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Tesla stock ends the week down 15%, the worst performance of the year

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Elon Musk, chief executive officer of SpaceX and Tesla, and owner of X. formerly known as Twitter.
Gonzalo Fuentes | Reuters

Teslathird-quarter earnings call Wednesday.

It marks the worst week for Tesla stock of the year, although shares of the electric automaker are still up 96% year-to-date.

For the period ending Sept. 30, 2023, Tesla reported $23.35 billion in revenue and $1.85 billion in profits, a decline versus the prior quarter. Profits were lower than the same quarter last year, too.

On an earnings call to discuss the Q3 results CEO Elon Musk, who divides his time between Tesla, the social network X (formerly Twitter), defense contractor SpaceX, and startups xAI, Neuralink and The Boring Co., struck a deeply pessimistic note about the economy and emphasized that cost-cutting and price cuts would be essential for Tesla in coming quarters.

Musk also threw cold water on shareholders’ expectations for Tesla’s long-delayed Cybertruck, while declining to give details about a “robotaxi” and autonomous vehicle tech that the company has been working on and promising for years. The company is already lagging Cruise and Waymo in the U.S., and robotaxi developers including the ridehailing giant, Didi, in China.

In regards to the company’s deeply unconventional pickup, Musk went so far as to say, “We dug our own grave with Cybertruck” on the Q3 call. He also said he wanted to “temper expectations” for the vehicle, saying it’s a “great product,” but Tesla expects it will take a year to 18 months before the Cybertruck becomes a “positive cash flow contributor.”

“Demand is off the charts. We have over 1 million people who have reserved the car, so it’s not a demand issue,” Musk claimed. “But we have to make it, and we need to make it a price that people can afford, insanely difficult things.”

Tesla is planning an event to officially debut the Cybertruck on Nov. 30, but hasn’t yet disclosed the truck’s final specifications and pricing. It’s not clear how many of the people who paid for a $100 refundable reservation for the Cybertruck will follow through and purchase the trucks.

Musk repeatedly addressed Tesla’s efforts to reduce costs internally, and the cost of its electric vehicles for customers. During a question-and-answer portion of the earnings call with analysts, Musk said, “I am worried about the high-interest rate environment that we’re in.” For car buyers, he said, “If interest rates remain high or if they go even higher, it’s that much harder for people to buy the car. They simply cannot afford it.”

“Reducing the cost of our vehicles is our top priority,” Tesla’s new CFO Vaibhav Taneja said on the call, echoing Musk’s concerns and priorities. “We’ve tried to offset such adjustments via our focus on reducing costs. However, there is an inherent lag in cost reductions, which in turn impacts margins,” he added.

Musk made some optimistic claims on the call, for example assuring investors that Tesla will continue to, “invest significantly in AI development,” a technology that he has pegged as “the massive game changer,” with “potential to make Tesla the most valuable company in the world by far” with “fully autonomous cars at scale and fully autonomous humanoid robots.”

However, the market did not respond to the celebrity CEO’s long-term vision statements as it has in the past. Even some of the analysts who are reliably bullish on Tesla issued cautious notes after the company’s Q3 results as CNBC Pro reported.

For example, “No more rose-colored glasses,” Wells Fargo analyst Colin Langan wrote in a note Wednesday. And Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas reduced his price target to $380 from $400. His forecast still implies more than a 56% upside in a note out after the Q3 Tesla call.

Jonas asked, “How can we defend a ‘growth’ stock that appears ready to enter its 2nd consecutive year of earnings decline?” He later answered, “We feel it is also important and reasonable to consider the long-term potential of the products and services being commercialized by the company,” in the note.

Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein, who is typically more skeptical of Tesla’s hype, maintained an underperform rating on the EV maker with a $150 price target on shares, suggesting a 38% downside from Wednesday’s close. “5% auto revenue growth, collapsing margins and trading at 200x FCF — is the story broken?” the analyst asked in a note out Thursday.

Some of Tesla’s long-term believers, including Jonas, see the company’s Q3 results as an alarm bell signaling a difficult outlook for EVs broadly. Chinese EV makers, among other automakers, saw shares decline following Tesla’s cautious, third-quarter call as well.

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