Wednesday, April 25, 2018

25/4/18: Tesla: Lessons in Severe and Paired Risks and Uncertainties


Tesla, the darling of environmentally-sensible professors around the academia and financially ignorant herd-following investors around the U.S. urban-suburban enclaves of Tech Roundabouts, Silicon Valleys and Alleys, and Social Media Cul-de-Sacs, has been a master of cash raisings, cash burnings, and target settings. To see this, read this cold-blooded analysis of Tesla's financials: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimcollins/2018/04/25/a-brief-history-of-tesla-19-billion-raised-and-9-billion-of-negative-cash-flow/2/#3364211daf3d.

Tesla, however, isn't that great at building quality cars in sustainable and risk-resilient ways. To see that, consider this:

  1. Tesla can't procure new parts that would be consistent with quality controls norms used in traditional automotive industry: https://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1116291_tesla-turns-to-local-machine-shops-to-fix-parts-before-theyre-installed-on-new-cars.
  2. Tesla's SCM systems are so bad, it is storing faulty components at its factory. As if lean SCM strategies have some how bypassed the 21st century Silicon Valley: http://www.thedrive.com/news/20114/defective-tesla-parts-are-stacked-outside-of-california-machine-shop-report-shows.
  3. It's luxury vehicles line is littered with recalls relating to major faults: https://www.wired.com/story/tesla-model-s-steering-bolt-recall/. Which makes one pause and think: if Tesla can't secure quality design and execution at premium price points, what will you get for $45,000 Model 3?
  4. Tesla burns through billions of cash year on year, and yet it cannot deliver on volume & quality mix for its 'make-or-break' Model 3: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2018/04/hitting-ramp-tesla-built-nearly-21-percent-first-quarter-model-3s-last-week/.
  5. Tesla's push toward automation is an experiment within an experiment, and, as such, it is a nesting of one tail risk uncertainty within another tail risk uncertainty. We don't have many examples of such, but here is one: https://arstechnica.com/cars/2018/04/experts-say-tesla-has-repeated-car-industry-mistakes-from-the-1980s/ and it did not end too well. The reason why? Because uncertainty is hard to deal with on its own. When two sources of uncertainty correlate positively in terms of their adverse impact, likelihood, velocity of evolution and proximity, you have a powerful conventional explosive wrapped around a tightly packed enriched uranium core. The end result can be fugly.
  6. Build quality is poor: https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/03/munro-compares-tesla-model-3-build-quality-kia-90s/.  So poor, Tesla is running "reworking" and "remanufacturing" poor quality cars facilities, including a set-aside factory next to its main production facilities, which takes in faulty vehicles rolled off the main production lines: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-03-22/elon-musk-is-a-modern-henry-ford-that-s-bad.
  7. Meanwhile, and this is really a black eye for Tesla-promoting arm-chair tenured environmentalists, there is a pesky issue with Tesla's predatory workforce practices, ranging from allegations of discrimination https://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Tesla-Racial-Bias-Suit-Tests-the-Rights-of-12827883.php, to problems with unfair pay practices https://www.technologyreview.com/the-download/610186/tesla-says-it-has-a-plan-to-improve-working-conditions/, and unions busting: http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/21065/tesla-workers-elon-musk-factory-fremont-united-auto-workers.  To be ahead of the curve here, consider Tesla an Uber-light governance minefield. The State of California, for one, is looking into some of that already: https://gizmodo.com/california-is-investigating-tesla-following-a-damning-r-1825368102.
  8. Adding insult to the injury outlined in (7) above, Tesla seems to be institutionally unable to cope with change. In 2017, Musk attempted to address working conditions issues by providing new targets for fixing these: https://techcrunch.com/2017/02/24/elon-musk-addresses-working-condition-claims-in-tesla-staff-wide-email/. The attempt was largely an exercise in ignoring the problems, stating they don't exist, and then promising to fix them. A year later, problems are still there and no fixes have been delivered: https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/tesla-fremont-factory-injuries?utm_term=.qa8EzdgEw#.dto7Dnp7A. Then again, if Tesla can't deliver on core production targets, why would anyone expect it to act differently on non-core governance issues?
Here's the problem, summed up in a tight quote:


Now, personally, I admire Musk's entrepreneurial spirit and ability. But I do not own Tesla stock and do not intend to buy its cars. Because when on strips out all the hype surrounding this company, it's 'disruption' model borrows heavily from governance paradigms set up by another Silicon Valley 'disruption darling' - Uber, its financial model borrows heavily from the dot.com era pioneers, and its management model is more proximate to the 20th century Detroit than to the 21st century Germany.

If you hold Tesla stock, you need to decide whether all of the 8 points above can be addressed successfully, alongside the problems of production targets ramp up, new models launches and other core manufacturing bottlenecks, within an uncertain time frame that avoids triggering severe financial distress? If your answer is 'yes' I would love to hear from you how that can be possible for a company that never in its history delivered on a major target set on time. If your answer is 'no', you should consider timing your exit.


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