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Tesla Motors' Opportunity

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Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA  ) has built only a few thousand cars during its short lifetime, but it has already become a big deal. Its Model S sedan, Motor Trend's "Car of the Year," has found itself an avid following well beyond the eco-minded gadget geeks that made up most of the audience for electric cars before now.

That's huge. That Tesla has established itself, on a relative shoestring, as a credible competitor in a business with enormous barriers to entry is arguably an even bigger achievement.

It's easy to be enthusiastic about Tesla's prospects. But there are good, serious reasons to be cautious as well – enormous challenges still lie ahead for the upstart Silicon Valley automaker. I created a premium research report on Tesla to help investors understand those challenges, and the opportunity presented by the company.

Following is an excerpt from the report, laying out Tesla's opportunity. We hope you enjoy it.

Tesla Motors' Opportunity
Are electric cars the future of personal transportation?

That question continues to be hotly debated by experts and investors. But whether electric cars become the solution, or merely one solution among several, Tesla Motors is striving to position itself to capture an outsized piece of whatever market emerges for electric cars.

To date, Tesla has taken over 10,000 "reservations" – orders accompanied by cash deposits – for its Model S, an all-electric luxury sedan priced to compete with similarly sized offerings from brands like BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF  ) and Audi. Early reviews of the Model S, which began production in June, have been promising — the car appears to deliver on Tesla's ambitious goals, with impressive range, good build quality, and excellent on-road capabilities.

The Model S is a good product — and an impressive achievement. This cannot be overstated: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his team have executed very well on their go-to-market plan since the company's IPO. Investments from the likes of Daimler (NASDAQOTH: DDAIF  ) , Panasonic (NYSE: PC  ) , and Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) gave the company credibility within the auto industry and with key suppliers, and thoughtful hires of industry veterans from companies like Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY  ) gave it the experience necessary to bring a complex product to market in a highly regulated environment.

Long story short, it's hard to fault Musk's management over the last couple of years.

Still, much more will need to go right to justify an investment in Tesla at its current price, which is over 100 times estimated 2013 earnings. Tesla expects to deliver 20,000 cars in 2013, which sounds like a modest goal given that the company already has over 10,000 orders. But that would represent about 8% of the market for luxury cars above $50,000, The Wall Street Journal estimates, a market share not far from that held by brands like Cadillac and Audi. Finding a critical mass of customers willing to take a risk on a new company offering a new automotive technology beyond the early adopter "gadget geek" faithful who have already placed their orders may prove to be a challenge.

Even if Tesla meets its 2013 sales goals, this level of sales won't come close to justifying Tesla's valuation. The company needs years of significant growth to justify its current price, especially when a traditional automaker's multiple of around 10 times earnings is applied. But such growth would come with a conundrum: If Tesla's experience demonstrates that there is a significant, ready market for luxury-priced electric cars with good range, there is a slew of vastly better-funded competitors ready to pounce.

There's a fair argument to be made that Tesla was the first to bring a viable electric car to market — one with amenities, performance, and, most importantly, range comparable to a traditional gas-powered car. But they won't be the last. Already, companies like Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) have brought electric cars to market on a small scale. While cars like Nissan's LEAF and Ford's Focus Electric have barely a third of the range of a fully optioned Model S, they're also significantly cheaper.

They're also best thought of as trial balloons, ways for their giant makers to test the electric-car waters with relatively modest investments. While Tesla has claimed a number of technological advances, and has several key patents, make no mistake: If there proves to be a sizable market for an electric luxury car with a 300-mile range, it won't take much time before the major automakers offer similar products.

That may not spell doom for Tesla. The company may well survive and profit as a niche maker of cars for technophiles, and as a supplier of electric drivetrains and technology to major automakers. The latter has already become a good side business for Tesla, which has supplied electric-car parts and expertise to Toyota and Daimler. But a niche automaker selling 20,000 or 30,000 cars a year will likely have a valuation in line with other automakers, around 10 times earnings. Even if Tesla doubles next year's consensus earnings estimates, that's about $5 a share, which would represent an 80%-plus loss from here. Even at 20 times earnings, it's a tough calculation to digest.

Looking for more insight?
That was just a sample of The Motley Fool's new premium report on Tesla Motors. If you're weighing whether the company is a buy or sell, this new report is an essential resource for investors seeking to understand the potential ups and downs of an investment in the electric-car manufacturer. Not only that, but the report comes with updated quarterly guidance and dives into upcoming catalysts on the horizon. Just click here now to get started.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 15, 2012, at 5:13 PM, cokenfries wrote:

    Folks are still questioning long term demand. I don't see why. Tesla has shown than an electric car can fundamentally be a better product than a similarly priced gas car, so people will buy them. It's not complicated.

    For a long time there has been the point made that one of the big manufacturers will swoop into the EV market once Tesla shows it's viability, but I don't think it's that easy for a large company to fundamentally change it's nature like that, and that's why Tesla is still so far ahead of these other companies when it comes to the quality of their EV products.

    But your point about earning is a good one. I think expectations are high for the Model X and 3rd generation car. Folks seem to be betting Tesla can make those happen. Given their track record I think it's a good bet.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2012, at 5:47 AM, caffeinhigh wrote:

    Elon Musk is the most exciting thing to happen to automobiles since Henry Ford.

    Every major automobile manufacturer has let us down for decades by not innovating in the right place. Cars have become safer, faster, smoother through tiny incremental improvements. That's excellent but they have failed to tackle the big issue - internal combustion engines are one of the largest contributors to climate change. They have to go.

    In just a few years, one man with a vision has turned the industry on its head. Through his visionary leadership and a motivated team of people, Tesla has created an automobile that defies belief. The Model S destroys the competition - BMW, Mercedes, all of them - yet it is only the first motor car Tesla has built from scratch.

    It is mind blowing. It is as revolutionary as the iPhone and iPad were. Yet it is infinitely more important than Apple because Tesla is a catalyst for change - proof that electric vehicles can not only help solve climate change but that they can be go faster, go further and look more beautiful than conventional cars.

    Tesla is launching an SUV in 2014 and a smaller, lower-priced vehicle in 2016. If you don't buy the shares, you should at least buy one of their vehicles and be part of the revolution:

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2012, at 11:54 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    "I don't think it's that easy for a large company to fundamentally change it's nature like that,"

    So much of the case for Tesla as a long-term investment seems to hang on the assumption that Detroit et al can't change their spots. But nobody saying it seems to have paid attention to the mind-blowing pace of change that has already happened at companies like Ford since 2006 or so.

    Seriously, look at a C-Max or Fusion Energi, and think about what the folks who designed those cars -- two years ago -- might be working on right now. (Are they equal to a $100k Model S? No. But they're a third the price, and a far better bet for the average working stiff. And -- pay attention here -- their (much smaller, for now) battery packs look an awful lot like Tesla's. And not even Tesla can get 300 mile range in a $30k car yet, not even close.)

    Thanks for reading.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On November 18, 2012, at 9:41 PM, TruePp wrote:

    Where you have got an idea of

    "current price, which is over 100 times estimated 2013 earnings"


    Earnings for 2013 should be over $300M. That would give P/E only around 10.

    With more realistic P/E of 20, capitalization should be around 6 to 7 billions. Which should boost share price 2x from current level.

    Do the math, 20,000 cars 80k each, over 25% expected gross margins....

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