Comment: All automakers should hope to ‘fail’ as badly as Tesla

Ignore CEO Elon Musk’s antics and pay attention to Tesla’s sales, profits and market share.

By Matthew A. Winkler / Bloomberg Opinion

Anyone Googling the phrase “Tesla failed” is immediately inundated with the purported shortcomings of the multinational automotive and clean energy company’s zero-emission, electric vehicles, workplace culture, business practices, occupational safety and, especially, its controversial Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk. In times like these, it’s appropriate to recall what Gertrude tells her son Hamlet in Shakespeare’s most famous play: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

When it comes to Tesla Inc., such criticism is little more than a sideshow. No other carmaker comes close to matching its performance, which includes posting record revenue each year since it began reporting financial results in 2007. With a stock market value of $659 billion as of Friday, Tesla is worth more than Toyota Motor Co., Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, General Motors Co., Stellantis NV and Ford Motor Co. combined.

And while everyone thought Musk’s entanglement with Twitter Inc. would be damaging to Tesla, the results prove otherwise. Tesla is now turning every $100 of revenue into an industry-leading $26 of profit after production costs; the widest gross margin since the Austin, Texas-based company started selling more than 50,000 cars annually in 2015. Tesla also scores the highest profit margin among the 10 largest automakers, providing a huge competitive advantage by allowing it to invest more money into improving its cars and developing new products than its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Musk teased as much in recent weeks, saying Tesla will reveal more details about its smaller, cheaper next-generation electric-vehicle platform at its investor day on March 1. Given the company’s already dominant market share in the EV industry, it’s probably a day that its competitors are dreading.

It’s little wonder that 30 analysts have a “buy” recommendation on Tesla, a record for the company going back to its initial public offering in 2010. The number of upgrades rose 32 percent last year even though Tesla’s shares plummeted 65 percent amid a nasty bear market for tech stocks. The Bloomberg Recommendation Consensus Rating, which quantifies analyst forecasts, reveals that no other automaker was so emphatically upgraded.

Perhaps the reason why analysts are enamored with Tesla is because it continually proves the doubters wrong in a business once considered impregnable. Annual sales of its flagship Model 3 sedan increased 278 times to 493,310 units in 2022 from less than 2,000 in 2017, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Deliveries of Toyota’s Prius, the industry’s benchmark hybrid vehicle, fell 66 percent during the same period. Sales at Shenzen, China-based BYD Co., the biggest rival manufacturer of EVs, rose just 17-fold.

With every auto company now selling EVs — an outcome predicted to be the demise of the California startup that prompted global car buyers to begin rejecting the universal internal combustion engine — Tesla just two months ago was reported to be teetering from the assault of its detractors, led by short sellers Jim Chanos, David Einhorn and Andrew Left. Scion Asset Management founder Michael Burry, who made his fortune and reputation by correctly anticipating the subprime mortgage financial crisis, was among those seeing no end to the pitfalls enveloping Musk.

Too many of Tesla’s critics are focused on Musk’s antics. For them, Tesla’s success in the stock market and premium valuation even with last year’s setback is solely due to unrelenting demand from Musk’s legion of “fanboys” and the same folks who think Bitcoin will still go to $1 million and supplant the global financial system.

Few bothered to mention that Tesla, which lost $670 billion market value last year, was still twice the value of Toyota when the short-selling bonanza and stock market carnage climaxed. That’s because Tesla’s market share remains robust. With more than 3.6 million vehicles on the road, Tesla accounts for 20 percent of all battery-electric vehicles, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In 2017, the ratio was 13 percent. Who would have guessed back in 2017 that a Tesla Model S would reach the coveted 1 million miles driven milestone? But it happened in 2022 and may prompt an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

“Tesla has the most exciting product of any company on Earth by a long shot,” Musk said on Jan. 25 after the company released its quarterly earnings results. Hyperbole? Sure, but it’s hard to argue with the results, which certainly don’t scream “Tesla failed.”

Matthew A. Winkler, editor in chief emeritus of Bloomberg News, writes about markets. Bloomberg’s Shin Pei and Sebastian Andres Delgado Moral contributed to this column.

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