Tesla is the most valuable US carmaker because of hope, not results

This week, Tesla passed Ford and General Motors in market capitalization to become the most valuable American carmaker. Tesla’s stock price is on a tear, up nearly 42 percent since the beginning of the year to more than $ 300 per share, and the company is currently valued around $ 53 billion.

Tesla is still well behind huge foreign automakers like Daimler and Toyota, but the news of upstart Tesla (which also is making significant investments in non-automotive spaces like solar panels and energy storage) moving past 100-year-old brands like Ford and GM is getting a lot of attention.

The question of why Tesla, which lost $ 675 million on $ 7 billion in revenue last year, is worth more than GM (with 2016 revenue of $ 166.4 billion and net income of $ 9.43 billion) and Ford (with 2016 sales of $ 151.8 billion and net income of $ 4.6 billion) is a complicated one. Elon Musk has told a story of hope around Tesla, convincing many investors that it will change the world and create massive profits down the road.

Still, Tesla investors see promise, especially if they value growth over profit. Over the past four years, the electric car firm has more than tripled its sales, while revenue at both Ford and GM have been largely flat over the same period.

“Elon has managed to tell a compelling story in how he’s positioned Tesla,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Kelley Blue Book. “Between the Gigafactory, the solar panel company, and the autonomous technology embedded in every Model S and Model X being produced, Elon can claim to be ahead of traditional automakers on the road to self-driving cars powered by renewable energy.”

The idea, it seems, is that Tesla will eventually make lots of money by selling electric (and self-driving) cars and solar panels, as well as standalone energy storage to residential, commercial, and industrial users. All of these could make Tesla lots of money — though it’s not happening yet.

One report suggests that traditional automakers like GM, Ford, Daimler, and BMW remain ahead of upstart Silicon Valley firms like Waymo, Uber, and Tesla when it comes to self-driving tech — but investors don’t appear to care. “Whether or not Musk’s story is accurate doesn’t really matter, at least not today,” says Brauer. “Perception is reality, as Tesla’s stock price confirms.”

Last quarter, Tesla set new quarterly production and delivery records, moving slightly more than 25,000 cars in the first three months of 2017. But that’s still a far cry from the massive number of cars and trucks that its competition moves.

“Ford delivered more F-series trucks in the US alone in March (81,330) than Tesla delivered globally in all of 2016 (76,230),” said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst at Navigant. “And each one probably generated more profit than all of Tesla did in 2016.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that “a stock price represents risk-adjusted future cash flows,” and said that Tesla is “absurdly overvalued” if based on past performance, but that looking backward is “irrelevant.”

“Tesla’s stock price can’t have anything to do with their efforts as an automaker,” says Abuelsamid. “They’ve yet to demonstrate that they can achieve consistent profitability without creative timing of paying bills and pushing deliveries out the door.”

The company plans to release its more affordable Model 3 electric vehicle later this year and says it is working to increase production from a bit more than 76,000 cars last year to 500,000 cars in 2018. That would be truly impressive growth, but not everyone is convinced just yet.

“I would guess it had as much to do with relaunching the rocket as it does Tesla’s business,” said Abuelsamid. “Since you can’t buy SpaceX stock, Tesla is the only way for people to invest in the Musk cult of personality.”

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