I have not had a chance to scour the 10-Q, which was finally filed this morning. GM and Ford are 7-8x larger than Tesla in terms of revenues and 40-50x larger in terms of number of vehicles sold worldwide. Those two companies file their 10-Q almost immediately after filing the quarterly 8-K financial summary. There’s no reason for TSLA to delay the filing of its 10-Q by over a week other than it needs the extra time to make its fraudulent numbers conform to SEC-filing standards (which have a low bar as it is). I will be sharing my observations with my Short Seller’s Journal subscribers on TSLA’s 10-Q either this week or next.
For me the big event last week was Tesla’s earnings report. And Musk did not disappoint. With regard to that, I’m wondering if it’s possible to be astonished and not surprised at the same time.
Tesla originally was going to report earnings this week. But, curiously, moved up its earnings release by a week to last Thursday. At the same time, the CFO exercised stock options that did not expire until 2022. While this is technically legal, it begs scrutiny. Why exercise options with a $31 exercise price that do not expire until 2022 unless your intent is to unload the shares when the blackout period is lifted?
For me the obvious answer is that the CFO knew the earnings report would cause a big spike-up in the stock price of which he wanted to take advantage. However, if the CFO truly believed that Tesla was undervalued and was going to be worth a lot more in the long run, he would have held onto the $160k in cash he spent exercising the options until the options approached expiration. Anyone who takes a basic finance class knows that you always hold free in-the-money money options for as long as possible, especially if you believe there’s a good probability that they’ll become more valuable over time – unless you have inside information and know that the stock is going to go lower before the options expire.
The Q3 earnings report produced by Telsa did not disappoint in terms of the high level accounting magic performed. It’s important to note that quarterly financials are not audited. The CEO and CFO can essentially do what they want with the numbers. Automotive sales soared from Q2 to Q3, from $3.1 billion to $5.8 billion. Yet, every other major expense and balance sheet item as a percentage of sales is completely out of whack with same items over the previous four quarters. Perhaps this chart captures the essence of the matter (@TeslaCharts has prepared a stunning visual summary of Tesla’s numbers):
In general, there should be some relative degree of continuity in any company’s income statement and balance sheet accounts, barring some major fundamental change, like a merger or large asset restructuring.
The cash from operations in TSLA’s Q3 this year sticks out like a sore thumb. Over 40% of this came from stretching out the accounts payable by $566 million (more on this below).
The other portion of this “cash” generated by operations came from “net income.” Over the last four quarters, TSLA’s average net loss per quarter was around $760 million. Then suddenly net income swings nearly a billion dollars from a $743 net loss in Q2 to net income of $255 million in Q3. This is simply not credible without fraudulent accounting schemes at work. Please note that these are GAAP accounting numbers. In order to verify that real cash was produced by Tesla’s operations, we would have to see an independent audit of Tesla’s bank accounts, something that will never happen.
From Q2 to Q3, TSLA’s automotive gross profit improved by $882 million based on delivering 42,760 more cars. That’s $20,655 of incremental gross profit on a car that sells for as little as $49,000. The weighted average sales price for the Model 3, S and X combined is around $63,000 (based on the number of each sold). This suggests a gross profit margin of nearly 33% per incremental car sold, which is impossible in the automotive business. No other auto manufacturer in the world comes even remotely close to this level of gross margin.
For it’s latest quarter, GM’s gross profit was 10%; in 2017, Daimler Benz’s gross profit was 20%. It’s simply not credible that Tesla generated this level of profitability on its vehicles without accounting fraud. This is especially true given that Tesla claimed that it built and used its own delivery trailers to make deliveries. This should have caused a noticeably large jump in cost of automotive revenues. Yet, miraculously TSLA’s automotive sales gross margin soared from 20.5% in Q2 to over 25% in Q3. Simply not believable and reeks of fraudulent accounting.
One area of Tesla’s income statement that contains probable fraud is SG&A expenses (sales, general and administrative expenditures). Over the previous four quarters, TSLA’s level of SG&A was running around 20% percent of revenues. It was 18.7% of revenues in Q2 2018. But this quarter, Musk somehow parted the Red Sea and was able drive SG&A down to 10.7% of revenues. SG&A outright actually fell from Q2 to Q3. SG&A has averaged $19,000 per vehicle delivered every quarter since 2014.
In Q3 TSLA reports that SG&A plunged to around $9,000 per vehicle delivered. We know Tesla brought in mechanics from its service centers around the country to help push production levels to the limit. This should have caused a large jump in SG&A. It’s impossible to explain how a drop in SG&A expense like this occurred without access to the inside books. My best guess is that millions of dollars worth of expense invoices were mysteriously misplaced and not recorded for the quarter. This would partially explain by accounts payable soared by over half a billion dollars.
