Every once in a while, management will make a mistake on an earnings call that has a material impact on the stock. But even more rarely will you see management actively attack or insult analysts during the Q&A session—and usually when that happens, it’s a harbinger of disaster.
So last week when Elon Musk, Tesla (TSLA) founder and CEO, had a sharp and contemptuous response to some analyst questions, it became headline news in the financial press. After being asked about capital expenditures and demand for the recently released Model 3, Elon Musk attacked the analysts for asking “boneheaded” questions, audibly complained he was “bored”, and went to a YouTube vlogger to answer questions that had little financial relevance but were much friendlier to the fast cashburning firm. The stock fell sharply after the call, but has since mostly recovered.
That drop and recovery uncovers the uniqueness of Tesla—it is a stock whose valuation depends on the personality of its CEO more than its cash flow or profit margin, which the firm has yet to produce. While expectations have rise after Musk’s promises that profits will appear by the end of the year, expectations are also being dashed by Tesla’s chronic inability to meet production targets due to supply chain issues.
Which is ultimately what drove the questions from analysts on the earnings call. Musk, however, did not see it that way. After the call, Musk wrote on Twitter that the questions were “absurd” and “boneheaded” because the questions were already answered or were self-evident. “The 2 questioners I ignored on the Q1 call are sell-side analysts who represent a short seller thesis, not investors,” Musk wrote.
His defense has not been met with a sanguine response. Analysts are warning that the immaturity of Musk’s reaction is a material risk to the company. Value investors have taken to criticize Musk’s increasingly bizarre behavior and double down on the importance of positive cash flow, moats, and other traditional essentials (Musk has responded to this, also on Twitter, with contemptuous mocking of Warren Buffett’s See’s Candy). Responding to Musk’s undeniably childish statement “moats are lame”, Buffett simply said “Elon may turn things upside down in some areas. I don’t think he’d want to take us on in candy.” Musk, as a response, said he’s going to start a candy company.
As the absurdity of Musk’s public behavior grows, other companies are taking advantage of the headline-bait of Musk and the embarrassment of the call to emphasize their ow reliability. Arista Networks, Pinnacle Foods, and TransAct Technologies CEOs have taken very subtle digs at the Musk drama in deft ways to make their own firms look much more mature—and reliable—as a result.
Will this be remembered as a turning point in the Tesla story, or will markets forget this just as they forget the accounting scandals that Tesla suffered in late 2012? It’s too early to tell—but we will likely see investors make their bets one way or another on the stock in the coming days.