Tesla comes of age at just the right time

Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk walks next to a screen showing an image of Tesla Model 3 car during an opening ceremony for Tesla China-made Model Y program in Shanghai, China January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo - RC2ASO93VIEI

MELBOURNE, July 26 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Tesla (TSLA.O) has finally joined the grown-ups. Elon Musk’s electric-car maker didn’t just charge past $1 billion in earnings last quarter for the first time. Its pre-tax margin of almost 11% also finally rivals leaders like Toyota Motor (7203.T) and General Motors (GM.N). With the industry in upheaval, Tesla’s coming of age has come at just the right time.

The company didn’t, for a change, have to rely on one-off items to make its numbers. While Tesla raked in $354 million of revenue in the second quarter from selling environmental credits to gas-guzzler producers like Stellantis (STLA.MI), strip that out, and its pre-tax margin was still healthy at just shy of 9%. Conversely in the three months to the end of March, for example, gains on selling bitcoin equated to more than a fifth of profit.

Musk, who has a propensity for micro-managing, does not appear to have lost his recently discovered knack for keeping costs under control, either. Overall expenses rose almost 9% while revenue jumped around 14% from the first quarter. And that’s all with a global semiconductor shortage and the delayed launch of its updated higher-margin models, the S and the X.

The company’s valuation is another story. At $620 billion, it is way overvalued at 115 times the next 12 months’ earnings, according to Refinitiv data. And its stock remains volatile: Between late January and early March, the company lost some $310 billion in value, more than next-largest Toyota’s market worth. Over the next few weeks, it then added $90 billion, which eclipses GM’s value.

Such shifts are likely to continue as Tesla tries to grow sales while competition increases. That’s no longer coming just from established manufacturers like Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), Ford Motor (F.N) and GM. There are now young startups, too, including companies like Lucid (LCID.O), which started trading after combining with a special purpose acquisition company on Monday.

Still, both new businesses like Lucid and older ones that are playing catch-up could undergo the growing pains that plagued Tesla as they ramp up production on an entirely new type of car. Missed deadlines, disappointing sales, quality issues and cash crunches all await. While Tesla has some of those challenges, they are no longer existential. That, at least, makes its push to validate its stock price look less fanciful.

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- Tesla on July 26 reported second-quarter net income of $1.1 billion, or $1.02 per share. That compares with the mean estimate of sell-side analysts of 58 cents a share, according to data collated by Refinitiv. Revenue was just under $12 billion compared with the expected $11.3 billion.

Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Amanda Gomez

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