Another area of cost accounting that has red flags waving and warning flares firing is depreciation. Depreciation expense as a percent of revenues plunged from 12.1% in Q2 to 7.3% in Q3. It was 13.4% in Q3 2017. Generically, part of the depreciation is straight-line useful life of equipment. The “tent” built in Q2 should have added to this part of depreciation. But there’s also depreciation expense attached to each car produced and sold on a per car basis. This too should have caused an increase in depreciation. From the cash flow statement, TSLA’s depreciation expense in Q3 was $502.8 million, or $6,021 per car delivered. In Q2 the depreciation expense was $485.2 million, or $11,922 per car delivered. Again, this is theoretically and realistically unexplainable, other than fraud.
Tesla shows a cash balance of $2.967 billion at the end of Q3, up from $2.2 billion at the end of Q2. However, Telsa’s accounts payable surged by $566 million vs. Q2. It’s hard to imagine how this occurred when capital expenditures and SG&A declined. The only explanation is that TSLA stretched out its payment of bills to suppliers and vendors in order to conserve cash. This is consistent with the steady flow of smaller vendors who are forced to file legal complaints in order to get court-ordered payment judgments.
Accounting fraud would explain why there’s been a steady exodus of accounting and finance executives over the last year. The number of senior executives leaving the Company accelerated over the summer, including the Chief Accounting Officer, who quit in early September after less than a month on the job.
By the most stringent measure, TSLA is technically insolvent. Current assets less current liabilities is negative $1.855 billion. Cash balance less customer deposits is $2.062 billion. TSLA has a $230 million convertible bond payment due in November. Less this, cash is $1.832 billion. If we were to assume that accounts receivable and payable – theoretically the most liquid assets on a balance after cash – were settled tomorrow, net of cash it would leave a cash deficit of $609 million. That’s insolvency. On top of that, after the November convertible maturity, another $1 billion in debt is due by March 2019.
Keep in mind TSLA’s cash balance was artificially generated by stretching payables, slashing capex to the bone and somehow miraculously cutting back on expenses. This is simply not sustainable, let alone not credible. Note: Tesla’s capex as a percent of revenues was 7.5%. Over the last six quarters TSLA’s capex as percent of revenues has averaged 25% of revenues. In other words, Tesla is plundering its asset base and burning furniture to pay bills and show cash on the balance sheet.
To make things more interesting for the Company, it was reported last week that Tesla slipped several spots in the Consumer Reports reliability ranking. In its analysis of 29 auto brands, Tesla ranks 27th. CR characterized the Model 3 as having “average reliability.” Also of interest is the effect of newly available competition. In Norway month-to-date, Jaguar has delivered 365 newly available Jaguar i-Pace while there were 185 Tesla X+S combined. The EU has not approved the Model 3 for deliveries yet, but the i-Pace competes with the X and S models. When Audi’s e-Tron is available, I doubt there will be any demand for the Model 3 plus it will put a huge dent in European demand for Telsa’s X & S models.
Add on to this the news report that the FBI/Justice Department is probing whether Tesla misstated information about production of the Model 3 for the purpose of misleading investors. The FBI has subpoenaed former employees seeking to interview them. The FBI is looking into Musk’s public forecasts about Model 3 production vs. the actual production numbers, which turned out to be substantially lower that Musk’s continual assertions that deliveries would be significantly higher. It will be hard for Tesla to raise money with this investigation in process.
It’s been suggested that TSLA insiders knew that the FBI report was going to hit on Friday and that’s why the Company moved its earning release up a week with two days’ notice. It would also explain why the CFO exercised deep in-the-money stock options that do not expire until 2022. Musk knew that the news report would have less impact on the stock if it hit the tape a day after the fraudulently inflated earnings report. At some point, many of the large mutual fund companies with big positions in the shares will have to consider the possibility of facing breach of fiduciary duty charges for continuing to hold TSLA shares given latest the Justice Department/FBI development. Keep in mind the Justice Department has several other areas of inquiry and the SEC is examining other issues beyond the issue recently settled with Musk.
TSLA’s stock likely would have sold off this week absent the massive short-squeeze that has caused the Dow and SPX to go vertical. In fact, Tesla stock declined from it’s opening level on Monday through Tuesday’s close. In all probability, TSLA would be below $300 if the Dow and SPX simply flat-lined or drifted lower the past three days.
While not a Ponzi scheme in a strict sense because TSLA does generate revenues, TSLA requires a steady inflow of funding from the capital markets to remain solvent. At some point it will need a few billion to address the money it owes to suppliers and contractors and to service its enormous and growing pile of debt. Like Enron, at some point its cash furnace will run out of printed money to fuel it and the stock will collapse. I provide my Short Seller’s Journal subscribers with both short-term and long-term short-sell and trading ideas on Tesla.