Tesla surprises with Q1 profit, has “record backlog” of orders

Tesla has extended its earnings streak, posting a surprise profit in the first quarter, typically a tough one for automakers. The company reported record levels of production, and says its vehicle order backlog is the highest it’s ever been.

“Q1 2020 was the first time in our history that we achieved a positive GAAP net income in the seasonally weak first quarter,” said Elon Musk on a conference call with analysts. “Despite global operational challenges, we were able to achieve our best first quarter for both production and deliveries.”

The profit of 9 cents per share (GAAP) took Wall Street by surprise. As Fortune put it, the analysts “could hardly have gotten it more wrong.” Ahead of the earnings report, pundits were predicting a loss of up to 32 cents per share.

Automotive sales soared year over year, from $3.72 billion in Q1 2019 to $5.13 billion in 2020. Automotive gross margins are trending steadily upward—they grew from 22.5% in the fourth quarter to 25.5% during the first quarter.

Tesla says the Shanghai Gigafactory is already building Model 3s at a lower cost than at the Fremont factory, and the margin on China-produced Model 3s is now “approaching” that of US-made models. Musk also announced that the company will lower the price of some of its Chinese-made Model 3s, making them eligible for recently-revised Chinese subsidies.

Tesla installed its 100,000th Powerwall home battery pack. However, as pv magazine noted, energy storage installations were down more than 50% from Q4 2019’s record of 530 MWh, while solar installations were down 35% from Q4 2019, and down 26% compared to Q1 2019.

Other tidbits:

  • Production of the Tesla Semi will be delayed until 2021—2 years later than the original forecast.
  • Tesla plans to announce the location of a new Cybertruck Gigafactory as soon as next month.
  • Tesla is once again earning a tidy side income selling air pollution credits to legacy automakers who prefer not to sell their own EVs. The company earned $354 million from this source, up 64% from a year ago.
  • Musk seems to be on track to qualify for a payday of over $600 million. He’ll only get this pot of gold if Tesla’s market cap sustains an average of $100 billion for both 6-month and 30-day periods. Those respective figures now stand at $97.3 billion and $109.8 billion.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas, a long-time Tesla follower, summed up the sunny situation: “There’s something for everyone, but modestly more material to be constructive than bearish. Profit was much better than expected, driven by China and regulatory credits.”

Apparently, all the good news has Elon Musk feeling sorry for the short sellers and his other enemies, so he decided to give them some more ammunition to attack him with. Following a late-night Twitter tirade against the lockdown that’s preventing Tesla from reopening its Fremont plant, he unleashed a profanity-peppered rant on the conference call, describing the shelter-in-place requirements that have been implemented by most of the nations of the world as “fascist.”

Predictably, most of the media were much more interested in Musk’s self-sabotaging screed than in the package of positive financial news. One mainstream media outlet called his comments “Trump-like,” and one staunch Musk supporter told me he feared that Musk’s remarks about freedom and fascists would be trotted out by the press for a long time to come.

TSLA stock, which was up as much 9% in after-hours trading following the earnings announcement, gave up all those gains and dipped into negative territory the next day, following the news of Elon’s immoderate outburst.

Mr. Musk certainly has reasons to be concerned. Credit Suisse analysts have estimated that the production pause at Fremont is costing Tesla some $300 million per week, and a seemingly inevitable recession is bound to hurt demand for upscale autos. On the other hand, Tesla has $8 billion in cash, and says it will be able to weather an extended shutdown. So far, the stock market seems to agree. Some auto industry observers also believe that legacy automakers will emerge from the crisis even further behind Tesla in the electrification race (Ford has already cancelled one EV program due to the “current environment”).

The level of uncertainty is such that Tesla declined to offer any financial forecasts until Q2 is over. “Unavoidably, the extended shutdown in Fremont will have an impact on our near-term financial performance,” said CFO Zach Kirkhorn. “We will need to work through how quickly we will be able to ramp production to prior levels.”

Sources: Tesla via Electrek, EVannex, pv magazine, Fortune, Forbes