Investor's Corner

Tesla is getting unnecessarily weighed down by the SEC’s claims against Elon Musk

Tesla stock (NASDAQ:TSLA) dropped on Monday after the US Securities and Exchange Commission asked a judge to hold Elon Musk in contempt for reportedly violating a settlement that required him to get approval before releasing any social media posts or announcements that could be material to investors. Regardless of the judge’s decision, Elon Musk and the SEC’s run-ins with each other are adversely affecting investors and unnecessarily weighing down Tesla. This is something is best avoided, by the company and Elon Musk himself, in the future.  

According to the SEC, Musk’s tweet on February 19, when he mentioned that Tesla will make “around 500K” vehicles in 2019, was a violation of his settlement with the agency last year. Musk later clarified his statement, explaining that he was talking about an annualized production rate of around 500k (roughly 10k cars per week) vehicles by 2019’s end, but that deliveries for the year are “still estimated to be about 400k.” 

The SEC claimed in papers filed in a Manhattan court that Elon Musk “once again published inaccurate and material information about Tesla to his over 24 million Twitter followers, including members of the press, and made this inaccurate information available to anyone with internet access.” The SEC’s announcement adversely affected the company’s stock, sending TSLA plummeting 4% on Monday’s after-hours following the announcement. It did not take long before some of the company’s staunchest critics began to predict that Musk will be incarcerated.

Despite the company’s critics calling for Musk to be sent behind bars, Peter Haveles, a partner at Pepper Hamilton in New York whose practice specializes in commercial and regulatory disputes, noted in a statement to The Verge that another fine will likely be the result of the SEC’s claim against the Tesla CEO.

“Mr. Musk will try to argue that it’s a one-time thing, and the issue will be, is that really the case? Will the SEC come forward with evidence from Tesla that they are struggling to get Mr. Musk to comply with the process? It’s unlikely that Musk will face being barred from serving as a director or officer of a publicly traded company for the tweet,” he said, later adding that Elon Musk’s tweet doesn’t rise to the level of criminal contempt; and thus, the CEO does not have to worry about jail time.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that while the SEC might be a bit aggressive with its request to have the CEO held in contempt of court due to his February 19 tweet, Musk could have avoided the entire issue altogether if he had just been more careful. And it’s not like this is the first time such a thing happened either, as it was his Twitter activities that landed him in hot water last year due to his now infamous “funding secured” announcement.

It will likely be difficult for the SEC to prove that Elon Musk’s tweets were a violation of his settlement’s terms. For one, Musk’s February 19 tweet was made while markets were closed. Thus, it will be very challenging to gauge the “materiality” of the announcement. Musk also mentioned the same figures weeks before during the Q4 2019 earnings call, when he estimated that Tesla could produce “maybe in the order of 350,000 to 500,000 Model 3s” this year. Musk mentioned this in a later tweet, stating that the SEC seemed to have forgotten to read the transcript of Tesla’s Q4 earnings call.

It is difficult to not see a certain bias emerging from the SEC against Musk’s Twitter activities, considering that the tweet in question did not really affect Tesla stock and the estimate was already public knowledge due to the fourth quarter earnings call. In a way, it almost seems like the SEC’s recent initiative against Musk is response of sorts against the CEO’s statements against the agency. Musk has mocked the agency on Twitter in the past, dubbing it as the “Shortseller Enrichment Commission,” and in a 60 Minutes segment, he flat-out admitted that he does not respect the SEC. Ultimately, the SEC’s claim would have to rely on the premise of Elon Musk posting his Tesla-related tweet without the message being vetted first, as agreed upon in last year’s settlement.

Tesla is at a point in its history where the company could grow into one of the most potent forces in the auto industry. With Model 3 production stabilized, Gigafactory 3 under construction, and vehicles like the Model Y set to be revealed, tweets like Musk’s February 19 announcement are things that the company can do without. If led by a more careful, more calculating Elon Musk, Tesla’s inevitable rise to power will most definitely happen sooner than expected.

As of writing, Tesla shares are trading -3.52 at $288.25 per share on Tuesday’s pre-market.

Disclosure: The opinions presented in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the stand of Teslarati. I have no ownership in shares of TSLA and have no plans to initiate any positions within 72 hours. 

Tesla is getting unnecessarily weighed down by the SEC’s claims against Elon Musk
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