Why Musk wants Tesla to go Private

Tesla CEO Elon Musk blew Wall Street’s mind when, just after the Financial Times reported that the Saudi sovereign wealth fund had invested $2 billion in the company, he tweeted that he was considering taking the 15-year-old company private at $420 per share.

The total value of such a deal would be more than $80 billion, including debt. Musk owns 20% of the company, so on the equity side he’d need to finance something in the $50-billion ballpark.

In an email to employees that appeared after trading in Tesla shares was halted on Tuesday, Musk outlined his thinking and concluded, “Basically, I’m trying to accomplish an outcome where Tesla can operate at its best, free from as much distraction and short-term thinking as possible, and where there is as little change for all of our investors, including all of our employees, as possible.”

Tesla Stock is Incredibly Volatile

Tesla staged an IPO in 2010, and it was relatively modest: the company debuted at $17 and raised just over $250 million.

For years, shares went nowhere. Then, when the Model S sedan arrived in 2012 and won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, the rocket lifted off.

Now, Tesla has a market cap of $60 billion. Last year, it sold 100,000 cars. General Motors is worth billions less. Last year it sold over 10 million cars. Tesla has never made an annual profit. GM has, since its own 2010 IPO following bankruptcy, made more than $70 billion.

This situation means that Tesla represents both a huge bet on the future — and a valuable realm of high-yield speculation. Since the financial crisis, the world has been awash in money. But investors have struggled to find great returns. Tesla has offered one, up over 1,000% since 2010.

The trade-off has been dizzying volatility. For market pros, this is great. For Tesla as it has grown, the volatility been a curse. Stock-market swings can’t be your main product. But the war between Tesla longs and Tesla shorts, for more than six months, has overwhelmed any positive news coming out of the company regarding its vehicles.

Tesla is the World’s most Shorted Stock

Short-sellers are a fact of life in the modern markets. The argument in their favor is that they correct for market inefficiencies, pulling back stocks that have surged too far.

Unfortunately, the intense short interest in Tesla is of the “go to zero” variety. It isn’t like Tesla at $300 per share should fall back to $250 — rather, the balance sheet has to be a breeding ground for bankruptcy.

This incentivizes short-sellers to make increasingly preposterous cases. After Musk’s announcement on Tuesday, his nemesis on the short side, Jim Chanos, commented to CNBC that Musk’s real problem isn’t shorts but impending competition.

Tesla’s existing vehicles compare favorably with their current gas-powered counterparts, and that won’t change when more EVs arrive on the scene. Consumers will simply be able to make true apples-to-apples comparisons.

Musk wants Tesla to be a company, not a Financial Invention

Tesla became a financial battleground when the stock took off in 2013.

At the same time, it has been growing as a company: increased vehicle production, additional factories, new lines of business, M&A activity, and now more than 30,000 employees.

Like most companies, Tesla wants to create compelling products. This it has done. Customers have been widely satisfied, and in many cases completely delighted.

Investors have also been pleased. No long-term Tesla shareholder of any scale is disappointed.

And yet the preoccupation with the stock’s ups and downs dominates the conversation around the company. In 2018, Musk has declared that Tesla will be profitable by some measure, and that’s because he wants to disconnect the company from the expectation that it will continue to use Wall Street as its ATM, even though raising capital by selling shares in a company that’s posted a massive long-term return makes sense.

Tesla, like any company, will need to raise money in the future to fund its expansion. But Musk wants it to do that as a company, not as an endlessly debated financial entity.

Musk has thought about going Private for a while

In an entertaining 2017 Rolling Stone profile by Neil Strauss, Musk revealed his thoughts about Tesla, post-IPO.

“I wish we could be private with Tesla,” he told Strauss. “It actually makes us less efficient to be a public company.”

Musk’s other company, SpaceX, remains private, and Musk has obviously become a student of the contrast between the two.

Tesla has high ambitions for the next five years

If Tesla is going to achieve its objectives through 2023, it’s going to require a massive amount of money.

If its revenue continues to ascend, then at some point it will swing to profitability. But those profits might not be enough to fund stuff like multi-billion factories and new products, such as the Tesla Semi.

So for Tesla, as a public company, every move is closely scrutinized, quarter by quarter. Given its mission — to move the world away from fossil fuels — this is too fractured a time frame. Musk would probably prefer five-year chunks.

As a private company, that expectation could be eliminated.

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