As recently as August, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas — Tesla’s greatest cheerleader and a bull among bulls – was touting a “bull case” target share price for Tesla of between $511-$526 (all figures in U.S. dollars), as well as a shorter-term share price target of $317.
Wow. That’s some Tesla love.
And it came just days after Tesla’s shares suffered a big decline in July. That’s interesting and, if you believe in conspiracies, very, very troubling.
Yet here’s something more interesting, still: the investment side of Morgan Stanley has sold off the bulk of its Tesla shares over the past two quarters. As NASDAQ reports, Morgan Stanley, once among the biggest Tesla shareholders, liquidated 41 per cent of its holdings (586,478 shares) in the third quarter (Q3). Moreover, Morgan Stanley dumped what was then 60 per cent of its holdings (2.1 million shares) in Q2.
In just six months, Morgan Stanley’s holdings plunged from more than 3.5 million shares to just 833,704 at the end of Q3. Quietly, without great fanfare and while Morgan Stanley’s bullish analyst was screaming Tesla’s praises, this investment bank bailed almost entirely on Tesla.
What does this mean? Why should we care?
Well, it’s highly irregular. Morgan Stanley has earned millions helping with Tesla’s share offerings and bond sales over the years. If Morgan Stanley still owned 3.5 million shares, it would be Tesla’s fifth-largest owner today.
If any institution or individual knows Tesla inside and out, it’s Morgan Stanley. Yet in just two quarters, Morgan Stanley has all but wound up its position in Tesla.
(Note to regulators: While I have no proof of coordination between Morgan Stanley’s analysts and its traders, it is truly suspicious to see the influential Jonas aggressively pushing Tesla at precisely the same time his employer is dumping billions in Tesla holdings at a phenomenal profit. Coincidence? This calls for an investigation, I believe.)
Morgan Stanley was not alone in heading for the exits. It begs the question: have we seen the proverbial canary in the coal mine drop dead on Tesla?
I mean, beyond Morgan Stanley, consider Fidelity (FMR), the investment company controlled by the highly secretive Johnson family of Boston, Mass. The latest from NASDAQ shoes that Fidelity owns 19.5 million Tesla shares and remains Tesla’s single largest outside shareholder. Well, during the time Morgan Stanley was almost entirely wiping Tesla from its holdings, fattening its balance sheet, Fidelity sold even more shares – a total of 4.9 million in Q2 and Q3.
Another massive institutional owner, T. Rose Price and Associates sold 476,763 shares in Q3, on the heels of a stunning Q2 sale of 5.2 million Tesla shares (48.7 per cent of its then-holdings). And in Q2 and Q3 combined, Tesla’s No. 2 shareholder today with 13 million shares, Baillie Gifford and Co., dumbed more than half a million shares.
Of course, there is another side to this story. It’s about the new institutional investors who have piled into Tesla. Susquehanna International Group, for instance, dropped $300 million on Tesla, more than quadrupling its holdings. Several other big institutions also made dramatic bets on Tesla in Q3. (the details are here: http://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/tsla/institutional-holdings) The question is, have any or all of them sold Tesla this quarter?
If so, depending on timing, they all were positioned to make a bundle. Three numbers and three dates illustrate my point:
- on July 7, Tesla shares dipped to $313.12 and stayed below $320 for the entire month of July, creating a buying opportunity on this dip;
- on Sept. 18, Tesla shares peaked for the year at $385 and that was quite the surge;
- As I write this today, Tesla has dipped to $312.50, suggesting some investors made huge profits selling Tesla. Is this a dip or the sign of a loner-term trend to a lower Tesla share price?
What is knowable is this: if the big investors that jumped into Tesla at its summertime dip then jumped out in Q4, well, they would have pocketed millions. We’ll know more when Q4 numbers become available.
Here’s the takeaway: the latest available NASDAQ statistic show that 57 per cent of Tesla’s shares are held by huge, powerful, very smart and utterly ruthless institutional investors. That’s down from 62 per cent in recent times. So overall, the big investors have been winding down their stakes in Tesla.
Are they quietly signalling that it’s time to get out of Tesla? Are they canaries who have stopped singing?
Indeed, is Tesla poised to crash under the weight of the stuttering Model 3 launch? Is Tesla’s long run of red ink with no real profits in sight, a huge cash burn and future needs for more cash, scaring away investors?
Is the market tiring of the missed deadlines and exaggerated claims of CEO Elon Musk? Does the smart money believe that Tesla is about to be overwhelmed by established automakers and even newcomers to the electric vehicle and autonomous drive space?
Definitive answers are not far off and the signal to watch is the roll out of the so-far problematic Model 3. For the moment, I’ll say this: I don’t trust Morgan Stanley’s Tesla-touting analyst, but I do believe in following the money. And Morgan Stanley has pulled its money out of Tesla.