Is Tesla burning cash, or building the future?

Posted on March 28, 2018 by Charles Morris

It’s the question that puzzles pundits and makes short-sellers see red: Why isn’t Tesla broke yet? The company has posted losses almost every quarter since its founding, but not only does it remain in business, it steadily rolls out new products and opens up new markets, as the media cheers and the stock (over the long term) has soared.

Above: Unlike legacy automakers that use third parties, Tesla invests in company-owned stores, service centers, and superchargers (Instagram: sapsi86)

Many have sought an answer to this consequential question - the latest is the Youtube channel The Rest of Us, in a charmingly childlike animated video that explains Tesla’s unique financial model in the simplest of terms.

In short, Tesla isn’t broke because it isn’t running out of cash. Theoretically, losses can continue indefinitely, as long as the kitty is regularly replenished. But where does the cash come from? Some comes from the sale of vehicles - Tesla earns a healthy margin on each car it sells (despite the disingenuous claims of some naysayers), and it sometimes even gets cash in the form of deposits before it even builds a vehicle (a clever financial feat that’s the envy of other automakers).

Above: Exploring the financials at Tesla (Youtube: The Rest of Us)

However, even as Tesla rakes in piles of money from product sales, it shovels out much more. Whence cometh the cash to top up Tesla’s reserves? Some is borrowed (debt financing), but more comes from the stock market (equity financing). Why do investors keep buying shares in a company that perennially loses money? Because savvy investors don’t base their decisions on what a company is doing today, but on its prospects for the future. Tesla is focused on the future like no other automaker, and has steadily invested huge sums to prepare for a future in which it sees huge opportunities.

Many articles about Tesla and other high-flying tech companies use terms such as “burn rate,” which can give the false impression that the cash that’s coming in just disappears, frittered away, heedlessly tossed to the winds, flushed down the...you get the idea.

 

Above: When you hear the term "burning cash" in articles about Tesla, you may envision something like this (Image: The Dark Night via Vincent Paver/Medium)

Back in 2016, Vincent Paver, writing in Medium, made some good points as he explained that, far from throwing its cash in the fireplace, Tesla has invested much of it in capital goods - handy things like factories, machine tools, robots and charging facilities. Paver points out that, at the time of writing, Tesla had “burned” $1.6 billion over the last 12 months, but the book value of its equipment had increased by $2.8 billion over the same period. Other expenditures, such as vehicle development costs and employee training, may not result in tangible bricks-and-mortar assets, but they are also investments, as they allow Tesla to create new products that it can sell for more lovely cash.

Paver concludes that what we have here is not a company that is recklessly flinging away money, but one that is “in a capital-intensive business, and is [investing] substantial but appropriate sums of money on equipment and capacity expansion, tied directly to strong end user demand.”

Above: Tesla continues to invest in the buildout of the largest battery factory in the world, the Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada (Image: Teslarati)

And there you have the real key to why the callow California carmaker hasn’t gone belly-up, and won’t if current trends continue. The demand for Tesla’s products is strong - the backlog of Model 3 orders remains huge, and Models S and X continue to sell at a steady pace. Yes, not being able to produce vehicles fast enough to meet demand is a problem, but the reverse would be much worse. If Tesla’s waiting list disappears, and sales figures start going down, then it will truly be time to worry about the company’s cash flow.

Paver calls Tesla “a rare example of a public company aggressively chasing a market opportunity many multiples greater than its current scale.” Elon Musk’s new compensation plan, which was recently approved by shareholders, envisions the automaker growing to a market cap of $650 billion, which would make Tesla one of the five largest companies in the US. If and when that happens, rest assured that plenty more cash will be burned along the way.

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Written by: Charles Morris

Posted in Elon Musk, Tesla, tesla news, TSLA


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