It Isn’t Just Tesla’s Stock That Needs to Slow Down
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It Isn’t Just Tesla’s Stock That Needs to Slow Down

Elon Musk boosters and sceptics alike might agree that the car industry’s value leaves little room.

By Stephen Wilmot
Thu, Nov 18, 2021Grey Clock 2 min

Whatever your view on Tesla, pulling money out of the car industry right now makes sense.

Two years ago, the world’s top 10 auto makers by market value outside China were together worth about US$680 billion. Now they are valued at more than $2 trillion. Tesla has jumped from third place to an enormous lead, and this month electric-vehicle makers Rivian and Lucid replaced Honda and Ferrari in the ranking. Rivian’s stock has more than doubled since its initial public offering last Wednesday.

This extraordinary surge in market value, which the changes in the pecking order suggest is mainly related to EVs, is almost impossible to rationalize. The earnings potential of a mature industry can’t have tripled. It is possible that EVs will eventually be more profitable than gas-powered ones—Tesla’s 14.6% operating margin in the third quarter showed the potential—but three times as much is a wild stretch.

The more difficult question, one that generates more heat among investors than perhaps any other right now, is which companies are more overvalued. Is it Tesla, Rivian and Lucid, which will have to grow exponentially to live up to valuations that have nothing to do with their current sales? Or is it incumbent giants like Volkswagen and Toyota, which are in different ways struggling to come to terms with EVs

Like simple market-value comparisons—Tesla is now worth four Toyotas!—conventional valuation multiples flag the EV specialists as overvalued. Tesla stock trades at 127 times forward earnings compared with less than 10 for most traditional car makers. Having just started commercial production, Rivian and Lucid don’t even have meaningful financial numbers to compare their $100 billion-plus market values to—just business plans.

But looking further into the future, as today’s record-low real yields on safe assets encourage, it is also easy to see old-school manufacturers as overvalued. The likes of General Motors and Ford have announced eye-catching EV investments funded by their conventional-car profits, and investors have rewarded their boldness. Both stocks are close to decade highs. But they have yet to talk about the challenge of winding down their vast combustion-engine operations. As EVs take market share, a reckoning will begin that may make clearer to investors the costs associated with this technological transition for a heavily unionized industry.

Tesla’s valuation only really adds up if it hits its target production capacity of 20 million vehicles a year by 2030, and at very healthy margins. Elon Musk’s ambition is hubristic given the problems car makers have faced historically when they have approached even the 10 million mark—think of VW’s diesel scandal, Toyota’s unintended acceleration, the unraveling of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.

Yet it isn’t unprecedented for a disrupter to take a disproportionate share of industry profits for a surprisingly long period, says Philippe Houchois, an analyst at Jefferies who rates Tesla a buy. Ford did so in the 1910s and Toyota in the 1970s. Both companies brought a new simplicity to making cars, as Tesla also wants to. Toyota’s edge in traditional mass-market auto manufacturing persists to this day in the form of industry-leading margins.

Passions run high in this debate, which time will settle only slowly. The one thing that seems clear now is that investors overall are far from adequately discounting the unusual level of uncertainty about what the car industry will look like in 2030. When the fog gets thick, speeding up with excitement isn’t the best response.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: November 16, 2021

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