Saturday, January 19, 2019

Tesla's final quarter, China's shopping spree

Last week, Donald Trump figured out that China was far more honorable than Pelosi and Schumer, the top Democrats. It's easier to deal with them, you may trust them.

This is a sad testimony about the contemporary leftists in the West. I must confirm that these people are harder to interact with than those that have been considered textbook examples of the evil left-wing ideologies. I have always considered communists to be foes and I still think that they're dangerous for the evolution of my homeland. But e.g. on Twitter, I found their bosses much easier to communicate with than with the "contemporary" social justice warriors. The latter are far more fanatical, malicious, eager to do nasty things.

On Friday, the stock markets jumped by a percent or two – mostly because of a claimed Bloomberg leak that China agreed to go on a shopping spree to the U.S. in the next five years. They should promise to buy $1 trillion of goods more than previously expected and achieve a balanced trade with the U.S. in some five years. That would be quite an impressive development in the Sino-American trade war, indeed, as the trade war would turn into the Sino-American trade romance.

In the normal Western world, the promise to "buy one extra trillion dollars in goods" would sound rather empty. Products and services are bought by the free people and the top politicians may only guess what will happen, not to determine it. But China is a bit different because if you missed it, it's still a one-party regime where the top commies have all the power.

So if the leader says "and by the way, buy something from those Yankees for some $1 trillion", it may actually happen.

Just a week ago, along with some positive comments about the negotiations with the Chinese, Trump also urged the Americans to boycott the Chinese restaurants. In fact, the Americans should either avoid these restaurants – because the Chinese are winning – or eat a lunch over there and run away without paying! (Update: Arctic Penguin's comment has persuaded me that I became a victim of a prank – but you may still read what the fooled humble correspondent wrote, anyway.)

I found the degree of childishness a bit too high. Is the leader of the free world encouraging Americans to rob restaurants in their own country? These restaurants are operating legally. I guess that most of them are even owned by American citizens – although they may be Chinese Americans. Trump admitted that General Tso's Chicken, his favorite food (Trump has demanded a meeting with the general), tastes better to him than some competing American junk but these are difficult times, you know, so Americans have to eat what tastes less well.

Really? Americans are free and if they prefer General Tso's Chicken, they should eat and they will eat General Tso's Chicken. At Harvard, I was often going to have a lunch to Wok'n'Roll at Porter Square (and sometimes similarly to a Wendy's at Central Square). I was satisfied with that Chinese cuisine and found is superior relatively to the food at the Harvard Dining Hall.

Well, even these days, despite my general disagreement with Islam and the Islamization of Europe, I occasionally buy a kebab because it tastes good. I believe that it doesn't have serious harmful consequences, the guys who sell it are just fine, so I enjoy my freedom and the separation of business and politics is an example of that freedom. I think that the "duty" to adjust (or worsen) one's diet for political reasons is an example of the non-freedom that we have experienced up to 1989.

OK, I think that these anti-China tweets were partly screams similar to the fans during football matches, partly entertainment. It seems to me that in reality, Trump and his people are having a good time with the Chinese and the trade war will fade away or reverse into the trade romance. Sadly, the Democrats are a bigger problem.

In fact, I believe that there's no reason for China to want its huge trade surpluses with the U.S. There is nothing "tremendously victorious" about the surpluses. It has advantages as well as disadvantages. When Trump thinks that the reduction of the deficit is important for him and his country, and if he is ready to be kinder to China when it happens, I think it is a matter of common sense for the Chinese officials to agree because they're not really losing any clear benefit by balancing the trade!

Tesla is unsustainable business

While the stocks jumped on Friday, the price of the Tesla stocks dropped 13%, almost matching the worst 2018 drop, 14%, in August. The sliding followed a letter by Elon Musk saying that he's proud but the "difficult times" are awaiting the company. The profit in the last quarter of 2018 will be "tiny", Musk admitted. The Tesla cars are too expensive, Musk's fans finally learned "the news" from their guru, and the layout of 7% of the workforce is a needed step to change the situation.

I think that he knows not only that the last quarter of 2018 was weak. I believe that he also knows that the sales in early 2019 have collapsed to a small fraction of the peak values. Tesla has problems with the demand that will soon become obvious and that will quickly accelerate to a self-evidently lethal problem.

It is hard to predict for how much time Tesla can fake the financial reality and survive. But it is easy for me to become almost certain that this is not a business that may survive as a large business in the long run. In recent days, Tesla canceled subsidies for the supercharging – which got much more expensive. It abolished its referral program – which was too expensive. And it fired 7% of the workforce (3150 people) yesterday.

These are random steps that are designed to lower the expenses. It looks like Tesla is trying to look for an optimum value of some parameters that increase its profitability. The only problem is that there doesn't exist any value of these parameters for which a company like Tesla could sustain profitability to justify the valuation in tens of billions of dollars. They're just shifting cash from one pocket to another but one may look directly at the sum and the numbers just don't add up.

The main problem is that the electric cars are simply not competitive when the price – as well as the extra difficulties with the scarce supercharging network – are taken into account. If you sometimes read the comparisons of cars, you know that the car journalists often compare similar cars whose price differs by some $5,000. This is a price difference that is significant and that starts to play a comparable role to all other typical differences combined.

Well, the average Tesla Model 3 (the new, cheapest model for the mass market) costs some $60,000. That was the number from Summer 2018 – well above the promised minimum promised Model 3 price of $35,000 – and the latter number also happens to be the average actual car price in the U.S..

