Tesla posts record $4.5 billion quarterly profit but challenges loom

Tesla said its revenue in the first quarter totaled US$18.8 billion, up from US$10.4 billion a year earlier. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Tesla said on Wednesday (April 20) that it made a US$3.3 billion (S$4.5 billion) profit in the first three months of the year, up from US$438 million a year earlier, and the biggest quarterly profit since the company's creation.

But the company also said it expected its factories to run at below capacity for the rest of 2022.

The electric carmaker said its revenue in the first quarter totalled US$18.8 billion, up from US$10.4 billion a year earlier. The profit significantly exceeded investor expectations.

Tesla was the fastest-growing major carmaker last year, nearly doubling sales to almost one million vehicles while the industry as a whole slumped. New factories near Austin, Texas, and Berlin position the company to repeat that growth this year - if it can overcome some serious challenges.

These include a semiconductor shortage that has plagued automakers for more than a year. Tesla has also had to shut down its factory in Shanghai because of China's draconian attempts to contain the coronavirus. China accounted for one-quarter of Tesla sales last year, and the plant in Shanghai also exports cars to other countries in Asia and Europe.

Tesla said on Wednesday that it had resumed "limited production" in Shanghai after a three-week shutdown. But it warned that it continued to face "persistent" supply chain problems as well as rising costs for raw materials.

"Our own factories have been running at below capacity for several quarters as supply chain became the main limiting factor, which is likely to continue through the rest of 2022," Tesla said in a statement.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said on a conference call with investors and analysts on Wednesday that his "best guess" was that Tesla would produce 1.5 million cars this year, meeting the company's goal of achieving sales growth of 50 per cent a year.

Analysts are worried that supply chain and production problems, which Tesla did a better job of avoiding last year than other automakers did, could hamper the company's growth this year.

"A robust demand story for Tesla is being overshadowed by brutal production issues in China as well as a Rubik's Cube supply chain, which continues to haunt Tesla as well as the rest of the auto/tech industry," analysts at Wedbush Securities said in a note to clients before Tesla's first-quarter earnings announcement.

"Can more people please get into the lithium business?" he said. "Do you like minting money? Then the lithium business is for you."

Mr Musk hinted that Tesla could get more involved in the supply chain for raw materials but did not say whether it would expand into mining metals like lithium directly. "We are looking at all the raw materials and looking carefully," he said. "We think we will have some exciting announcements in the months to come."

Tesla remains the largest manufacturer of battery-powered cars by far. During the first three months of 2022, it sold 310,000 vehicles, an increase of almost 70 per cent from a year earlier. But traditional automakers like Volkswagen, Ford Motor and Hyundai Motor have woken up to the threat and begun selling models that challenge Tesla's dominance.

There is also a risk that Mr Musk could alienate some car buyers with his high-profile offer to buy Twitter. Some potential customers may applaud Musk as a champion of free speech, but others may fear he will open up Twitter to hate speech and misinformation.

During the call, Mr Musk did not discuss and was not asked about his proposed acquisition of Twitter.

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