You know everybody loves Tesla-the-company. But did you know that a whole lot of smart people hate Tesla-the-business? “From a return-on-investment-capital standpoint, Tesla is a catastrophe.” “The electric-car maker has been burning money at a clip of about $8,000 a minute (or $480,000 an hour.)” “Tesla is losing a massive amount of money with no competition, and yet massive competition is coming.”
Jim Chanos summarized all of the reasons why nicely: “If you wouldn’t be short a multi-billion-dollar loss-making enterprise in a cyclical business, with a leveraged balance sheet, questionable accounting, every executive leaving, run by a CEO with a questionable relationship with the truth, what would you be short? It sort of ticks all the boxes.” A lot of people think bankruptcy looms in Tesla’s future. Of course, Tesla bears have been saying this for years, and they’ve consistently been wrong — but this time, are they right?
Maybe; maybe not. Either way, a far more interesting question, if (like me) you have no financial interest in the business’s success or failure, is: does it matter?
I’m entirely serious. We tend to assume that a company’s purpose is to make money for its shareholders, or at least “not go bankrupt,” because money is how we measure success. And this is in fact true of most companies. But it is not true of Tesla. “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” and this is as true of money as it is of any other measure. The purpose of Tesla is not to make money; it is to pioneer fleets of smart mass-market electric cars, and the infrastructure to support them, and battery technology which is not limited to cars. Making money is ancillary.
And whether or not they are making money, they are succeeding at their purpose. They are building the world’s largest factory — in fact, the world’s largest building; it’s still under construction, but parts of it are already up and running. They all but own the luxury electric car market, and are on course to dominate the mass market as well, while also manufacturing power packs.
I’m sure Elon Musk would like to do this while turning a sweet profit. Which is of course also, technically, his fiduciary duty. But if he fails to do so, is that really so tragic? For those of us who aren’t shareholders or bondholders, I mean. (Don’t you worry about Elon, he won’t be missing any meals.)
Maybe it wasn’t even possible to do so — in which case Musk will have used the capital markets to essentially subsidize Tesla with free money. (And, interestingly, open-source the resulting patents.) In which case, you know what, more power to him for managing to fund a loss-making investment in what is not so much a car company as it is infrastructure for our shared future.
After all, even if Tesla stock goes to zero, and its bonds default to pennies-on-the-dollar, its factories and software repositories and human capital will all be there, and no Chapter 11 court or committee will be blind to the fact that they’re worth far more as a coherent unit than they would be as separate assets. The analogy I like to draw is that of the Channel Tunnel, which was privately dug and built, and a complete financial debacle for its investors — “a wonderful thing from which we’ve all benefited, apart from the people who paid for it to be built who lost substantially all their money.”
That quote may yet apply to Tesla. Does it sound unfair to stockholders and bondholders? Not at all: this is capitalism in action, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But if you’re not a stockholder, and not a bondholder, maybe don’t worry so much about headlines screaming about Tesla’s financial unviability. This time, for once, the rest of us win either way.