Optimism and skepticism about Tesla’s future are in an all-out war. Those who are bullish on the 15-year-old maker of sexy all-electric cars are doubling down on their bullishness and support for CEO Elon Musk.
Those who are bearish are predicting a bankruptcy in the next year, as Tesla burns through its cash and fails to persuade new investors to fund its monumental losses — something like $20 billion for the life of the company.
Tesla, at its base, is an automaker. But unlike other automakers, Tesla is valued like a rapid-growth tech firm and avidly followed by the same enthusiasts who might consider their passions to be social media, fintech, and cryptocurrencies.
Meanwhile, there’s a traditional auto industry that, after being pummeled by the financial crisis, has come roaring back since 2010. The four old-school companies I follow closely — General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and Ferrari — are awash in cash and profits and have been raking it in for literally years.
One salient statistic: GM and Tesla staged initial public offerings in 2010, but since then Tesla has never posted an annual profit, while GM has made over $70 billion.
Shares of GM and Ford have performed poorly relative to the overall markets while Tesla has massively rewarded risk-taking investors. Since its IPO in 2014, FCA has rallied strongly, with shares up almost 275%, and since Ferrari’s spinoff and 2015 IPO, shares of the Italian supercar brand are up 140%.
Those returns have been relatively riskless, while Tesla’s certainly haven’t. And even if you bought Ford and GM expecting better results, both companies have compensated investors with robust dividends and share buybacks.
Tesla bulls will tell you that to properly understand the potential of the company, you have to rearrange your thinking. Musk is a disruptive visionary; the cars are rolling computers.
That’s fine for a jazzy storyline, but Tesla’s struggle isn’t related to its narrative — it’s falling short on fundamentals, such as effectively building a midsize sedan in the Model 3. Any other established carmaker could crank out hundreds of thousands in short order, but Tesla spent a closely watched year trying to manufacture a few thousand per week.
So let’s take a closer look at how Tesla is terrifyingly different from a regular car company.
Tesla vs. GM
There are three major differences between Tesla, which sold 100,000 vehicles last year, and GM, which sold 10 million.
The first is leadership. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, is the best in the business. Her laser focus on maximizing the carmaker’s return on invested capital has yielded quarter after quarter of profits. She’s now arguably the best CEO the company has ever had, surpassing even the mid-20th-century management genius Alfred Sloan.
The second is scale. To sell 10 million vehicles worldwide in a year, you have to be good at building them. What Tesla considers an ambitious production target of 5,000 Model 3s a week at its single factory in California (ironically, once jointly operated by GM and Toyota, another global juggernaut) is a rounding error to GM. It could have achieved and surpassed Tesla’s oh-so-obsessively monitored objectives in a few months at most.
The third is speed. Everybody thinks Tesla is a fast-company Silicon Valley operation, but the carmaker is, in fact, agonizingly slow. It has been years between reveals of new vehicles and their appearance in the market. The Model 3 is no exception. A mid-2017 launch led to just a few thousand cars delivered by the end of the year.
GM, on the other hand, revealed and launched its Chevy Bolt long-range electric vehicle in about a year, start to finish. It has been on sale in the US since the fall of 2016. And nobody obsessively followed its rollout — it just … happened. Right on schedule.
Tesla vs. Ford
With a management shakeup last year that led to the ouster of CEO Mark Fields and his replacement with a more visionary personality in Jim Hackett, Ford has clearly been looking to emulate Tesla’s Wall Street-attractive story.
But Ford also makes the best-selling vehicle in the US, the F-150 pickup truck. This thing can be mass-produced in absolutely staggering volumes and has been selling nearly 1 million units annually. And though it isn’t priced anywhere near what Tesla charges for its Model S and Model X luxury vehicles, the F-150 throws off huge profit margins.
The F-150 can witness sales dips, but for the most part, it’s nearly an invulnerable product. Ford can always count on it, like an insurance policy.
Tesla, by contrast, has probably topped out in its luxury segment and now faces a potentially impossible stunt: sell hundreds of thousands of electric sedans to a market that has shown limited interest in EVs (they’re only 1% of the global market) and that doesn’t want sedans.
The four-door is dying. FCA has given up on them in the US, and Ford is heading in that direction. GM is likely to make the shift in the next year. Ferrari doesn’t sell them.
Tesla has promised to bring a crossover SUV, the Model Y, to market in the next few years, but at the moment it has no place to build the vehicle. That leaves Tesla trying to make the Model 3 into its F-150. And that’s just not going to happen.
Tesla vs. FCA
Like Tesla, FCA has an outspoken CEO in Sergio Marchionne. But unlike Elon Musk, Marchionne is an accountant by training and understands the biggest risks to a carmaker: debt and cash burn.
Since taking over Chrysler after a government bailout and bankruptcy, Marchionne has focused on making the Jeep brand a profit-minting beast and maintained the Ram pickup brand’s No. 3 market position behind Ford and Chevy/GMC.
That has generated the cash flow needed to pay down FCA’s debt and bolster the carmaker’s cash balances. It’s actually not that complicated. Marchionne inherited a ruined balance sheet, but one that was getting a fresh start. And he has done what’s needed to transform it into a fortress.
Over the past two years, FCA shares have outperformed Tesla shares by 200% — so which was the better “growth” investment? (That outperformance took place even after FCA spun off Ferrari, which represented a huge chunk of value in the company.)
The big difference between Tesla and FCA is that the former has been run like a Silicon Valley casino that has somehow staved off functional insolvency thanks to treating Wall Street like an ATM, while the latter has been run like the tightest ship in the industry, based primarily on well-defined financial goals that have all been met.
If you were looking for a CEO to run Tesla in the event that it, too, goes bankrupt and Musk is deposed, Marchionne would be first on your list.
Tesla vs. Ferrari
As it turns out, Marchionne is also CEO of Ferrari, but the contrast between the Italian carmaker and Tesla owes more to the similarity between the companies than to leadership differences.
Ferrari, like Tesla, is a brand built on a story, and for Ferrari, that story is racing. Yes, Ferrari has sold plenty of road cars since the middle of the 20th century, and it has sold them for a lot of money. But at its core, Ferrari is about winning Formula One races.
That mission has been pursued with absolute concentration. The F1 car for a given year is, ultimately, the only Ferrari that really matters. There is no business case for the expensive road cars without it.
Tesla, on the other hand, has a Ferrari-like portfolio of vehicles in terms of size — three cars coming out of the Tesla factory versus five for Ferrari. There’s also a vision, though, unlike Ferrari’s, it isn’t predicated on winning races, but rather Musk’s desire to hasten humanity’s exit from the fossil-fuel era and to mitigate climate change.
Tesla, unfortunately, isn’t modeling itself on Ferrari, which would be logical. Instead, it’s aiming to become GM or Toyota, producing cars at a gigantic scale. Tesla’s core business, luxury vehicles, shares Ferrari’s sexiness and preoccupation with performance.
Tesla is larger, of course — Ferrari sells fewer than 10,000 cars a year — but Tesla vehicles are also far less expensive. An entry-level luxury Tesla is under $100,000, while the cheapest Ferrari is $200,000.
Musk would like to be half Ferrari, half GM, but this is an impossible circle to square. The tragedy is that as Ferrari talks about going electric, Tesla is already there. The problem is that the CEO simply can’t accept that destiny.