A Do-it-yourself (DIY) Valuation of Tesla: Of Investment Regrets and Disagreements!
I was hoping to move on from Tesla to my data update posts, but my last post on Tesla drew some attention, in good and bad ways, partly because of its timing. Right after I sold my shares for $640, last week (January 30), the stock took off, climbing to more than $900/share in the matter of days. As always, there were people on both sides of the great Tesla divide commenting on my valuation, with bears accusing me of wearing rose-colored glasses and making unrealistically optimistic assumptions, and bulls pointing to inputs that they felt under estimated the company’s potential. I wish that I had been clearer in my writing that the numbers that I was using did not represent “the” valuation of Tesla but that this was “my” valuation of the company, and that I not only expect disagreement, but I think it is part and parcel of a healthy market. Rather than leave that view as an abstraction, I thought I would revisit the valuation and present it in a different format, one in which…
I was hoping to move on from Tesla to my data update posts, but my last post on Tesla drew some attention, in good and bad ways, partly because of its timing. Right after I sold my shares for $640, last week (January 30), the stock took off, climbing to more than $900/share in the matter of days. As always, there were people on both sides of the great Tesla divide commenting on my valuation, with bears accusing me of wearing rose-colored glasses and making unrealistically optimistic assumptions, and bulls pointing to inputs that they felt under estimated the company’s potential. I wish that I had been clearer in my writing that the numbers that I was using did not represent “the” valuation of Tesla but that this was “my” valuation of the company, and that I not only expect disagreement, but I think it is part and parcel of a healthy market. Rather than leave that view as an abstraction, I thought I would revisit the valuation and present it in a different format, one in which you can choose your story for Tesla and estimate the value for yourself.
The Key Levers of Value
In my earlier post, I valued Tesla and presented my valuation in a picture, where I connected the story that I was telling about the company to my estimated value per share of roughly $427 per share:
If you find the numbers off putting or overwhelming, the value is determined by four key levers:
The Growth Lever: The revenue growth rate controls how much and how quickly the firm will be able to grow its revenues from autos, software, solar panels and anything else that you believe the company will be selling. Rather than focus on the growth rate, I would suggest looking at the estimated revenues in 2030 (ten years out). In my Tesla story (valuation), I have estimated revenues of $125 billion in 2030, a five-fold increase over the 2019 revenues.
The Profitability Lever: The target (pre-tax) operating margin determines how profitable you think the company will be, once its growth days start to scale down. Since these are operating margins, not gross or net margins, they are after all operating expenses (cost of goods sold, SG&A etc.) but before any financial expenses (interest expenses). In keeping with my view that R&D is really a capital expense, I capitalize R&D, which improves Tesla’s profitability, and target an operating margin of 12% by 2025.
The Investment Efficiency Lever: To grow, companies have to invest in production capacity and the sales to invested capital drives how efficiently investment is done, with higher sales to capital ratios reflecting more efficiency. With Tesla, I assume that every dollar of investment (in new factories, technology and new R&D) in the first 5 years generates $3 in revenues, as it utilizes excess capacity in the early years, and that this efficiency drops back by a third, as capacity constraints hit.
The Risk lever: There are two inputs in this valuation that incorporate risk. The first is the cost of capital that I start the valuation with, a reflection of risk as seen through the eyes of a diversified investor in the company. The second is the likelihood of failure (or distress), where the company has to liquidate assets and lose the additional value that it could have generated as a going concern. With Tesla, I set this cost of capital at 7% and assume that given its marginal profitability and significant debt load, the chance of failure is 10%.
The value per share of $427 comes out of these assumptions and is driving my investment decisions. Since this is my story and valuation, I expect and welcome disagreement on any and all of these inputs. After all, I don’t have a crystal ball to forecast the future or a monopoly on the right estimates
A DIY Valuation of Tesla
In the rest of this post, rather than force my story on your, I would like you to make your choices on the growth, profitability, investment and risk dimensions future for Tesla, and just in case you need some help, I will offer data perspective, on each of those choices.
The Growth Lever
To make your judgment on how much revenue Tesla will have in a decade, it may help to take a look at the overall auto business. In 2019, the collective revenues of all publicly traded auto companies in the world was about $2.46 trillion and the the compounded average growth rate in those revenues over the last decade has been about 3.5%:
Source data: S&P Capital IQ
Put simply, this is a big market, but the overall market is in slow growth. To provide some perspective on what the bigger auto companies generate in revenues, I have listed the 20 largest auto companies, in terms of revenues in the table below:
Source data: S&P Capital IQ
Tesla does make the list, coming in at the very bottom of the list, and its compounded annual growth rate between 2010 and 2019 stands out, partly the base revenues for the company, in 2010, were tiny. Since one of the Tesla stories told by optimistic is that it is a tech company, It may help in your estimation to see what large tech companies look like, and to make this assessment, I decided to focus on the giants on top of the tech heap in the FAANG stocks, with Microsoft thrown in for full measure:
Note that while the tech companies are substantially more profitable than the auto companies, in terms of margins and dollar operating income, their revenues tend to be more muted, reflecting the pricing of their products and services. Apple, the largest market cap company in the world, had revenues of $ 260 billion in 2019, and Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, by far, had revenues of $129 billion, and both companies lagged Toyota and Volkswagen, on total revenues.
