I began my career as an automotive journalist when I was business writer for The Edmonton Journal. This is why I think in “buy the car, buy the stock terms.”
Which brings me to Tesla Inc.
As I write this, shares of Tesla are trading at $365.20, giving the company a market valuation of $58.63 billion (all figures in U.S. dollars).
Some perspective: General Motors Co. is trading at less than one-tenth of that, at $35.67, for a market cap of $51.4 billion. BMW AG is worth $52.80 billion ($80.14/share).
Not to belabor the point, but GM and BMW earn billions in profits each year. Never-profitable Tesla is trading at an astounding price based on pure speculation about future potential.
Some prominent analysts believe Tesla will soon be worth even more. Robert W. Baird & Co. a private equity firm, has an analyst on board who has set a Tesla price target at $411.
“In our opinion, TSLA isn’t a good short headed into the Model 3 ramp as we continue to believe upcoming catalysts will drive shares higher,” advises analyst Ben Kallo. The EV automaker is a top pick for 2017 at the firm.
Baird also owns shares in Tesla. A surging Tesla is good for Baird. But not as good as it is for the top 15 Tesla shareholders. And this is where things get very interesting.
There were 166.89 million Tesla shares outstanding as of July 31. About 71 million of those shares, or 42.5%, are held by 15 huge institutional investors, according to the latest Form 13F’s for 2Q17. (Within 45 days after the end of each calendar quarter, institutional investors with at least $100 million in assets under management are required to file a Form 13F with the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission.)
Let’s drill deeper. According to the latest from NASDAQ, 777 institutional investors hold 57.04% of all outstanding Tesla shares.
The point is, about $35 billion of Tesla’s $58.63 billion market cap is owned by a very small group of big institutions who are making big bets on Tesla. These institutions are run by like-minded people who travel in the same circles, go to the same clubs, send their kids to the same schools, live in similar mansions and penthouses, sail about on similar yachts… These people think alike and are in constant communication, professionally and socially.
Take Fidelity (FMR LLC), which is a very secretive entity run by Boston’s Johnson family. I am sure you’ve heard of Fidelity; it runs ads everywhere for its wealth management services.
Fidelity owns 21.3 million shares of Tesla, or 12.8% of the company. Baillie Gifford & Co., owns 13.4 million shares of Tesla, or 8.0%. Yes, two big and powerful investment institutions own one-fifth of Tesla.
Vanguard Group owns about 4.0%, T. Rowe Price has 3.3%, and so on. Morgan Stanley, whose analyst Adam Jonas is the most bullish of the Tesla bulls, holds nearly 1.0% of Tesla. Even Canada’s own Bank of Montreal has a 2.0% stake in Tesla.
This small group of huge investors decides whether Tesla shares go up or down by their trading behavior. Trading is influenced by the pronouncements of analysts like Kallo and Jonas.
On top of that, many of these firms earn a tidy profit from servicing Tesla short-sellers. But again, they control what’s available to those who want to short Tesla.
In one sense, this is all a casino game being played for huge stakes by rich members of a very small club. That said, plenty of everyday investors hold mutual funds and other investments tied to the fortunes of Fidelity, Vanguard, BMO and the like. In that sense, it’s a game being played with other peoples’ money.
At the present time, there is no evidence of any collusion or coordination amongst these like-minded investors. There is no evidence to suggest they are coordinating their trades or anything like that. Personally, I doubt there is any such thing happening – not in a formal sense.
But I cannot emphasize enough the fact that a small group of investors who control the fate of Tesla’s share price think alike, run in the same circles, associate with the same people and share the same legal advice. Right now it’s in their interest to see Tesla’s shares remain strong and grow, despite the fact Tesla is unprofitable and has always been so.
Tesla may very well turn out to be what CEO Elon Musk has promised – an energy company with a market cap to rival Apple. But what if that doesn’t happen?
A Tesla failure, or even underperformance that disappoints the market, could result in a small group of big investors losing fortunes – along with the small investors who themselves either hold stakes in Fidelity, Vanguard and the rest or let these firms manage their investments, or both.
This is what worries me most about Tesla. And this is why I believe CEO Elon Musk’s outsized pronouncements and promises are dangerous. If Tesla does not live up to its promise, big institutions and investors of all sizes will be badly hurt.