Tesla High Yield Debt Slides on 1Q Update, and as Musk Dodges Model 3 Questions

Tesla’s debut bonds fell this morning after the company released mixed first-quarter results after the closing bell yesterday. CEO Elon Musk, on the post-earnings call with analysts late yesterday, also raised eyebrows with his evasion of analyst inquiries into developments surrounding the electric car manufacturer’s critical Model 3 sedan.

The 5.3% notes due 2025 were changing hands as low as 87 today, indicating a roughly 2.25-point decline on the day, according to MarketAxess. The notes priced at par in August 2017 and plumbed lows of 86 in early April following a March 27 ratings cut by Moody’s, which at that time also lowered the issuer’s outlook to negative, from stable, citing negative free cash flow, liquidity pressures, and a “significant shortfall in the production rate of the company’s Model 3 electric vehicle.”

Tesla now says it will become cash flow positive in the second half of 2018 as the company ramps up production and deliveries of the Model 3 sedan, which the issuer said yesterday is “already on the cusp of becoming the best-selling mid-sized premium sedan in the U.S.”

Bruce Clark, lead auto analyst and Moody’s senior vice president, said today that Tesla “showed important progress by sustaining Model 3 weekly production above 2,000 units for three consecutive weeks.”

“Nevertheless, the company remains in an intense ‘learn-as-they-go’ process while attempting to reach production efficiencies necessary for a Model 3 production rate of 5,000 per week, a Model 3 gross margin of 25% and breakeven cash flow,” Clark added. “We continue to expect that Tesla will need to raise new capital approximating $2 billion—in the form of equity, convertible notes, or debt—in order cover a cash burn during 2018, and to refund a total of $1.3 billion of convertible debt that matures in late 2018 and early 2019.”

On yesterday’s conference call with analysts, discussing the subject of Model 3 reservations and capital requirements, Musk proved evasive, declining to answer and making the statements: “These questions are so dry,” “they’re killing me,” and “Boring questions are not cool. Next.”

Musk also said on the call that he is “quite confident about achieving GAAP net income and positive cash flow in 3Q,” highlighting that Model 3 gross margins should approach a range of about 20% by the end of 2018, as part of a steady trajectory toward a 25% target.

Tesla said first-quarter revenue totaled $3.4 billion, topping analyst expectations by roughly 3.3%, based on consensus data compiled by S&P Global Market Intelligence. The company booked a pretax loss of roughly $779 million for the quarter, slightly wider than the consensus estimate of $764 million.

Tesla also reduced its expectations for 2018 capital expenditures to less than $3 billion, from guidance of more than $3.4 billion previously. “Ultimately, our capex guidance will develop in line with Model 3 production and profitability,” the company said. “We will be able to adjust our capital expenditures significantly depending on our operating cash generation.”

On the liquidity front, Tesla reported $2.7 billion in cash at the end of March, down $700 million from a $3.4 billion cash balance at the end of 2017.

Tesla bonds have been pressured over the past several months as adjusted EBITDA and free cash flow for the past two quarters fell shy of analyst estimates. The company placed its debut 2025 offering in August to bolster its balance sheet and for general corporate purposes ahead of the launch of the Model 3, its first electric car designed for the mass market. The $1.8 billion tranche size was upsized from $1.5 billion.

Corporate and bond ratings are B–/B3 and B–/Caa1, respectively, with negative outlooks by S&P Global Ratings and Moody’s, and 3 recovery rating on the unsecured notes by S&P Global.

Tesla is a Palo Alto, Calif.–based manufacturer of electric vehicles as well as energy storage and solar products. — James Passeri/Jakema Lewis

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