Why Tesla Needs a Recharge

Elon Musk and Tesla’s (NSDQ: TSLA) troubles have continued since I discussed the unconventional CEO’s controversial tweet about taking the electric car maker private. Musk has abandoned his plan after investor push-back and uncomfortable queries from the SEC. The stock price has fallen well below $300 a share.  

Although some CEOs have fun afoul of regulators and Wall Street sentiment before, I don’t recall seeing any other corporate chief create as much public drama as Musk has done.

In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the infamous tweet, he revealed that he made the announcement as he was going to the airport. In the interview, he broke down emotionally, citing “excruciating” stress. None of these statements made investors feel any more confident. So what’s it all mean for Tesla shareholders?

No Buy Out

Less than three weeks after the original tweet, Musk retracted his claim about Tesla going private at $420 a share. For a reason, he said that the majority of shareholders he spoke with prefer the company stay public. He nonetheless insisted that there was enough funding to take the company private. While that could be true, the whole saga just looks bad.

Apparently he was counting on a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund to pony up most or all of the money. The prospect of Saudi money entering the equation raised eyebrows.

In the meantime, the company is under SEC scrutiny and investors have already filed several class action lawsuits. The SEC will probably only end up levying a fine, and the suits will probably be settled, but the whole mess doesn’t help Musk’s or Tesla’s credibility, as this stock price chart shows:

Operationally, Tesla has recently missed another lofty goal set by Musk. He set a production goal of 6,000 Model 3 vehicles per week by late August, but according to a report by a news website dedicated to electric transportation (and also a Tesla shareholder), the company built about 4,300 Model 3s in the final week of August.

For Tesla to reach profitability by the second half of the year, it must reach production goals so that it can sell more cars. But even then, it may not be enough in the long run. According to Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), the company will need $10.5 billion in fresh capital through 2020 to continue operations and meet its growth targets.

Even though Musk insists Tesla doesn’t need to raise more capital, the company will likely eventually need some outside help. Rumors have circulated for years that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) may invest in Tesla or buy the company outright. Warren Buffett, now a major Apple shareholder (5%), has publicly said he thinks that’s a “very poor idea.”

Buffett has made a lot of money bailing out struggling companies, but he prefers companies with stable leadership, hence his opposition to the idea. Ultimately, Apple CEO Tim Cook, not Buffett, holds the power to decide, but Apple doesn’t have a history of making huge acquisitions and this looks like a long shot.

The Cult of Personality

The irony is that even though Musk’s maverick nature has stirred up unnecessary drama for Tesla, many loyal fans own shares because they believe in Musk’s genius.

If Tesla removed him from a leadership position, many shareholders would likely jump ship. Billionaire Musk commands a cult-like following.

Without Musk’s flair and charisma, all you have left is an overvalued company struggling to make money. It would likely not be good for the stock.

Musk probably won’t change his ways very much. He’s now involved in another ugly feud, with a cave diver, and a few days ago he smoked weed on a live interview. The company is compelled to tolerate the bad with the good. But it appears some of Musk’s colleagues have had enough. Two top executives last week announced they will leave the company.

For America to be a global leader in electric vehicles, Tesla needs to play a major role. It’s in our interest as Americans to see the company succeed. But the path to sustainable profitability growth appears to be a tall hill to climb without some outside help. Even after its recent sell-off, TSLA stock still looks too risky.