting while mixing red wine and Ambien. It’s unclear whether this was “outright joking” or “confession time”; however, here are some Tweets (read them from the bottom up) from just two days ago– you decide:

Despite all the above-noted craziness, Tesla’s stock was up 6% in June (69% year to date) even though in May it reported a disastrous Q1 2017, with an operating loss of $258 million and a net loss of $330 million, while the market for its luxury EVs (Models S&X) is clearly saturated even before the arrival of next year’s competition from Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes:

Q3 2016 deliveries: 24,821

Q4 2016 deliveries: 22,252

Q1 2017 deliveries: 25,051

Q2 2017 deliveries: 24,000 (estimate)

In fact, Q2 2017 (the quarter ending June 30th) was headed for a much worse sales comp vs. the previous three quarters (and may still be, thanks to the disappearance of a major tax break in Hong Kong) when in a mid-April move of desperation Tesla slashed the price of the Model S75 by $7500 to $69,500 and in mid-May brought back free lifetime Supercharging for buyers with (easily found) “referral codes.” (Say hello to an instant 2% margin hit for that one!) Want to know how desperate Tesla is to move metal (and lithium)? Here’s a deal someone was just offered (on June 24th) for $10,300 off a BRAND NEW inventory car (a $9300 “adjustment” plus a $1000 “referral credit”) plus an additional $5000 off for deactivating the (so-called) “Advanced Autopilot.” (There’s much more about that technological abortion elsewhere in this letter.) To protect the salesperson (it’s not his fault he works for a CEO who swears they don’t discount new cars for “anyone”), I’ve removed the specific location and serial #:

And here’s a screenshot of a lot more brand new inventory from earlier this week; the starting discount is in the 2nd column from the right:

And here’s a new Seeking Alpha article about even heavier discounting! Considering that in Q1 COGS per car sold (not leased) would have been approximately $83,000 at an ASP of approximately $108,000 if adjusted for Autopilot revenue deferred from Q4 and the re-introduction of lifetime free Supercharging, it seems pretty clear that Tesla is now selling lots of Models S & X hoping only to make a small gross margin via the options. This does not bode well for the Model 3, which will supposedly start at $35,000. (I discuss this in greater depth below.)

And remember, in April Tesla’s “Supercharger moat” was definitively drained when Electrify America announced a charging network that will be both larger and faster. So the sole advantage Tesla had (easier but still klugey long-distance travel) over myriad soon-to-arrive competition will soon be gone.

And how did Tesla energy storage do in Q1? (Because, you know, Tesla is really a battery company!) How about total revenue of $5.2 million (down 76% year over year!) at a double-digit negative gross margin? How’s that for “crazy off the hook”! And in May Tesla’s battery cell supplier Panasonic (that’s right, Teslarians: Tesla doesn’t make its own batteries) announced that it’s going all out to supply its batteries and electric car design skills and components to all comers. Of course none of this has stopped Tesla from continuing to promote the “energy narrative” by introducing glass solar roofing tiles (a previously failed product for multiple others) with a nonsensical financial analysis that I was happy to debunk on Seeking Alpha while others debunked the product itself. And then a story in June uncovered that last October’s solar roof tile debut was a complete fake, designed solely to push through approval for the SolarCity merger and apparently there’s very little happening at the factory where these tiles will allegedly be mass-produced.

Of course the “bright shiny object” now for Tesla shareholders is the “$35,000 mass-market Model 3” (with an estimated ASP of $43,000), and yet Tesla’s normalized gross margin of around 23% (for non-leased vehicles) on cars selling for an ASP of approximately $108,000 reinforces my old Seeking Alpha article’s claim that a $35,000 base-priced Model 3 can only happen at a massive per-car loss. A new report from UBS agrees, although it optimistically thinks a high-volume, well-optioned Model 3 may break even at $41,000. Although I think UBS is optimistic, for the sake of argument I was willing to assume it was correct and wrote an article for Seeking Alpha incorporating that information to explain why Tesla’s current $1 billion annualized operating loss will still worsen in 2018. Rather than repeating that explanation here, please do read the article.

Additionally, Model 3 sales (regardless of its profit margin) are likely to disappoint. In fact, I expect mass reservation cancellations to occur when the $7500 tax credit runs out by mid-2018. Just have a look at the Model 3 equipment level (compared to, say, a Honda Accord) and (in a new spyshot posted by the Tesla shills at its incredibly cheap looking, glued-on iPad-like dashboard (with no gauges or head-up display):

