Tesla plunges 11% as delivery drop deepens demand concerns


SAN FRANCISCO • Tesla Inc shares plummeted as a record decline in deliveries during the first quarter (1Q) stoked concern of slackening demand for the Model 3 sedan that started selling less than two years ago.

The electric-car maker delivered 63,000 vehicles in the three months that ended in March, down from 90,966 in 4Q. Tesla shares sank as much as 11% as of 9:30am yesterday in New York.

In the US, where Tesla introduced the Model 3 sedan in 2017, tax incentives for its vehicles shrank. In Europe and China, the company struggled to quickly get the cars to consumers.

The 50,900 Model 3 Tesla delivered in 1Q missed analysts’ average estimate for 51,750 and was less than each of the two previous quarters. The shortfall is a setback for CEO Elon Musk’s plan to accelerate sales by lowering prices and targeting more markets worldwide.

“It’s a disappointment. There’s no way around that,” said Gene Munster, a managing partner of venture capital firm Loup Ventures. “The big question is, what is demand?”

Bloomberg’s experimental Model 3 tracker also missed the dip in Tesla’s production numbers. While the tool has outperformed the average estimate of Wall Street analysts in four out of five quarters, its prediction of 79,130 for the first three months of the year was much too high. One explanation is that the Model 3’s international rollout could have inflated the tracker’s projection.

Tesla reiterated its forecast of 360,000 to 400,000 vehicle deliveries in 2019, which Munster called a “silver lining” that may show buyers are still clamouring for the cars. But Tesla’s history of missing Musk’s ambitious projections may make it difficult to have confidence in the outlook, he said.

Tesla’s 5.3% bonds due 2025 fell almost two cents on the dollar to 85.75 cents, taking the yield above 8%, according to Trace. The shares have slumped about 21% this year amid demand concerns, multiple price cuts, job reductions and a continued exodus of senior executives.

Musk capped the quarter with a tweet referring to the work his delivery teams had done as the “most insane logistics challenge” he’d ever seen. Tesla had a total of 10,600 vehicles in transit at the end of last month as the company started sales of the Model 3 in China and Europe. That’s more than triple the number that were still making their way to customers at the end of 2018, though it’s not unprecedented — more Tesla vehicles were in transit at September’s close.

While Model 3 deliveries were underwhelming, bulls may give Tesla the benefit of the doubt because it was shipping so many cars to new markets for the first time, said Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “The street was expecting an apocalyptic quarter and Model 3 deliveries were better than feared by many,” he said.

Shipping cars to customers outside the US was critical toward helping make up slack in demand after the federal tax credit Tesla customers were eligible for was cut in half as of Jan 1. While this pulled some demand forward into 4Q, the company said orders still outpaced the number of vehicles it was able to deliver in the first three months of this year.

Tesla had warned shareholders that 1Q deliveries of the pricier Model S sedan and Model X SUV probably would be lower than a year ago because customers rushed to buy in time for the full US$7,500 (RM30,611) incentive. The company set substantially lower daily production targets for the Model S and Model X in January, people familiar with the matter said at the time.

Analyst Joseph Spak of RBC Capital Markets said Model S and X deliveries, which totalled 12,100, were the lowest since 3Q of 2015. The drop could potentially translate into Tesla missing revenue estimates by more than US$1 billion.

“To us, this signals that the tax subsidy cut in the US was a significant hit to these premium vehicles and/or Model 3 is having a bigger cannibalisation impact,” Spak said in a note.

“The shortfall in deliveries confirms that current demand isn’t sufficient to sustain second half of 2018 levels. The logistics of increasing supply to Europe and China explains the sequential drop in volume, but also highlights a business model lacking global production and distribution scale,” said Bloomberg Intelligence global autos analyst Kevin Tynan.

Several Wall Street analysts cut their delivery estimates as the quarter came to an end, citing the tax credit and delays in overseas shipments.

Musk also cautioned on Tesla’s Jan 30 earnings call that seasonality would come into play in 1Q, with auto sales tending to be lowest in January and February and picking up in March.

Tesla’s debut of a long-promised US$35,000 version of the Model 3 during the quarter was overshadowed by announcements of significant cost cuts Musk said were necessary for the company to be able to offer the car at that price point.

First, the CEO said in January the company would cut about 7% of headcount — more than 3,000 jobs. At the end of February, Tesla paired its Feb 28 announcement of the base Model 3 and price cuts across its lineup with a plan to close all but a small number of stores, shift all ordering online and dismiss an untold number of sales and marketing personnel. The moves blindsided some staff, and the company backtracked just 10 days later.

Tesla ended last year with about US$3.7 billion of cash and equivalents, but had to pay off a US$920 million convertible bond in February. While Musk warned the company probably would lose money last quarter, and the carmaker has a US$566 million note coming due in November, Tesla has said it has enough money to pay off debt obligations with cashflow.

“Because of the lower than expected delivery volumes and several pricing adjustments, we expect 1Q net income to be negatively impacted,” Tesla said in its deliveries statement. “Even so, we ended the quarter with sufficient cash on hand.” — Bloomberg