The Most Important Metric to Watch When Tesla Reports Earnings Tomorrow

With Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) stock up nearly 500% in the trailing 12 months, you can bet investors will be watching closely when the company reports third-quarter results tomorrow after market close. While earnings per share typically take center stage when companies report quarterly results, this won't be the case for this hot growth stock. Instead, heads will turn toward vehicle sales.

Vehicles sold
In the Tesla's second quarter, the company sold 5,150 Model S, beating guidance for 4,500 deliveries. In the third quarter, Tesla plans to ship "slightly over 5,000 Model S vehicles," according the company's outlook in its second-quarter letter to shareholders. The reason for the increase is twofold, according to Tesla. One, "a considerable number of vehicles produced during the [second] quarter will be in transit to European markets at the end of Q3." Two, Tesla expects production rates to continue to improve.

So how many vehicles can we expect Tesla to ship in Q3? Similar to last quarter, there's little doubt Tesla will beat its own guidance. The question, more accurately, is by what extent will Tesla beat it's own guidance? If VIN tracking going on over at Tesla's forums is any indication of the quarter's results, Telsa could easily report as many as 7,500 vehicles deliveries during the quarter. Unfortunately, however, the data has limitations that make relying on the data too risky.

No matter how many vehicles Tesla sells, it's important to keep in mind that Tesla is supply limited and has plenty of demand -- especially as the company expands internationally. This means that for long-term investors the difference between 6,000 or 8,000 vehicles shipped would make very little difference in any long-term outlook for the company; vehicles closer to 8,000 would just imply that Tesla has made progress on bottlenecks, something Tesla has already said it could do by 2014: "[Annualized] sales for Model S could exceed 40,000 units per year by late 2014."

On the other hand, if Tesla reports vehicles sales of 8,000 or higher, then the company has obviously found ways to make substantial progress on production bottlenecks much sooner than expected. Beating its own guidance by such a significant margin on production rates could shift the company's entire long-term strategies forward by a quarter or so -- a move that would certainly boost the company's intrinsic value to investors.

Fighting price
It's important to stress that Tesla's stock has an incredible premium with extremely bullish expectations priced into the stock. In fact, the company is really priced for its Gen III affordable electric car -- a vehicle that is, as far as investors know, currently nothing more than an aspiration... albeit an aspiration that CEO Elon Musk is confident that the company can deliver on. This has important implications for investors. Particularly, it means that even better than expected results may not impress investors. Conversely, any hint of negative news could spark a sell-off.

Fortunately, the Foolish approach to Mr. Market's short-term volatility is to take more of a 10,000-foot-view approach. Investors should evaluate the long view, be patient, and digest the quarter's results to see if they may have any impact down the road for the stock. Don't let the immediate (and likely volatile) reaction in the stock price speak for the company's results. Instead, take a look for yourself and carefully reevaluate your opinion on the stock to see if anything has changed.

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