Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

1 Troubling Sign From Tesla's Earnings Release

By Evan Niu, CFA - Updated May 8, 2018 at 11:03AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Among others.

Electric-car maker Tesla (TSLA 4.53%) reported first-quarter earnings last week, and it was quite a show. CEO Elon Musk rudely cut off two sell-side analysts, despite the fact that the "boring" and "dry" questions that they posed were completely valid and relevant to all investors, long or short. It seems that Musk incorrectly thought that the analysts -- Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi and RBC's Joseph Spak -- were advocating for short-sellers, when in fact both firms have neutral ratings on Tesla shares. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs analyst David Tamberino, who actually has a sell rating on the stock, wasn't interrupted.

Beyond Musk's childish antics, there's a specific data point that should concern Tesla investors (myself included).

Tesla's current cash position is spoken for

Tesla closed out the first quarter with a little under $2.7 billion in cash and cash equivalents, while expressing confidence that it would be profitable and cash-flow positive for the second half of the year (both on a GAAP basis). The company is in an incredibly precarious financial situation right now. In fact, when you look at the liabilities side of the balance sheet, two specific line items combined already exceed its total cash: accounts payable and customer deposits.

Balance Sheet Metric

Q1 2018

Cash and cash equivalents

$2.7 billion

Accounts payable

$2.6 billion

Customer deposits

$984 million

Data source: SEC filings.

Generally speaking, customer deposits are fully refundable, although this cash is not held in escrow or segregated from Tesla's working capital. Deposits are applied to the purchase price of the vehicle once a customer places an order. Tesla says it still has over 450,000 net Model 3 reservations, but Musk has a bad habit of conflating reservations with orders and sales. That was his underlying rationale for not answering Spak's question about the conversion rate of reservations to orders.

That conversion rate is critically important to investors right now, since it will effectively determine how much of those customer deposits will end up being recognized as revenue instead of sitting on the balance sheet as a liability. Many Model 3 reservation holders are waiting for other options and configurations, such as dual-motor or the standard-range battery, before making a decision. A conversion rate would help investors gauge the dynamics of Model 3 demand.

Model 3 interior

Image source: Tesla.

In terms of accounts payable, Tesla has been able to stretch out payables in the past to improve cash flow, but that is still money owed to suppliers. For what it's worth, Tesla's days payable outstanding (DPO), which measures the average time it takes for a company to pay what it owes, stands at about 70 days.

TSLA Days Payable Outstanding (Quarterly) Chart

TSLA Days Payable Outstanding (Quarterly) data by YCharts.

In case it wasn't clear by now, Tesla's ability to ramp Model 3 production is absolutely the most important thing for investors to watch right now. The company desperately needs that revenue to continue funding operations, pay down debt, and pay suppliers. If it fails to execute on that ramp, Tesla will undoubtedly need to return to capital markets to raise some cash -- just months after antagonizing Wall Street.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Tesla, Inc. Stock Quote
Tesla, Inc.
$737.12 (4.53%) $31.91

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 06/26/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.