Golub Distinguished Visiting Professor of Finance, Chester Spatt
The past few months have been turbulent for Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
From publicly accusing a Thai rescue diver of being a pedophile (without evidence) and conducting a radio interview while smoking marijuana to insulting equity analysts on one earnings call and threatening to take Tesla private — then reversing those statements, triggering a SEC and a criminal investigation — Musk has engaged in some reckless behavior.
Then there are production problems with Tesla not being able to deliver cars on time. A big question is whether Musk should step down. While investor confidence in Musk has taken a big hit, he is a visionary leader and there would likely be great disappointment if he left the company.
What Musk does need is a lot more checks and balances by his management team. Investors would like Musk to have more self-control and act more like other legendary leaders, such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple and Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos.
For that to have a chance, Tesla’s management team must play a bigger role in guiding the company’s strategy both internally and externally. If Musk is required to step down as CEO for a period of time by the SEC, the management team must be ready to take the wheel.
Tesla also needs to step back and review the basics of corporate governance. U.S. securities laws and common business practices are meant to keep market participants honest, so that they effectively represent their own best interests and those of their shareholders.
Few product launches in recent memory have captured as much attention as last week’s unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle (EV), Tesla’s first vehicle pitched at the mass market.
Orders were flooding in even before Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed the car to a giddy audience last Thursday evening, with prospective buyers queuing at Tesla stores throughout the day to place a deposit on a vehicle they might not even receive for two years or more.
The Model 3 is really important for the future of Tesla and the future of EVs. It promises the sales growth that automotive wunderkind Tesla needs to survive and renews interest in a technology that is yet to have significant real-world impact. Yet even with the introduction of Tesla’s flashy new sedan, more pieces need to be in place before the EV market goes truly mainstream.
Battery prices dropping
When the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle hit U.S. showrooms in December 2010, the price of gasoline was rising, and so were expectations for the future of EVs.
Such has been the remarkable success of Tesla Motors that news of its production and financing challenges came as a surprise for some. Tesla plans to raise an additional $640 million from capital markets, and downgraded its 2015 delivery forecast by up to 5,000 vehicles, citing potential complications with supplier qualification and the ramp up of manufacturing for the Model X SUV.
This news serves as a timely reminder of the enormity of the challenge that Tesla is pursuing in bringing its high-performance electric vehicles to market. Basically, building cars is a very expensive business. A new vehicle costs at least $1 billion in development and tooling, and Tesla is developing two new vehicles concurrently (the Model X SUV and the smaller Model 3).
It is a basic tenet of economics that regulations almost always have unintended consequences. While Adam Smith may have been one of the first to understand this, he could not have possibly foreseen the morass of expensive and unwanted consequences that could come from conflicting emission and fuel standards enacted by the state of California and federal programs, such as for greenhouse gases and Corporate Average Fuel Economy.
Both the state and federal regulations have worthy goals: to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions and lower petroleum consumption. Yet taken together, the federal standards effectively cancel out the California standard. Instead of promoting fuel reduction as intended, the California standard allows for the production of less-efficient vehicles, while facilitating a massive transfer of cash via credit trading. It also forms a de facto industrial policy that sends us down a path toward electric vehicles that may or may not be the best technological or environmental choice for the future.