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Musk guns for delivery record amid profitability concerns at Tesla

San Francisco

TO UNDERSTAND why investors have soured on Tesla Inc this year, consider one of the thousands of deliveries that took place last week as the electric-car maker was gunning for a record for the number of vehicles it handed over in a quarter.

John Hanna, who splays his fandom for Elon Musk's companies on his Twitter profile, ordered a Model 3 Tuesday evening and drove it home the following afternoon. He paid about US$69,000 for a Performance version of the sedan, and the Denver-area store he picked it up from was bustling with buyers.

A devoted customer paying handsomely for a new car might seem far from worrisome. But since 2015, the telecom executive had been driving a Model S, sales of which have started slumping after years without a major redesign. Mr Hanna was waiting to buy a refreshed version of the Model S, but sold his car to a private party - and got the high-end Model 3 instead.

The potential cannibalisation of higher-end Model S and Model X sales by the cheaper Model 3 gives Wall Street pause. Analysts keep cutting their price targets for Tesla's stock, and even after a 21 per cent rally in June, the shares are down 31 per cent for the year.

Wall Street relented from more downbeat expectations for Tesla deliveries in the last few weeks after Elon Musk downplayed demand concerns at Tesla's annual shareholder meeting and in e-mails to employees.

On average, analysts expect Tesla to report this week that it delivered just over 87,000 cars this quarter. That would be a big bounce back from the disappointing first three months of 2019, but still short of the record that it set at the end of last year; its forecast was for at least 90,000. 

Tesla's big push over the final days of June will determine if it surprises the street and beats its previous record.

Analysts' fear is that even if the company does show marked improvement in deliveries this quarter, Mr Musk will achieve this at the expense of profitability. And with a shrinking US tax credit posing a threat to demand in the second half of the year, Tesla's efforts to hand over more Model 3s overseas could further compromise earnings because of relatively higher shipping and other administrative expenses.

Alexander Roepers, founder of Atlantic Investment Management, said of Tesla's stock on Bloomberg Television: "I would short it. We are shorting it."  The hedge fund has US$1.5 billion under management.

"If they achieve margins like General Motors on 2021 earnings and trade at a multiple twice General Motors, they should drop 55 per cent from here," he said of Tesla.

Before turning 48 on Friday, Mr Musk wrote to Tesla staff that they could set a new record for deliveries if they were to "go all out" as the quarter came to a close. He tweeted that his birthday plan was far from exotic: he'd spend it working on Tesla logistics.

Tesla has said it expects to deliver 360,000 to 400,000 cars in 2019, but handed over just 63,000 in the first quarter. That's heaped pressure on the company to ramp up its delivery operations both at home and abroad.

The whims of government incentives for electric-car purchases has complicated matters. Canada initially exempted Tesla from a US$5,000 rebate it started offering to other battery-powered models on May 1 because the Model 3 was too expensive to qualify. The company started offering a cheaper, shorter-range version that's now eligible.

Analysts and customers alike point to the Canada incentive, a US$3,750 federal tax credit in the US, and demand from countries  as reasons that Tesla may have a shot this quarter at coming close to the record 90,700 cars the company delivered in the last three months of 2018.

Mr Hanna said: "I'd be shocked if they come in below 89,000. I think North America is strong because of Canada, and Europe is strong. The real question mark is China."

Tesla makes all of its vehicles at its lone plant in Fremont, California, and while it doesn't report vehicle sales by region, registration data suggests it's still highly reliant on its home state for sales. Expenses associated with scaling up deliveries in China, where the company is building a car and battery assembly plant, sets up a "challenging stretch ahead", Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan wrote in a report this month. BLOOMBERG