Tesla boss defensive as doubts mount over mass-market car

Tesla CEO Elon Musk presenting the Roadster 2 on Nov 6 last year. More than two years ago, he unveiled Tesla's first mass-market car, but he has pushed back Model 3 manufacturing targets several times, hence limiting the amount of money coming in fro
Tesla CEO Elon Musk presenting the Roadster 2 on Nov 6 last year. More than two years ago, he unveiled Tesla's first mass-market car, but he has pushed back Model 3 manufacturing targets several times, hence limiting the amount of money coming in from customers.PHOTO: REUTERS

Elon Musk berates analysts for 'boring questions' about Model 3's financing

SAN FRANCISCO • The earnings report started optimistically enough, with Mr Elon Musk forecasting an end to Tesla's cash-burning days after blazing through another US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) last quarter.

But by the end of Tesla's first-quarter conference call, Mr Musk was berating analysts for asking "boring" questions, the shares had plunged and any shred of predictability was out the window.

Mr Musk, 46, has built up a showman's reputation as the founder and chief executive officer of Tesla, calling on true believers to help him overcome the "haters" who question his company's ability to usher in an electric-vehicle age on an ambitious timetable. His performance on Wednesday revealed his willingness to bite the hand that feeds, ridiculing representatives of Wall Street's biggest banks who tried to pinpoint how he would live up to his promises to build more Model 3 sedans and generate cash in the second half of the year.

Mr Musk cut off analysts' queries about the company's capital requirements and whether it was retaining Model 3 reservation holders, calling the questions "so dry" and "not cool". The stock sank 4.5 per cent in late US trading.

"The boring questions can also be categorised as the tough ones," said Mr Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific. "I hope the Tesla fans know how to swim because without the answers to the tough questions, it looks like Musk is leading them straight into the water."

The often-colourful Mr Musk unveiled what he portrayed as Tesla's first mass-market car more than two years ago but has pushed back Model 3 manufacturing targets several times. Slow output has limited the amount of money coming in from customers taking delivery and tested Tesla's balance sheet.

Prospective patrons have shown patience - there are still more than 450,000 reservation holders waiting, and customer deposits keep rising, approaching almost US$1 billion as of March 31.

When Mr Joe Spak, an RBC Capital Markets analyst who rates Tesla the equivalent of a hold, asked Mr Musk how many Model 3 reservation holders were actually taking the step to configure their cars when invited to do so, a pause followed.

"Sorry," Mr Musk said, "these questions are so dry. They're killing me."

Tesla's balance sheet also was a sore subject for him. While Tesla expressed confidence about the second half of the year, negative free cash flow was more than US$1 billion for the third time in the last four quarters. The result was also worse than analysts' average estimate for cash burn of about US$978 million.

Tesla had US$2.67 billion in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, down from the US$3.37 billion at the end of last year. Mr Toni Sacconaghi of Sanford Bernstein, who rates the company the equivalent of a hold, bore the brunt of Mr Musk's sharpest words after asking about capital requirements.

"Excuse me. Next. Next," Mr Musk said to the call operator. "Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?"

Model 3 production probably will pause for about 10 days this quarter, an estimated duration that includes a shutdown last month to address bottlenecks. While Tesla's battery module line was the main issue plaguing output for months, that has been resolved, according to the company. Mr Musk now expects to be able to make 5,000 cars' worth a week before installing an automation system from its German manufacturing unit Grohmann.

On the call, he said Tesla is poised to surpass all rivals in manufacturing.

"A really great production system is primarily a software problem, and there's no one in the auto industry that is remotely as good as Tesla at software," he said. "Tesla is way better at software than any other car company."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2018, with the headline 'Tesla boss defensive as doubts mount over mass-market car'. Print Edition | Subscribe