Investor's Corner

Tesla's battle lines are drawn with retail investors on one side and Wall St on another

(Photo: Andres GE)

There are very few stocks in the market that inspire such volatility as American electric car maker Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA). The company has been on a tear lately, propelled by positive Q4 2019 results and emphasized by an ever-growing number of ardent supporters online. Yet amidst these victories, it appears that Tesla has finally reached a point where the battle lines are now being drawn between the company’s supporters, particularly its retail investors and analysts from Wall Street.

Tesla is a tricky company to evaluate, mainly since it covers several industries. The electric car maker is currently the second-largest automaker in the world by market value, though it only produces and delivers a fraction of the vehicles that veteran car companies sell every year. In 2019, Tesla sold just over 367,000 vehicles. Volkswagen, the third-largest automaker according to market cap, sold over 6 million units

But the Tesla story is never just about the company’s electric cars. A look at Tesla’s mission shows that the company’s goals are bigger than just selling cars and making money doing so. Tesla aims to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainability, and making electric cars that are better than petrol-powered vehicles is but a crucial part of the puzzle. This also means that there are dimensions to the company that lies far beyond that of its electric car business. 

Tesla Solar Roof (Source: Tesla)

It is this last point where the divergence is most evident between Tesla’s supporters and Wall Street analysts. Tesla shareholders, many of whom actually own the company’s products, are intimately familiar with CEO Elon Musk’s overall plans and goals, as well as the scope of the company’s numerous business. Very few of those who own a Model 3, for example, are not aware that Tesla also makes solar roof tiles, or residential batteries like Powerwalls, or grid-scale batteries like Megapacks for that matter. 

Unfortunately, a good number of analysts who cover TSLA stock seem to be stuck under the impression that the company is an automaker, full stop. A look at analysts and critics who frequent media outlets such as CNBC shows that very few actually consider the potential, or even recognize the existence of Tesla Energy, a business that legendary billionaire Ron Baron believes could be just as big as the company’s electric car business. Even fewer acknowledge the value of Tesla’s Autopilot data, which are gathered from real-world miles. 

This could be seen in Wall Street’s estimates on Waymo, a Google-based company aimed at developing and deploying a self-driving service. Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak wrote in a note to clients last year that the startup is worth $105 billion because of its self-driving technology, and that’s a conservative estimate. Before last year’s update, Nowak valued Waymo at a far more optimistic $175 billion. In comparison, Tesla’s current valuation, as of last Friday’s close, stood at $134 billion. That amount included the company’s auto business, its energy business, and its autonomous driving tech. 

Tesla Autopilot (Source: Elon Musk | Twitter)

As is the nature of Tesla stock, the company’s full potential is usually acknowledged and considered only by the company’s most ardent supporters on the Street. So for now, there is very little chance that the perception of Tesla between its retail supporters and traditional analysts will converge anytime soon. This divergence became a focal point in the company’s recent Q4 2019 earnings call, when Elon Musk admitted that retail investors might have a better grasp of the company’s plans than conventional Wall Street analysts. 

“I do think that a lot of retail investors actually have deeper and more accurate insights than many of the big institutional investors and certainly better insight than many of the analysts. It seems like if people really looked at some of the smart retail investor analysts and what some of the smart smaller retail investors predicted about the future of Tesla, you would probably get the highest accuracy and remarkable insight from some of those predictions,” Musk said.

Tesla will likely remain a polarizing company for years to come. That said, Tesla Energy’s ramp is upon the market already, and the company’s Solarglass Roof V3 are now being installed to a growing number of homes in the United States. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system is also closing in on being feature-complete. Overall, it seems that it will only be a matter of time before the true potential of Tesla emerges, and when it does, one would have to deny a whole lot of the company to consider it just as an automaker. 

Disclosure: I have no ownership in shares of TSLA and have no plans to initiate any positions within 72 hours.

Tesla's battle lines are drawn with retail investors on one side and Wall St on another
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