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Tesla Management: Confident Or Clueless?

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk is widely seen as having the Midas touch, especially after yesterday’s earnings report. He had a long run with Tesla a few years ago when the company surprised everyone by being able to meet his lofty ambitions, but then it seemed like the company hit a rough patch as it started coming up short quite a bit. Now much of Wall Street seems pleased with Tesla management and the company’s ability to deliver despite the delivery miss that turned some sour on the company early last month.

Did they both listen to the same earnings call?

However, last night’s earnings call has brought up two entirely different viewpoints of Tesla management and especially Elon Musk. One side came away feeling that he was extremely confident in his company and his ability to deliver despite the extremely lofty goals he has set, while the other suggests that he was acting somewhat clueless.

Usually when you have two such polar opposite viewpoints, the reality is actually somewhere in between, a mix of both of them. But these views of Tesla management are so opposite that it’s worth asking whether they were even listening to the same earnings call, although they were, of course.

Tesla management was “very confident”: DB

Deutsche Bank analyst Rod Lache paints a picture of Tesla management and Musk that we’re used to hearing, which is one of confidence. He described them as being “very confident in their level of preparedness/ability” to achieve the production targets they had set for the Model 3.

Tesla management aims for 1,500 vehicles in the third quarter and then 5,000 each week at some point in the fourth quarter and 10,000 per week by late next year. He notes that although these targets aren’t new, they’re still a lot higher than what he had been assuming, which was 15,800 Model 3 cars this year and then 250,000 next year.

Lache also described Tesla management as confident in their ability to reach a 25% gross margin on the Model 3 within a few months of the 5,000-unit per week mark. He noted that combining higher margins with a faster production ramp should have very significant positive implications for the company’s cash flow.

Acting like a CEO of a massive public firm

At the other end of the spectrum are Therese Poletti and Jeremy Owens of MarketWatch, and when you really look at their viewpoint, you start to wonder how everyone else sees Musk as being a confident superstar. However, the reality is probably that Tesla management is somewhere between these two views, as already mentioned.

Poletti and Owens’ advice for Musk is that he’s CEO of a $53 billion public company and he needs to start acting like it. In their view, “he sounded more like a startup founder with no hope of getting funded” on the earnings call last night.

One thing I reported on previously was the fact that he had told reporters before the Model 3 handover party that they had taken 500,000 reservations for the car, but one analyst said a Tesla spokesperson would not verify that beyond admitting that he had said it. Naturally, this issue came up on the earnings call last night, and when pressed, he admitted that he did give that number to reporters but also that it was inaccurate. He explained that they had received 518,000 reservations, but net reservations now stand at around 455,000 because of cancellations. However, Musk said that he doesn’t see this as having “much materiality.”

The MarketWatch reporters note that it’s the SEC that decides materiality and not Musk, when it comes to deciding whether he made a material statement that was inaccurate. Regulators have already taken aim at the automaker within the last year, and you can bet that something like this will trigger a lawsuit, whether or not such a suit has any basis in reality. As they noted, it’s up to the SEC to decide what statements matter and what don’t.

They also drew attention to comments he made on the conference call when he corrected himself about their design plans for the Model Y. They said many thought the Model Y would be made at a different factory, resulting in a significant increase in costs for manufacturing, but Musk said instead that it will be made “using a substantial carryover from Model 3 in order to bring it to market faster.”

There’s no denying that Tesla management and Musk especially are extremely smart, but the SEC is certainly not keen on anyone who makes inaccurate comments on a regular basis. At this point, investors are still “hypnotized” by him, as David Einhorn has said on more than one occasion, so that’s making them much more forgiving, for now anyway, but regulators probably aren’t under his thrall.

Tesla shares rose by as much as 6.5% to $347.46 on Thursday.

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