Tesla shareholders braced for worst results in seven years

Investors want to know whether electric-car maker is in the midst of a major change in direction

Tesla shareholders are bracing themselves for the carmaker’s worst performance in seven years in quarterly results this week, as it wrestles with slowing demand and a brutal price war.

But they also want to know whether Elon Musk’s company is in the midst of a major change in direction, after reports that it was slowing plans for a cheaper $25,000 electric car — known unofficially as the Model 2 — in favour of focusing on self-driving “robotaxis”.

Musk has denied there has been any change in plan on the Model 2, but has also said that focusing on autonomy was “a blindingly obvious move” and last week announced that a Tesla robotaxi would launch on August 8.

Investors, who are already digesting a steadily falling share price, disappointing sales figures, and a contentious plan to move company headquarters from Delaware to Texas, face another conundrum: whether Tesla will become a large-scale manufacturer, or a smaller provider of autonomous technology.


“It’s always been a margin versus volume debate for them, and this is the latest twist,” said James Anderson, a managing partner at Lingotto Investment Management, which holds Tesla shares.

“Whether it is a good twist depends vitally and decisively on what the shift to autonomous brings,” he told the Financial Times.

The public unveiling of the robotaxi in August “may well be make-or-break time for [Tesla’s] long-promised” self-driving technology, he added.

Tom Slater from Baillie Gifford, a top-15 Tesla shareholder, said this year would be “quieter” for Tesla sales, but added that investors were enthusiastic about the potential of its self-driving cars. “If you look at all the reviews of the latest version of their full self-driving software, it’s a massive leap forward,” he said during a recent presentation.

Tesla’s “full self-driving” mode — which customers can access for $99 a month — allows the car to steer, brake and accelerate without human intervention. But it is not fully autonomous because it still requires the driver to pay attention.

Tesla investor Christopher Tsai from Tsai Capital said that while he expected competition for electric vehicles would intensify and that Tesla would lose market share, “we also believe the company will increase production and deliveries substantially in the years to come and further its lead in autonomous driving”.

Gary Black, managing partner of The Future Fund, another shareholder, said many investors were asking him what the company would do this week. “Much depends on how [Musk] frames timing of the $25,000″ car, he said, adding that he still expected production to start in 2026 “despite robotaxi prioritisation”.

However, Barclays analyst Dan Levy said investors seeking clarity about Tesla’s strategy were likely to be disappointed. “Plans for Model 2 will likely get most attention but don’t expect a satisfying answer,” Levy said.

The company’s quarterly results are also expected to be underwhelming. Analysts are predicting they will show the lowest gross margin since early 2017, when it had just begun manufacturing its first mass-market car, the Model 3.

Levy said he expected “modestly negative” free cash flow, which would be the first quarter of negative cash since the start of 2020.

Tesla has already reported an 8 per cent fall in car sales in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2023.

The downbeat news and questions about direction may even prompt a change of heart among some diehard fans.

“We view Tesla’s shift as thesis-changing, and worry the stock will need to undergo a potentially painful transition in ownership base,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Emmanuel Rosner, who downgraded the stock from buy to hold.

“Investors previously focused on Tesla’s EV volume and cost advantage will potentially throw in the towel and eventually be replaced by AI/tech investors with longer time horizons.”

He added: “There is considerable risk from going [all in] for autonomy.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024