With this background, I think that you have the ammunition you need to make your own revenue judgments for Tesla in a decade, differentiating your story from mine, where revenues in 2030 for Tesla are roughly $125 billion. So, with no further ado, here are your choices (pick one):
Since Tesla’s revenue stream includes not just autos but also software, batteries and solar panels, your story may augment revenues to reflect these, but remember that these streams cannot deliver the same revenue heft as selling cars, though they may be more profitable. In addition, be cautious about growth rates, since it is almost impossible to grasp the compounding effect, without looking at the dollar values. For instance, there are some who take Elon Musk at his word that he plans to grow Tesla at 50%-100% a year; applying a 50% growth rate to Tesla’s revenues would give it $470 billion in revenues, which would make it second only to Walmart on a global basis. With 100% growth, Tesla’s revenues would be around $4 trillion in 2030, and if you can find a way to get there, good luck to you!
The Profitability Lever
To make your judgment on operating profitability, take a look at both the largest auto company tables and the one for FAANG stocks in the last section. There is not a single large auto company with double digit margins, and across all auto companies listed publicly, the profit picture is even more bleak:
Source: S&P Capital IQ
The picture is brighter for the FAANG stocks, where the aggregate operating margin across all five stocks is 19.87%, well above auto industry averages. That margin, though, is delivered on smaller revenues and with business models where production costs are a smaller fraction of selling prices. The marginal cost of producing an extra unit for Microsoft is close to zero on both its Office and Cloud business, and even for Apple, which derives a large chunk of its revenues from the iPhone, the cost of making the iPhone is about about 40% of the price it charges.
This information should provide a basis for you to make a choice on a target operating margin for Tesla in the future, keeping in mind that its current operating margin is miniscule and barely positive.
As you make this choice, it is important that you tie it back to your earlier growth story. While Tesla sales of software/tech will have higher margins, it the auto sales that are responsible for the bulking up of revenues over time. Thus, if your argument is that Tesla will become predominantly a soft services company, you can give it higher margins, but your revenue expectations may have to be reduced. If you buy the argument of some that the costs of manufacturing will continue to drop (by about 15%), as production increases (doubles), you may think you have the basis for exploding margins, but the flaws in this argument should be obvious. First, there has to be a floor on cost savings or Volkswagen, which sells close to 10 million a year right now, should be making cars for close to nothing and generating margins of closer to 100% on the marginal car it sells (and it does not). Second, even if there are revolutionary changes in technology that allow the costs of production to decrease, unless you can show that Tesla and Tesla alone can reap these benefits, you have a business that will see the prices drop, as costs drop. Put simply, if Wright’s law applies to all competitors, you and I will be able to buy electric cars at $3000/car and none of the manufacturers will be making sky high margins.
The Investment Efficiency Lever
The investment efficiency lever is one of the trickiest to navigate. Again, the place to start is with automobile companies, and the table below presents the distribution of sales to invested capital across all auto firms, at the start of 2020.
Looking across global auto companies, the median company generates $1.37 in sales for every dollar of capital invested, and at the 75th percentile, the more capital-efficient auto companies generate $2.42 in revenues for every dollar of capital invested. In fact, my estimate of $3 in revenues for every dollar of capital invested reflects an optimistic view of Tesla’s capacity to bring technological innovation to its production processes, and reduce the capital needed to fund those processes. Since Tesla, in 2019, generates $1.32 in revenue for every dollar of capital invested, my estimate is more aspirational than based on observable efficiencies, right now. Tesla bulls will counter with the tech company story, and to help the estimation process, I estimated the sales to invested capital at tech firms generally, just software firms and finally at just the FAANG stocks. None of these groups had sales to invested capital that were higher than my estimate. With that data to provide perspective, it is time to make your own judgment on investment efficiency:
This choice will drive not only how much Tesla will have to reinvest to grow, but the extent to which it will be dependent on external capital for that growth.
