Investor's Corner

The epic battle between Elon Musk and the Tesla haters

In a fascinating article in Institutional Investor, Michelle Celarier writes that Tesla [NASDAQ: TSLA] is: “the biggest short in the U.S. market; about 27 percent of Tesla’s free float is short, for a value as high as $10 billion” according to S3 Analytics, a firm that tracks short sales. That said, “the stock has soared more than 1,300 percent since Tesla went public in 2010. It is the first automaker to go public since Ford in 1956, making it one of the darlings of the post-financial-crash bull market.”

Photo credit: Tesla

It turns out that one of the most notorious Tesla shorts is Mark Spiegel. And Spiegel hasn’t even driven a Tesla yet. He says, “I’m more into sports cars.” According to Celarier, “Spiegel has become something of a zealot on Tesla. His small hedge fund, Stanphyl Capital Management, runs a mere $8.5 million, given that it was down 20 percent this year through August. That’s largely due to his short of Tesla, which had gained 74 percent this year, making it the worst-performing short of the year.”

However, there are bigger players out there shorting Tesla. Celarier reports that: “Everyone who’s anyone in Wall Street’s small and clubby world of short sellers has been short Tesla at one point or another… In the past, some of them also shorted Google and Amazon — other high flyers who weren’t making a profit — and somewhat sheepishly [now] admit they were wrong. Clearly, these guys are not dreamers from California’s La La Land, and Musk’s grand plans and his ‘save the world’ ethos can elicit a few eye rolls.”

Another well-known Tesla short, James Chanos of Kynikos Associates, “has been railing against Tesla for at least two years on CNBC and at numerous conferences. He has gone so far as to call Tesla a cult.” Speaking of Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, Chanos proclaims, “People want to believe he’s some sort of visionary… In a milieu of boring people, they think he is changing the world. He’s not boring. He’s somebody they can attach their hopes and dreams to.”

Photo credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

So why does Tesla attract so many arguments on Wall Street? On the one hand, “Looking at its balance sheet, Tesla is [considered] the perfect short. But its pioneering status in an industry facing wrenching technological upheaval, and its charismatic CEO, has won it legions of admirers and turned it into a battleground stock. Sure, Tesla’s lofty stock price makes it a risky buy — but also a perilous short.”

Anger and hope permeate both camps of investors. “Short sellers berate Tesla investors as momentum chasers, tree-huggers, or simply Elon Musk groupies, but these investors have bought into a vision that has already made great leaps toward building a sustainable energy ecosystem — a costly endeavor that has no shortage of well-heeled enemies.”

And while an army of short sellers persist, plenty of Wall Street’s power players remain steadfast Tesla longs: “The biggest holders, aside from Musk, are mutual funds like Fidelity Investments, which has owned the stock since the IPO. With a current 12.8 percent stake (down from a high of 15 percent), the mutual fund giant is the largest institutional investor in Tesla, and portfolio manager Kyle Weaver says Fidelity has a long-term perspective on the company that is playing out largely as expected.”

Tesla fleet lined up outside of the service center in Amsterdam [Photo credit: Teslarati App]

It was the worst short I’ve ever had,” says Whitney Tilson, managing partner of Kase Capital Management, who was short when the stock went from $35 to $205. Last month, Tilson told investors he’s shutting down his funds due to poor performance. Tilson explains, “I can do the numbers and see how much money the company is losing, but you’re short an incredibly maniacally driven CEO, with maniacally driven engineers assaulting the world’s largest industry. If they succeed, Tesla could be a $400 billion market cap company.”“The internal combustion engine is toast long term. It’s game over. The costs of making an internal combustion engine do not go down, while the cost of battery technology has gone down every year,” says Fidelity’s Weaver. “The secular trends that will drive Tesla’s fundamentals are a decades-long trend.” He also applauds Tesla’s environmental mission, “I don’t want to bet against that in an emotional sense.”

Musk is also not afraid to openly attack Wall Street’s short sellers. Let’s not forget, “Musk, who has talked about being bullied as a child, seems to delight in taunting his tormentors. In 2013 he gloated on Twitter, ‘Seems to be some stormy weather over in Shortville these days,'” and once cautioned short sellers that a “tsunami of hurt” was coming in a televised interview.

Celarier writes, “To be sure, a mania surrounds Tesla… [and] betting against Musk is a tough proposition. Tesla has already survived near-bankruptcy events, and Musk has plenty of friends in tech companies with much higher valuations, like Larry Page at Google, that could afford to partner with Tesla or take it over. (Google had struck a handshake deal to buy Tesla during a near-death moment in 2013, according to Vance’s biography.)”

There’s also massive opportunity for Tesla in China: “Earlier this year, China’s Tencent Holdings took a 5 percent stake in Tesla. China is proposing to mandate a zero-emissions standard in 12 percent of new cars by 2020 and is considering letting wholly owned foreign electric-car companies operate there. The Chinese market is expected to be huge, and Tesla is charging ahead there. It is already building a new supercharger network in the country and plans to both build and sell cars there.”

Such realities make shorting Tesla, for all its financial shortcomings, a difficult call. As Tilson puts it, “I don’t want to be short open-ended situations. The tail risk is just too high.”


Note: Article by Matt Pressman, originally published on

Source: Institutional Investor

The epic battle between Elon Musk and the Tesla haters
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