Once again the question of ‘what’s the limit?’ when it comes to Tesla’s valuation and ambitions remains unanswered. In the days since Elon Musk talked about the clean transportation and energy company’s future at its annual shareholder meeting, the stock rocketed nearly 5% to a new record.
Those exciting plans – an electric semi-truck; a new plant to make the Model Y crossover, built from a completely new platform; thousands more company-owned stores and service centers; a vastly larger Supercharger network; and up to 20 Gigafactories – mean tens of billions of dollars in new investment will be needed by a company already saddled with pricey capital expenditures.
Bullish shareholders and a number of equity analysts remain upbeat on Tesla’s growth potential, so much so that there seems to be little concern the company’s endless need for funds keeps pushing any shot at profitability farther into the future.
“From its beginning Tesla has always been seeking more capital, so much so it’s been on the razor’s edge at times,” Ed Kim, a long-time industry analyst for AutoPacific in Tustin, California, told Forbes. “That’s not going to stop. In fact, it looks like it’s going to continue to be integral to the company culture.”
Tesla closed at $370 on June 8, its highest ever, and capped a 73% gain since the start of the year. Its market capitalization stands at nearly $62 billion, well ahead of considerably larger General Motors or Ford on that basis. Those century-old automakers had global vehicle sales of more than 9 million units and 6.6 million units, respectively, in 2016, while Tesla delivered fewer than 80,000.
“Its valuation is crazy high because investors see so much potential in Tesla. One of the ways to continue to keep that valuation high is to keep talking about the future and unveil ever more grandiose plans,” Kim said. “It basically keeps pushing the message: “We’re going big. We practically own the future.”
The stock’s spike has also once again ginned up activity by short investors, a common target of Musk’s wrath. Currently, Tesla is the most shorted stock, according to a report by S3 Partners. “These guys want us to die so bad they can taste it,” he said in a Tweet on Thursday.
Tesla’s wild ride from Silicon Valley garage startup in the early 2000s to a global benchmark for electric cars has been powered as much by the billions of dollars raised in stock and debt sales as Musk’s intoxicating vision for the future.
It’s also approaching an important milestone with the release of the $35,000 Model 3 sedan, Tesla’s first widely affordable electric car, in about a month. That product has been a central goal for Musk since he laid out Tesla’s Master Plan in 2006.
Yet at both the annual meeting in Mountain View, California, this week, and on Tesla’s earnings call in May, he seemed to temper expectations for the car. He again reminded listeners that the Model S will always be a much nicer Tesla, and noted that order configurations for Model 3, at least initially, will be limited to color and wheel size.
He also noted that the Model Y, coming in two to three years, will be better. “I am really excited about Model Y,” Musk said this week. “We are aiming for that to hit the roads in 2019, approximately. And probably the demand for Model Y will exceed the demand for Model 3.”
He also talked up the Tesla Semi that will be shown in September, without detailing its pricing, production timing and range per charge.
“A lot of people don’t think you can do a heavy-duty long-range truck that’s electric, but we are confident that this can be done,” Musk said. However, the prototype has been shown “to a number of the organizations that buy heavy-duty trucks and they all love it. They just want to know how many can they buy and how soon.”
The biggest expense on Musk’s to-do list for Tesla is a plan to eventually build as many as 20 Gigafactories to make lithium-ion batteries and other components. The first one, a sprawling $5 billion facility near Reno, Nevada, though partially completed is supplying battery packs.
“In terms of how many factories are in the works, we’re really giving serious consideration to three factory locations right now, but we’re going to try to keep our powder dry until we’re confident of the locations and the timing,” Musk told a rapt audience. “Ultimately, there’s at least 10 of these around the world and maybe as much as 20.”
Barring setbacks, Musk wants those plants to be revolutionary. He’s talked of a fully robotic production system that will make Tesla a manufacturing gold standard in quality and efficiency. In advance of that, he also intends to have the company’s factories building vehicles at a rate of one million per year by 2020 – up from about 100,000 units of production this year.
Few CEOs can excite customers and shareholders about the future in quite the way Musk does, and it’s clear he understands the power of his brand.
What’s unclear is whether investors will ever tire of potential and begin to demand profit. – Written by Alan Ohnsman, FORBES STAFF