Tesla Motors will either fly high or crash in 2013 depending on Model S sales
Whether Tesla Motors succeeds or fails will be determined by Tesla Model S sales during 2013. On Thursday, two analysts published pieces giving contradictory views of Tesla's chances of success. The MarketWatch analyst claims the company will need significant additional investment to stay afloat, while the GigaOM analyst more-or-less believes Elon Musk's claim that Tesla will turn the corner in 2013, but says there's another risk that could derail the company's chances even if it executes everything else flawlessly.
Tesla Motors has never had a profitable quarter, and instead has been running a steep deficit with the research & development required to design the Tesla Model S and ramp up production suitable for 20,000 cars a year. This has been costly, and at the end of Q3 FY2013 Tesla had cash and short-term securities of $86 million, down from $280 million at the start of the year. Tesla's total current assets were worth $285 million at the end of the third quarter, down 24% from $373 million at the start of 2012. The remaining cash and dwindling assets would put Tesla into bankruptcy, so the company did another round of financing in October which raised $222 million. To make it worse, Tesla's revenue that quarter was down significantly from the same quarter in 2011.
Using these facts the MarketWatch analyst was able to paint an extremely negative picture of Tesla Motors. And, yes, if Tesla's rate of burning cash remains the same it will run out of money at the moment it runs out of investors willing to keep propping up the company.
For this dismal picture to come true, sales of the Tesla Model S will have to remain at a very low rate. Indeed, Tesla's management claims that in 2013 they'll see rapid a revenue increase due to increasing Model S deliveries and sales. Earlier this month Elon Musk tweeted that Tesla had been cash flow positive for a week in November.
Where the MarketWatch analyst ignores increased Model S sales, the GigaOM analyst uses that as a crucial factoid against the MarketWatch analysis.
Musk has consistently claimed since at least last summer, that Tesla would become cash flow positive on only 8,000 unit sales. Last summer when he said this to the shareholders meeting, the company had over 10,000 reservations (a.k.a. deposits) on Model S orders. Since then the Model S has won several prestigious awards (Automobile of the Year, Car of the Year) which should result in even more sales. The company plans are to manufacture 20,000 Model S's in 2013, and preliminary indications are that by the end of 2012 they will reach the 400 car/week manufacturing rate required to produce 20,000 cars/year.
However, there were supply hiccups earlier in 2012 that caused production delays, meaning that Tesla will miss the targeted production of 5,000 Model S's in 2012 and had to slip the production dates for the 60 kilowatt-hour and 40 kilowatt-hour models by a couple months.
That fact causes the GigaOM analyst to point to a different problem. Namely, that Tesla is "a one product company" making it a significant risk from hiccups (or worse) in the supply chain of that one product, the Tesla Model S. The margin of error at Tesla is so thin that a "hiccup" that halts production could derail the company's financial state very quickly.
What about the Federal lifeline? Won't the Obama Administration step in to help, if needed, given that Tesla is one of the darlings of the Obama green technology revolution vision? Tesla has already tapped out the Dept of Energy loans, and is now in a position of beginning to pay back those loans. For the Obama administration to step in with a new loan would likely mean bringing a proposal to Congress, and as in many things Congress seems opposed to Progress, and is unlikely to approve a new loan program. This means Tesla's further need for cash infusions will have to come from private investors, as it should be anyway. If production and sales ramps up as expected, Tesla is looking pretty good with increasing revenue and more stable finances. If there's a hiccup somewhere along the line, things could turn bad.