Elon Musk’s Latest Promises Are Encouraging for Tesla — Up to a Point

If Tesla’s (TSLA) recent challenges make its stock more of a show-me story, then Elon Musk just went out of his way to promise his company will show meaningful top and bottom-line progress very soon.

This in turn might be a sign that Tesla’s recent manufacturing shakeup is yielding results. But it’s worth keeping in mind that this is a company with a very long track record of struggling to make good on ambitious production and financial targets. And that when it comes to deciphering Tesla’s guidance, it’s worth paying close attention to the details.

On Friday morning, Musk once more used Twitter to take a shot at a publication providing negative coverage of his company. This time, the target of his ire was The Economist, which on April 5 published an article that suggested Tesla will soon need a major capital raise. It reported that employees at Tesla’s massive Fremont, CA car-assembly plant “describe a chaotic workplace in which Silicon Valley ideals of nimble innovation and robotic automation clash with the unglamorous realities of car-making.”

The Economist used to be boring, but smart with a wicked dry wit. Now it’s just boring (sigh). Tesla will be profitable & cash flow+ in Q3 & Q4, so obv no need to raise money.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 13, 2018

In his retort, Musk declared The Economist to be “boring”…and not in a manner resembling his tunneling company. More importantly, he asserted Tesla will be both profitable and cash-flow positive in Q3 and Q4, and thus “there’s no need [for Tesla] to raise money.”

The remarks have given a slight lift to Tesla shares, finishing Friday up 1.4% to $300.34. They’re now up about 23% from a 52-week low of $244.59 that was set on April 2, but still 23% below a September high of $389.61.

By insisting Tesla won’t need to raise capital in 2018, Musk is basically reiterating what the company, which ended 2017 with $3.4 billion in cash and $10.4 billion in debt and capital leases, said in its April 3 Q1 deliveries report. Then, the EV maker claimed it “does not require an equity or debt raise this year, apart from standard credit lines.”

On the other hand, Musk’s prediction that Tesla will be both profitable and cash-flow positive in Q3 and Q4 is on the surface a bolder claim than what has been made to date. In the deliveries report, Tesla merely said that reaching a Q2 goal of reaching a 5,000-vehicle-per-week production rate for its Model 3 sedan will lay the groundwork to achieve “high volume, good gross margin and strong positive operating cash flow” in Q3.

Likewise, during Tesla’s February 7 earnings call, the company merely promised its operating income will “turn sustainably positive at some point in 2018.” And Musk said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Tesla will become profitable on a GAAP basis at some point this year.

Of course, Musk didn’t say in his tweet whether he’s predicting Tesla will be profitable on a GAAP or non-GAAP basis in Q3 and Q4. With Tesla’s non-GAAP financials excluding stock compensation spending and various other expenses, achieving non-GAAP profitability would undoubtedly be easier.

Still, even on a non-GAAP basis, Tesla’s consensus Q3 and Q4 analyst EPS estimates stand at negative $1.21 and negative $0.31, respectively. Musk is clearly suggesting Tesla will exceed those forecasts. The GAAP consensus estimates, for those wondering, stand at negative $1.74 and negative $0.91.

Along the same lines, Musk appears to be suggesting Tesla will top its consensus Q3 and Q4 free cash flow (FCF) estimates — they’re at negative $679 million and negative $311 million, respectively. It’s possible that he was talking about simply achieving positive operating cash flow, which would be much easier to do so since it doesn’t account for Tesla’s significant capital expenditures. But that’s not the traditional definition of being cash-flow positive.

It’s notable that Musk’s remarks come just a couple weeks after it was reported that the Tesla founder/CEO had taken direct control of Model 3 production from engineering SVP Doug Field, in response to ongoing production challenges and missed deadlines. They also shortly follow a CBS interview in which Musk claimed that he’s pulling all-nighters at the Fremont plant to help ramp Model 3 production, and (echoing a critical Bernstein report) admitted some of Tesla’s production issues have stemmed from relying too much on robots/automation relative to humans.

It’s quite possible that Musk made his Q3/Q4 prediction because of the manufacturing progress he’s seen since taking responsibility for Model 3 production. Here, it’s worth keeping in mind that Tesla’s high fixed costs and the scope of its production ramp — the company aims to eventually reach a Model 3 production rate of 10,000 units per week, up from a current level of around 2,000 — mean that even moderately outperforming analyst production and delivery estimates can have a big impact on its income and cash-flow statements.

Currently, analysts polled by FactSet expect Tesla, which is working through a Model 3 net reservation backlog that might now be above 500,000, to deliver 28,700 Model 3 units in Q2, 49,300 in Q3 and 66,900 in Q4. If the company exceeds the Q3 and Q4 estimates by, say, 5,000 and 10,000, respectively, that could go a long way towards achieving positive cash flows.

At the same time, one can’t forget that Tesla has already pushed back its Model 3 targets several times — prior to November, the company was predicting it would reach a 5,000-vehicle-per-week Model 3 production rate by the end of 2017. It has also seen plenty of missed or extended targets over the years related to other products and financial goals.

Only time will tell whether Musk’s latest prediction will join that long list of Tesla promises that didn’t pan out. But considering all of the negative news and reports that Tesla has seen over the last month, it’s hard to fault bulls for being a little encouraged by it.