Tesla overtakes GM to become most valuable US car company

The luxury electric-car company Tesla has yet to turn a profit, losing hundreds of millions of dollars last year alone. But on Monday, the darling of Silicon Valley became the most valuable American car company, surpassing General Motors, the Detroit granddaddy with $10 billion in sales on nearly 10 million vehicles.

Shares of Tesla, run by high-profile chief executive Elon Musk, put the company’s value at $51.5 billion, above GM’s $50.2 billion. Tesla blew by Ford ($44.6 billion) last week.

Musk’s company produced just 84,000 cars last year, with starting prices of $68,000.

The story of Tesla’s rise speaks to the divided American economy in 2017. Eco-friendly government tax credits, a boom in financial backing and the promise of futuristic innovation have created in Tesla a badge for the drivers who can afford its lofty prices.

At the same time, Tesla, with its long-running saga of production problems, hasn’t come close to fulfilling its mass-market ambitions. Beyond selling far fewer cars than its Detroit rivals, its automated factories employ a fraction of GM’s factory workforce.

Tesla’s stock-market rise has made Musk one of the country’s richest people and given him widespread influence, including another meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday. But even critics who say Tesla could represent a technology bubble in the stock market acknowledge that the company’s success points to a new reality in the automotive industry that will reshape the experience of driving for most Americans.

“This is the ultimate bubble, which is doomed to burst,” former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz said. “Tesla cars are fine, but the business model is not,” he said, pointing to the high cost of production, which is not recovered in the sale price. But, he added, “all legacy car companies will soon have a variety” of similar electric vehicles.

Tesla has two models for sale and a third due this year. The Model S starts at $68,000 and goes up to $134,000, depending on power and speed. The Tesla Model X, its sport-utility vehicle, begins at $85,000.

Its midmarket entry, the long-awaited Tesla Model 3, is expected to hit showrooms in the second half of the year and is priced around $35,000. At that price, the Model 3 will compete with GM’s Chevrolet all-electric Bolt and Ford’s all-electric Focus.

Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners, said Tesla competes in a rarefied market: “The car is a high-performance, luxury car that happens to have an electric engine,” Feinseth said. “It competes with BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.”

The stratospheric climb of Tesla’s stock price from $40 in 2013 to more than $312 in trading on Monday, propelled the company to its highest value yet.

A stock analyst’s recommendation to buy Tesla shares is “one of the more absurd I’ve seen in a while,” said Michael Farr, president of Farr, Miller & Washington, a D.C. investment firm. He noted that the company is forecast to lose money in 2018 but that the stock is expected to increase to $368 a share.

“Investors were asked to employ a ‘creative’ valuation methodology. I think that means that when the numbers don’t make any sense, one should ignore them and focus on other things,” Farr said. “It’s like being told to ignore the flames coming out of that airplane, I’m sure your trip will be fine.”

Feinseth said when you look at Tesla’s potential for growth, its dealer network, supply chain and the quality of the Tesla car itself, the value makes more sense.

“It’s not unusual to value growth companies even to the point of being a little crazy,” Feinseth said.

Tesla’s reputation as beyond-a-car company — it recently absorbed Musk’s Solar City company for $5 billion — has captured the imagination of California’s technology pack and, apparently, investors. The company has been developing batteries that could store power from rooftop solar panels, expanding its mission into a renewable-energy enterprise. Tesla also is exploring technology for self-driving cars.

Musk’s outreach to Trump and the new administration’s emphasis on U.S. manufacturing is working to Tesla’s advantage, helping propel the stock even more since the November election and by more than 40 percent since January.

“The market is willing to say I’m going to value you based on what I think your future potential is, and it could be off of what you think they could make selling cars, what they could make selling batteries, what they could make selling solar or what they could make as a mobility company,” said Matthew Stover, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group. “Everything is on the table, and it’s all speculative.”

Musk, 45, is a South African-born Canadian American business mogul with an estimated net worth of $14.8 billion, according to the latest estimates by Forbes magazine. He made his fortune selling money-transfer-service PayPal to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.

Like Amazon.com founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeffrey Bezos, Musk is known for pursuits that take him beyond his primary business. Bezos, through Blue Origin, and Musk, through SpaceX, have launched private companies aimed at human spaceflight.

Despite’s GM’s dominance in car sales (its U.S. market share is 17.3 percent compared with 0.2 percent for Tesla), analysts admire what Musk has built.

“Making cars is a hard business,” Feinseth said, “and putting together in such a short time a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility along with a dealer and showrooms and a support network of service centers and charging facilities, that is very hard.”

Despite the engaging story, the Tesla ending is still up for grabs.

One challenge is drivers’ fear that they will run out of power and be left stranded, known as range anxiety. Tesla’s models have a range generally less than 250 miles.

According to Tesla’s website, Tesla buyers, like all buyers of electric vehicles, may claim a $7,500 federal income tax credit. Several states offer additional incentives, often taking the form of a rebate.

There is some chance that a Republican Congress and administration could remove such incentives, although investor fears have apparently receded based on the soaring stock price.

Stover said that Tesla still has to prove it can make money. Its rise, he says, “says a lot more about the stock market than it does about the auto industry.”

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