Investor's Corner

Tesla is poised to survive 2020’s worst economic shocks; other automakers, not so much

Just before being proven wrong by Tesla’s first-quarter delivery and production numbers, TSLA bears were hard at work, spreading the now-aging narrative that the company’s electric cars will soon see a drop in demand. Hours before Tesla released its numbers, short-seller Jim Chanos even remarked that he remains “maximum short TSLA,” arguing that the company stands to lose money this year. 

What the noted short-seller failed to mention was that this year would likely be downright brutal on the entire auto industry. 2020 only started, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has given the whole car market an economic shock that will resonate for a substantial period of time. Tesla will see adverse effects, most likely in the second quarter, but compared to the rest of the industry, the electric car maker may very well be poised to be a company that can not only survive, but thrive in these times of crisis. The same cannot be said for legacy carmakers, or the scheduled “Tesla Killers” that are set to be released in the near future.

Gene Munster of Loup Ventures noted that Tesla’s Q1 production and delivery results show that Tesla is winning despite the current headwinds simply because it has a product that is measurably better than both gas and electric competitors. The Wall Street veteran further added that while the next quarters will be challenging for Tesla and all other automakers like BMW and General Motors, he still expects Tesla to continue reporting 15-25% better delivery results compared to its peers. 

Tesla Model Y at Fremont factory parking lot
Tesla Model Y at Fremont factory parking lot (Credit: Wilson Lam via Twitter)

A lot of this is due to the company’s products, specifically the Model 3 sedan and the Model Y crossover. Both vehicles are high-volume EVs, and they are designed to disrupt their respective segments. The Model Y, in particular, is designed to be competitive in the crossover market, which happens to be one of the fastest-growing segments in the auto industry today. Munster argued that over time, the price and performance gap between Tesla and its competitors would likely get broader. This is because rivals, such as legacy automakers and their respective EVs, will either have to sell a vehicle that’s at parity with Tesla’s features and range but at a higher price, or a car whose cost is subsidized by the company, resulting in financial strain. For automakers, such is a notable dilemma. 

Tesla investor @Incentives101, an economist with a background in macro research, stated in a message to Teslarati that the demand for the electric car maker’s vehicles will largely depend on how distinct they are from other EVs on the market. It’s quite difficult to analyze a product’s demand from a consumer preferences standpoint. In the case of apparel, for example, it is challenging to determine why some consumers prefer Adidas over Nike. The auto industry is quite the same. When one looks at the demand for vehicles, it is difficult to pinpoint why some consumers buy a BMW 3-Series over an Audi A4, or a Mercedes-Benz C-Class; or why some customers buy a Honda Accord instead of a Toyota Camry. 

Explaining further, the economist noted that instances such as these usually mean that the products consumers are purchasing are almost perfect substitutes for each other. If one were to study the size, efficiency, performance, and price of any category of cars, one would see that the differences are usually so marginal between each option and segment that consumer decisions often fall on subjective variables such as looks or brand loyalty. This is something that veteran automakers such as Ford rely on, with the company being proud of F-150 owners sticking with the company for years, or at times, even generations. 

(Photo: fromwhereicharge/Instagram)

In the auto sector, there are various tradeoffs that customers are likely to compromise with. For buyers of cars with an internal combustion engine, opting for a low price will likely sacrifice performance, as is the case with the Toyota Camry. Buyers of electric vehicles from traditional automakers, on the other hand, will probably sacrifice something vital such as range for performance, as is the case with the Porsche Taycan. Tesla’s electric vehicles have pretty much eliminated these tradeoffs over time, largely thanks to the company’s own experience in producing and designing electric vehicles and their unique vertical integration, which provides the company unprecedented control over their products and the way they function. 

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the health and economic shock that the world is facing are unprecedented. These shocks affect everyone, and for automakers, it will all come down to whoever can recover the fastest. Veteran automakers are fighting at a disadvantage as Tesla extends its gap in performance and tech. Tesla, on the other hand, may very well be poised to hit the ground running and crush its competitors in the process. The Model 3 and Tesla’s first-quarter results highlighted how demand for the company’s vehicles would likely be steady. As for demand concerns about Tesla, the economist noted that such concerns remain overblown. 

“Until today, demand concerns about Tesla vehicles are overblown and based on a poor understanding of economics. Demand is a function of consumer preferences, basically what consumers value. It is also a function of income, price of substitutes, and few other things. How much each of these variables affects demand is not static. It may be that consumer preferences don’t change but income does, so in a scenario of rapid economic downturn with relatively fast recovery demand for Tesla would behave the same,” the economist wrote. 

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

Tesla is poised to survive 2020’s worst economic shocks; other automakers, not so much
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