Meanwhile, 2017 crash tests by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety show the Model 3’s big brother the Model S (proclaimed by Musk to be “the world’s safest car”), falling short of a safety rating awarded to 42 other cars while analysis of data from the state of California showed that its autonomous driving system was statistically far behind most of the competition’s. Then the excellent investigative journalists at Daily Kanban proved that the videos Tesla put out promoting its new autonomous system were hugely deceptive. (And as noted earlier, most of the key people have left the program.) Then in May we learned that the CPU in Tesla’s hardware suite may be incapable of full autonomy despite Tesla charging $8000 up-front for that “future capability.” (Hello, “future class action lawsuit”!) Current Teslas also have no LIDAR and yet experts universally say LIDAR is required for full autonomy. So have a look at the “Autonomous Driving” links a few pages below (as well as the new video links earlier in this letter) and tell me how anyone with a brain in his head could seriously think Tesla is ahead of the rest of the industry in safe autonomy. Tesla also now faces significant class action lawsuits for sudden acceleration, and defective regenerative braking, as well as a slew of Model X lemon-law lawsuits. And how about all that great Tesla IP because, you know, it’s really a “technology company”? Oops… what IP?

And what about the Gigafactory? Battery production is a mostly automated, modular process with few economies of scale beyond a size much smaller than “Giga”. Seeking Alpha published a terrific article about this specific to Tesla and soon Chinese producers will match or beat any price coming from the Gigafactory as China builds a vast number of new battery factories; in other words, watch out for a looming oversupply. And in June Audi revealed that its battery cost (probably at the cell level) for the long-range EVs it’s rolling out in 2018/19 is only around 100 euros per kWh, which may be significantly less than Tesla’s cost due to older “take or pay” commitments Panasonic demanded before installing its equipment in the Gigafactory.

Meanwhile Tesla faces an onslaught of competition in all facets of its business. (Note: these links are updated monthly.) First, here are the competing cars…

And in China…

Here’s the competition in autonomous driving…

Here are the competing car batteries…

Here are the competing storage batteries…

(And by the time the lithium-ion Gigafactory is completed, it will not only be an oversized white elephant but may be obsolete, as “Argonne Settles On The Two Most Promising Successors To Lithium-ion Batteries” and the guy who invented the lithium-ion battery has now invented something better.)

And here are the competing charging networks…

Yet despite all that deep-pocketed competition, perhaps you want to buy shares of Tesla because you believe in its management team. Really???

I’ve argued for a while that the “Tesla love/loyalty” one reads about on the forums (“Even though my Tesla is in the shop a lot I’ll never go back to a regular car!”) and in the Consumer Reports owner survey is really “EV loyalty/EV love”—in other words, many people like the instant torque and quietness of their EV drivetrains, not necessarily the fact that their frequently repaired cars happen to come from Tesla equipped with the interior “luxury level” of a 1990s Acura. Here’s a recent study from McKinsey supporting this:

So when the Germans (Audi, Mercedes and Porsche) and Jaguar roll out their 300-mile luxury EVs beginning in 2018 they’ll capture a lot of Tesla owners who love Tesla’s driving experience but not its reliability or interior, especially as fear grows that Tesla’s cash bleed means it may not be around to honor the eight-year drivetrain warranty that those “reliability issues” force it to provide. (Tesla’s Model X has been a quality-plagued disaster, with Consumer Reports in November giving it an overall rating of 59 on a scale of 100—tied for worst among 16 competing vehicles in its class.)

In addition to its quality problems, the X’s multi-thousand-dollar premium to a comparable Model S sedan has helped result in hugely disappointing sales, as nearly all the luxury competition prices its premium SUVs considerably less expensively than its premium sedans. For instance, the most basic “X” with no options and a warm-weather range of just 237 miles (well under 200 miles in cold weather) starts at $82,500 with only five seats standard. By comparison, the Porsche Cayenne starts at $60,600, the Audi Q7 at $49,000, the BMW X5 at $56,600, the Volvo XC-90 at $45,750, the Jaguar F-Pace at just $41,990 and the seven seat Mercedes GLS at $68,700, and all those vehicles average more than twice the range of the Tesla with far more flexible refueling capabilities for long trips. And as noted earlier, the upcoming pure electric “crossovers” from Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes are all expected to price at least $15,000 cheaper than the least expensive Model X.

Meanwhile, the heretofore revered Model S is now on the Consumer Reports “Used Cars to Avoid” list with “much worse than average reliability” (although the new models have improved to “average”). On the bright side though, Tesla owners get to make lots of new friends at their local service centers, assuming they don’t mind the month-long wait times for an appointment.

So in summary, Tesla is losing a massive amount of money even before it faces a huge onslaught of competition (and things will only get worse once it does), while its market cap now exceeds those of Ford and GM despite a billion-dollar annualized operating loss selling just 100,000 cars while Ford and GM make billions of dollars selling 6.6 million and 9 million cars respectively. Thus this cash-burning Musk vanity project is worth vastly less than its nearly $70 billion fully-diluted enterprise value and—thanks to its roughly $8 billion in debt—may eventually be worth “zero.”