The Risk Lever
The first component in the risk lever is the cost of capital, and to provide a sense of what costs of capital look like around the world at the start of 2020, let me start with a cost of capital distribution for all publicly traded companies:
Note that the median cost of capital across all firms globally is 7.58%, and that 50% of all publicly traded firms have costs of capital that fall between 6.27% and 8.71%. It is true that costs of capital vary across different industries, and while you can get the entire list on my website, the median cost of capital for auto firms is 6.94% and for tech firms, it is 8.86%. While I used 7% as my cost of capital, you may disagree and here are your choices:
The other component of risk is failure, where the company faces the risk of having its life truncated, either because it runs out of cash or because of debt payments coming due. While the rise in stock price has reduced its vulnerability for the moment, those who see more losses in the future and continued borrowing to fund investment may attach a higher probability of default than the 10% that I use, whereas those who believe Elon’s claims that Tesla has entered an era of positive earnings and cash flows, may decide that Tesla has no risk of failure any more:
I have created a front end for my Tesla valuation spreadsheet that allows the choices you made to drive the valuation. Running through the different combinations for the four variables, I have too many to list individually, but consider a subset in this table:
Broadly speaking, there are four broad stories that I have valued here:
The Big Auto Story: If your story is that Tesla will emerge from its growth period as one of the largest auto companies in the world (revenues of $100- $300 billion in year 10), with top-tier auto company margins (7.42%), investment efficiency (2.42) and cost of capital (6.94%), the value per share ranges from $106/share (with BMW like revenues) to $227/share (with Daimler-like revenues) to $333/share (with VW/Toyota like revenues).
The Techy Auto Company Story: An alternate story is that Tesla is an auto/software/services company with tech company characteristics, giving it higher margins (10.25%) and a higher cost of capital (8.86%). With this story, the value per share ranges from $111/share (with BMW like revenues) to $212/share (with Daimler-like revenues) to $298/share (with VW/Toyota like revenues). Put simply, the higher risk nullifies the benefits of higher profitability.
The FAANGy Auto Company: In this variant of the tech story, Tesla not only develops a tech twist, but becomes as successful as the most successful tech companies (I use the FAANG stocks + Microsoft). In this story, the margins approach 18.97% and with a tech cost of capital, the value per share ranges from $459/share (with BMW like revenues) to $855/share (with Daimler-like revenues) to $2,106/share (with VW/Toyota like revenues).
The Make-your-best Company: In this variant, I give Tesla the best possible outcomes on each variable, revenues like VW/Toyota, margins like pure software companies (21.24%), a sales to capital ratio that is higher than any of the sector averages (4.00) and a cost of capital of an auto company (6.94%), and arrive at a value per share of $2106.
For some of you, the fact that there is a value here that justifies whatever your Tesla status is right now (long, short or just watching) should not be the end of your analysis. Each of these stories may be possible, but the tests you have to run, and I will prejudge your conclusions, is whether they are plausible. With each story, there are key questions that need answering:
With the big auto stories, the key question will be whether Tesla can climb to the very top of the heap in terms of revenues, generally reserved for mass market companies, while earning operating margins that are usually reserved for smaller luxury auto companies?
With the techy auto stories, the key question becomes whether a company that derives the bulk of its revenues from selling cars be profitable and reinvest like a tech company?
With the FAANGy stories, the investment question becomes whether you should up front for a company on the expectation that it will be an exceptional company. It very well might make it to the top of the heap, but if it does not, you are set up for disappointment.
With the MYB story, you are approaching the most dangerous place in valuation, where you pick and choose each assumption, without considering the ones you have already made. Put simply, is it even possible to build a company that generates revenues like Toyota, earns margins like Microsoft and invests more efficiently than any manufacturing company in history has ever done, while still preserving the low cost of capital of an auto company?
In the week since I sold Tesla at $640, the stock has gone on a wild ride, rising above $900 in two trading days. Not surprisingly, quite a few of you have asked me whether I have any regrets about selling too early. You may not believe me, but I don’t. I made my decision to buy, based on my story and valuation for Tesla, and my decision to sell, for the same reason, because I am an investor who believes in value, and acting on it. If I abandon that philosophy to play the momentum game, a game that I am not good at and don’t really play well, I may make a bit more money, but at what cost? On a different note, I have to confess that one reason that I write about Tesla reluctantly is the vitriol that seems to be part of any discussion of the stock. In a world where we face unbridgeable divides on politics, religion and culture, do we need to add investing to the mix? If you stayed with your Tesla investment, I wish you the best, and I hope that you are holding on for the right reasons, either because you believe that its value is much higher or because you are playing the pricing game. If you sold short and lost money, I get no joy out of your losses and no inclination to do a celebratory dance. For the moment, you may have lost, but having watched this stock for as long as I have, that can change in a minute. As far as I am concerned, Tesla is a fascinating company, but it is just an investment, not a matter of life or death, and definitely not worth losing sleep, and friends, over.