As Tesla’s share price sank below $200 this week, Elon Musk lost one of his most effective levers in keeping the electric-car company motoring.
The group’s stock price has been a powerful competitive weapon for Mr Musk, enabling him to raise large amounts of money relatively cheaply.
But a series of setbacks, from disappointing earnings figures to questions over demand for its electric cars, and a series of fires in its vehicles, have weighed on investors’ sentiment.
Shares are down 40 per cent this year alone, and currently trade close to their lowest level in two and a half years.
“It’s a perfect storm of bad events,” said Galileo Russell, a retail investor who runs the Hyperchange TV YouTube channel and who shot to prominence when Mr Musk called on him during a previous earnings call to ask a series of questions.
“It’s never fun to see your biggest position go down,” Mr Russell told the Financial Times, but said he was “adding more shares this week”.
Like many of Tesla’s loyal fans, Mr Russell said the short-term bumps in the road were worth enduring for the longer-term goal of sparking mass adoption of electric cars.
He pointed out that, even if the carmaker did miss quarterly expectations, deliveries of its vehicles remained three times higher than in 2017, when shares traded at $383 and the company had a bigger market value than Ford.
His optimism, despite a string of bad news for the company, demonstrates the depth of belief that some investors still have in Tesla — and its chief executive — even while Wall Street’s enthusiasm for the upstart carmaker cools.
Two of the company’s previous cheerleader analysts have both downgraded the stock. Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas warned that the shares could fall as low as $10 in a worst-case scenario in which it misses sales expectations in China. Dan Ives at Wedbush cut his price target this week from $275 to $230, saying the company faced a “Kilimanjaro-like uphill climb” to rein in spending.
Shares rose 2 per cent to $195.40 on Thursday, but have lost close to a fifth of their value over the past week.
The mood has been reflected in Tesla’s bonds, which have also slumped over the past week. A $1.8bn bond maturing in 2025 has dropped from over 85 cents on the dollar to just above 80 cents. A $1.8bn convertible bond maturing in 2024, which was issued just this month, has already sunk to 87 cents on the dollar.
Tesla’s tumbling share price means it will be more expensive, and more difficult, the next time the group needs to raise funds.
Last year, Mr Musk made what, in hindsight, was a major misjudgment.
Rather than raise money when Tesla’s stock price was high, a move that could have been seen as a sign of strength, he prematurely declared Tesla financially “sustainable”.
This turned out to be a bold prediction, even by his standards of rainbow-tinted forecasts.
At the time, it seemed Tesla had overcome some its largest financial hurdles, with a profit of $312m in the third quarter, the production kinks for its Model 3 ironed out, and an end to the trend of burning cash.
The first quarter this year saw a sharp reversal, however, with a deeper than expected loss and a $1.5bn reduction in its cash reserves.
Tesla’s decision to raise $2.3bn earlier this month was therefore a tyre-squealing change of direction from his confidence only months earlier.
Mr Musk’s argument, that the move instilled greater financial discipline at the business, failed to wash. Coming just days after poor earnings, it was perceived as reactionary and a sign of weakness.
He tried the patience of investors again with mixed messages over the purpose of the funds. Initially insisting to shareholders it was a “buffer”, he later told staff that the business risked running out of cash.
While the wording allowed both to be true, the contrast left a bad impression.
“It’s like a crisis of confidence,” Mr Ives, the Wedbush analyst, told the FT. “Patience is starting to wear thin among investors. For us, it really started with the earnings.”
At the same time, Tesla’s operating conditions are getting tighter.
Chinese tariffs on US cars will continue to hurt the company until its Shanghai facility is finished, and even then the group will still import some vehicles into China. It is also facing increased competition from the likes of Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes, which are all launching fully-electric vehicles.
While Mr Musk and Tesla hope that these new entrants will increase the size of the cake, there is still the possibility that its own sales will be eroded as people have the option of buying from other carmakers with proven manufacturing capabilities.
“He can’t escape the reality of being a car company, which is that you have to sell enough vehicles to prevent the cash burn,” one former director at the company said of Mr Musk.
“You’re starting to see a white knuckle period ahead,” Mr Ives said. “But if he and Tesla navigate this period successfully, their credibility as a company will be stronger than ever.”
Additional reporting by Joe Rennison