Investor's Corner

Concerns about Tesla’s (TSLA) alleged ‘demand problem’ are likely overblown

The past few months have not been kind to Tesla stock (NASDAQ:TSLA). Following the company’s lower-than-expected production and delivery figures from the first quarter, the negative narrative surrounding Tesla has gone on overdrive. At the forefront of this is a thesis that the electric car maker’s critics have been pushing: Tesla has a demand problem.

This particular point has spread like wildfire, particularly over the past few weeks. Analysts that recently downgraded TSLA stock would reference weak demand for the Model 3, and bears would echo the same assumption during segments in mainstream media. While this narrative is compelling in the way that it appears to be a foreshadowing of Tesla’s eventual demise, the demand problem thesis is at best inaccurate and at worst flat-out wrong, simply because one can’t base a thesis in one data point.

TSLA investor @Incentives101, an economist with a background in macro research, notes that there is a considerable misconception surrounding Tesla’s Q1 results and how it relates to the demand for the company’s electric cars. In a conversation with Teslarati, the investor explained that while it is easy to make assumptions based on Tesla’s Q1 2019 figures, there is simply not enough data to accurately and responsibly forecast Model 3 (and in extension, Model S and X) demand. Tesla’s Q1 2019 data is nevertheless useful, as it reveals a series of factors that could shed light on what is happening to the electric car maker.

Tesla Gigafactory 1, where Model 3 battery cells are produced. (Photo: Tesla)

Shocks, Backlogs, and Demand

The economist notes that demand shocks could be transitory or permanent. Taxes, for example, normally have a permanent effect and natural disasters have a transitory one. But these shocks have different effects over time depending on whether a shock is sudden or expected. Understanding how demand normally reacts to these shocks is very important, as it provides clues at what could be expected to make informed assumptions about Q1. When a shock such as a federal tax credit reduction comes, for example, its effect happens in three stages — given that consumers knew it was coming. Before the shock hits, demand generally increases (pulling demand), followed by a period where demand decreases by more than what could be considered a new equilibrium. Following these is another period where demand increases to reach a new equilibrium. Q1 most likely was the worst part of the second stage.

The backlog of Model 3 reservations was primarily used as a point against Tesla by critics, with an assumption suggesting that there will be no demand for the vehicle after the company clears out its initial batch of reservations. The economist argued that while Tesla’s backlog is widely believed to be a factor impacting demand, such a factor would likely not be relevant in the bigger picture. “Given the characteristics of auto demand (it recycles constantly, consumers preferences are well understood, and trends are clear) a ‘backlog’ has the same effect as a natural disaster if you really want to compare it to something. If the backlog happens at the same time as a tax shock or other shocks, it just exacerbates the move. The duration of the shock could be discussed, but in the end, the effect of the backlog is just irrelevant,” the investor said.

Tesla faced a number of shocks in the US auto market in recent months, and these could be translated into inaccurate assumptions. Among these are negative shocks such as the reduced federal tax credit, the “end” of the Model 3 reservation backlog, seasonality, and supply; as well as positive shocks like price reductions on the company’s vehicle lineup.

“There are some main conclusions that one can infer from the data: 1) There isn’t information available to know what the initial equilibrium was. The exponential shape of the curve gives no reference whatsoever to know this. Comparing Model S/X vs. Model 3, is easy to see that S/X had a stable path which would make it easier to measure the impact of these type of shocks; 2) Over time, the shock will be (almost) totally explained by the reduction in supply; 3) Shocks were expected, and price adjustments should more than cancel any negative permanent shock that taxes would have; and 4) Tesla had really bad luck with all these things happening at the same time,” the economist remarked.

The Tesla Model 3 production line. (Photo: Tesla)

Consumer Preferences

Based on these data, one can infer that the primary constraint that Tesla is facing is not demand, but supply. Demand for the company’s vehicles is not exclusive to the United States auto market. It is global, and in this sense, there is simply no indication that global supply for Tesla’s electric cars is already meeting global demand. The investor noted that the effect of the “backlog” argument in global markets would likely be marginal and transitory, and just as demand is not static, supply and prices have not been either.

Ultimately, the most significant factor that would affect the demand for Tesla’s vehicles is consumer preferences. In recent years, consumer preferences are changing in favor of smart devices, and this cascades into the auto industry. Tesla’s electric cars, which are arguably the most tech-focused consumer vehicles on the road today, are a perfect fit for this changing landscape.

According to the economist, “Consumer preferences and regulation actually affect demand. Prices technically don’t affect demand — just the quantity demanded — and the trend shows that it will have a multiplier effect. It’s always important to ask the correct questions, and the question today is not what are they doing to ‘fix’ a transitory shock? Or where’s demand? The question is, how will you increase supply?”

Alleged ‘Cannibalization’ of the Model S and X by the Model 3

In terms of the alleged cannibalization of Model S and X sales by the Model 3, the investor notes that there is no reason, at least at present, to believe that cannibalization is actually happening. Tesla Model 3 sales increased while Model S and X remained in their path, and as sales of the flagship sedan and SUV decreased, Model 3 sales in the US decreased as well.

“Even if you disaggregate data to try to find signs of cannibalization, there’s still no proof. There’s only one market — Norway — that is big enough, that has reliable data and didn’t face any distortions (tax or subsidy), that could give us any insight about cannibalization. Without further information, it would seem that there was significant cannibalization. The only problem is that Tesla distorted the market by eliminating the most popular Model S and X variant (75kWh), which was, on average 70%+ of sales. It is simply impossible to know which effect (the Model 3’s introduction or the 75kWh variant’s elimination) had the biggest impact, or even measure them in any way. And even then, one market may not be enough to prove it,” the investor stated.

Ultimately, the continuing phase-out period of the federal tax credit in the US would likely affect Model S and X sales in the country. But similar to the Model 3, these effects will likely be transitory and not permanent, especially given that prices have changed accordingly, given that the vehicles have better value per dollar. As with the Model 3, the sharp decrease in Model S and X sales in Q1 2019 could be explained by supply changes in its totality. Thus, demand should return to its previous path after a short period of time.

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

Concerns about Tesla’s (TSLA) alleged ‘demand problem’ are likely overblown
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