So the Tesla cars are some $25,000 more expensive than the average car sold in the U.S. I said it's about 5 times the price difference that starts to be significant, i.e. a 5-sigma effect. Even the "basic" Tesla Model 3 is obviously a luxurious car. But prices don't become meaningless even for luxurious cars. The buyers are comparing many characteristics. Is the electric engine really such a big advantage? You may run out of "juice" more easily because the superchargers are so rare (we have three in Czechia: can the owners drive anywhere? Read a wonderful story about a Tesla trip by a woman who had to suffer range anxiety a lot...). On top of that, the "juice" may turn insufficient spontaneously, especially due to the low temperature (we had –10 °C here today in the morning). And most blondes can't even find the hole in Tesla where the fuel should be pumped.

On March 1st, Tesla will have to repay $920 million in convertible bonds in cash because the stock price will almost certainly not be above the conversion price of $359.88 for the required periods of time. That cash will reduce Tesla's cash-or-equivalent reserves by 1/3.

And from January 1st, 2019, Tesla lost 1/2 of its subsidies for electric vehicles, $7,500 per car. Within a year, it will lose the other half, too, in two steps. This is a huge, and probably lethal, problem for the profitability and/or demand, too. Why?

First assume that Tesla doesn't want the demand to drop because of this lost (so far) $3,750 subsidy. What can it do? It would have to make the cars $3,750 cheaper. But this number is very close to the estimated profit per Tesla Model 3, something like $4,000. So by reducing the price of the cars, Tesla would sacrifice almost the whole expected profit! Correspondingly, the valuation of the company should drop by those 90% as well because the valuation should be based on the expected profits.

Alternatively, Tesla might avoid the price reduction. But in that case, the cars would be $3,750 more expensive for the consumers – and therefore much less competitive. In the text above, I claimed that something like $5,000 is the price difference that starts to matter as much as all the other typical differences combined. So this would mean a drop of the demand by O(50%) – also a problem.

Tesla chose the compromise – it only reduced the U.S. price by $2,000 which means that due to the disappeared half of the subsidy, the car is effectively $1,750 more expensive than in 2018. I think that this "compromise" is about right. One divides the problem – the reduced subsidy – to the decreased demand and to the decreased profitability and in this way, one makes sure that none of these two effects is "totally game-changing". The "total profit" is probably flat around that point but a point in the middle is likely to be slightly better than the "extreme solutions", anyway. The function \(x+1/x\) is minimized for \(x=1\) if \(x\) is positive. You get the point.

But it still changes nothing about the fact that the profit is expected to go down by O(50%) just due to the evaporated subsidy and the second stage of this problem will be completed within a year.

Now, the demand. Tesla has sold over 200,000 vehicles in 2018. It's 6 times less than Škoda but it's a non-negligible number. However, that number seems also unsustainable to me. I think that most of the people who bought a Tesla so far are enthusiasts or even ideologically driven activists and their reservoir – because we're only talking about activists who are this rich at the same moment! – has already been mostly depleted. The people who might be expected to buy in 2019 must be much less enthusiastic than those in 2018 because the enthusiasts are already mostly depleted; and they must still pay a higher price. It clearly looks like a problem. The enthusiasts also considered themselves pioneers or early adopters – one advantage of that approach is that they managed to get the full subsidy. So their early adopter status led to some sort of "successful speculation". Will less enthusiastic consumers buy the car while knowing that it's more expensive than what the early adopters got?

Moreover, most of those 200,000 buyers in 2018 were folks who have been attracted by 15 previous years of hype. They were written down in a waiting list and the waiting list has gotten depleted, too. If Tesla needed 15 years of hype to create those 200,000 buyers, it's unlikely that it will sell another 200,000 just after months of hype.

Add all the lawsuits by investors, competition such as Jaguar i-Pace (already sold) and Porsche Taycan (sold in a year), not to mention the less impressive Audi e-tron and Mercedes-Benz EQC and BMW iX3 and many others. But I don't think that this is a market that will explode thanks to the competitors. The competitors will run into some of the same fundamental problems as Tesla. The electric car mania is rather likely to be temporary and to end with a loss for every single company that has invested billions into this direction.

Don't get me wrong. I think that electric cars do belong to the future and they're the technologically "common sense futuristic" solution. But the real transition will only occur when it makes sense. And because the electric cars are twice as expensive as those with combustion engines and exhibiting clear disadvantages in recharging, the transition just doesn't make sense with the current numbers!

This whole fad is driven by the people who say that the $25,000 price difference between the average car and the average basic model of Tesla "doesn't matter" because [some fog and nonsense such as global warming] and you should look elsewhere. But it clearly does matter. All sensible managers in all large car companies – and other companies – have always known that it matters. It's not such a problem to produce a modern car – cars ceased to be the cutting tech of hi-tech technologies a long time ago. It's much more difficult to sell the cars and each multiple of $5,000 in the car price is something that the professionals must watch extremely seriously. One-half of the competitive game is all about such $5,000 differences in price.

Tesla doesn't and it has never done so – it hasn't cared about such "mundane" issues. It's a company claiming to save the world and sending your cars on the orbit. It's a business based on the denial of basic reality, basic mechanisms that decide about the success in the marketplace. It's a business that has apparently nurtured hopes that by now, everyone would be brainwashed by the global warming cataclysmic delusions and/or that the government would already ban all competitors or established subsidies that are unlimited in time and extent. It didn't happen. The real world persisted and Tesla isn't competitive in the real world.

Teslas are only shielded from the economic reality when they float in the vacuum on a low orbit around the Earth. So the drop of the stock price from $350 to $300 is surely not a reason to go long.

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