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Since Tesla was founded more than 14 years ago, the electric car company has run a nonstop gauntlet of doubters who believe its audacious plans are overblown hype.
As Tesla rolled out new versions of its cars, and as its stock price soared to make it more valuable than Ford, cofounder Elon Musk took great delight in taunting his critics. So the fact that the company is facing a new round of ominous financial predictions is certainly nothing new.
That said, the latest warnings follow the company’s troubled production of its Model 3, an issue that has raised questions about Tesla’s ability to hit its targets this year. But beyond concerns about meeting financial expectations, ratings agency Moody’s issued a grim downgrade this week, saying the company is going to have to raise $2 billion in the coming months.
Despite Musk’s star power, pulling that off will likely depend on Tesla proving it can hit its lowered Model 3 production targets for this quarter and the next.
“The negative outlook reflects the likelihood that Tesla will have to undertake a large, near-term capital raise in order to refund maturing obligations and avoid a liquidity short-fall,” Moody’s wrote in a note to clients. “Prospects for addressing its liquidity requirements (whether equity, convertible notes, or debt) will be supported if the company can establish credibility for reaching Model 3 production levels — 2,500 per week by the end of March, and 5,000 per week by the end of June.”
Moody’s believes Tesla is facing a credibility crisis because those targets are far below the company’s projection of 5,000 per week for 2017 and 10,000 a week for the end of 2018.
But, as with all things Tesla, there are plenty of bullish supporters, and opinions about the company tend to swing widely.
In early February, Tesla saw its stock drop amid reports of production issues. Then it released its earnings on February 8 with revenues of $3.29 billion that slightly beat analyst estimates. In a statement at the time, Musk acknowledged the challenges of projecting production milestones given the company’s recent history, but he expressed optimism.
“2018 will be a transformative year for Tesla, with a high level of operational scaling,” Musk said in a statement. “As we ramp production of both Model 3 and our energy products while keeping tight control of operating expenses, our quarterly operating income should turn sustainably positive at some point in 2018.”
That was good enough for investors, who drove the stock up from $310.42 on February 9 to $357.42 on February 26. But then, perhaps as people dug a bit more into the details, the stock has started tumbling again. It closed at $279.18 yesterday, following another 8 percent drop on the day, and continued to trade down after hours.
Moody’s suggests a crunch is looming.
While Tesla has a combination of $3.4 billion in cash and securities it can access, Moody’s said that wouldn’t be enough. The firm estimated that Tesla needs $500 million for operations over the next few quarters, plus $2 billion to cover the planned capital expenditures and $1.2 billion in debt payments it needs to cover through early next year.
Tesla can still draw from its $1.9 billion asset-based lending agreement, which means using some asset as collateral for a loan. But Moody’s says the company will still need at least $2 billion this year — plus more next year to cover capital costs.
And if Tesla misses production targets or can’t raise money, Moody’s said it would consider another ratings cut.
Musk and Tesla have weathered such moments before. The company’s shareholders just approved a 10-year pay package for Musk last week that could make him billions of dollars. Clearly, they believe this company is here for the long haul.
In the next few months, Musk will need to come up with a large chunk of change to prove them right.
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