Apr 23, 2024 - Business

Tesla's war footing

Illustration of the Tesla logo puncturing a tire like a nail

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A day of reckoning has come for Elon Musk, who's set to address investors and analysts about Tesla on Tuesday evening following a disastrous start to the year for the world's most valuable car company.

Why it matters: A perfect storm of slumping sales, a plummeting stock price, thousands of job cuts, internal leaks, product recalls, and a mercurial CEO has set the stage for a potentially explosive earnings call.

Zoom in: Consider the past three weeks alone.

  • On April 2, Tesla reported a huge miss in its Q1 vehicle deliveries — a stunning setback that Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives described as an "unmitigated disaster."
  • On April 5, Reuters reported that Tesla was scrapping plans for a low-cost EV and going all-in on robotaxis — a huge pivot, given that investors have long viewed the affordable Model 2 sedan as key to the company's growth.
    • Musk denied the report but then swiftly announced plans to unveil a robotaxi on Aug. 8.
  • On April 15, Musk told employees that Tesla was cutting 10% of its workforce. Two executives announced they were leaving the company.
  • On April 17, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a recall of all 4,000 Cybertrucks due to issues with its accelerator pedal — a deep psychological blow to one of Musk's pet projects.

By the numbers: Entering this week, Tesla's stock was down about 41% in 2024, while the broader S&P 500 was up 5%.

What to watch: Musk's earnings call Tuesday will be "must-see TV," Cars.com analyst Rebecca Lindland tells Axios. Investors are eager for answers on several pressing questions:

  • Is demand continuing to fall after the company reported its first quarterly sales decline in about two years?
  • Is Musk truly committed to delivering a next-generation affordable car? And is his roadmap to self-driving cars realistic and profitable?
  • Can the company sustain profitability after announcing more price cuts?

Between the lines: This will be the type of earnings report where the past financials aren't as important as what Musk says about the future.

  • Even if the Model 2 remains on schedule, it's not expected to arrive in meaningful volumes for another two years, leaving the automaker with few growth hopes from now until then.
  • "Results matter, but growth factors may matter more," Bank of America analyst John Murphy wrote in a research note.
  • "The clock has struck midnight for Musk to lay out the strategic plan for the future," Ives wrote in a research note, arguing that the company should prioritize the Model 2 over the robotaxi.

The intrigue: Layoffs and exorbitant executive pay are key motivating factors for Musk's labor nemesis, the UAW, which is actively attempting to unionize Tesla's factory workers.

Reality check: Tesla has been in dire straits before, nearing bankruptcy multiple times during what Musk dubbed "production and logistics hell" from 2017 to 2019.

The bottom line: Investors want to see a clear-eyed CEO at a time when Musk's vision for the company is under intense scrutiny.

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