Last November I broke with tradition for the first time in over 30 years and suggested a paired trade that bought Exide Technologies (XIDE) and shorted Tesla Motors (TSLA). Over the following three months, investors who made the trade and bought four Exide shares while shorting one Tesla share pocketed the following gains.
|Buy Four Exide||-$29.76||$49.68||$19.92|
|Short One Tesla||$30.80||-$24.73||$6.07|
|Pair Trade Total||$1.04||$24.95||$25.99|
While the paired trade hit its peak value in mid-February of this year, it didn’t turn south until early June.
Since June, Exide has fallen to unsustainably low levels and Tesla has climbed to unsustainably high levels, which means it’s once again time to recommend a paired trade that buys Exide while shorting Tesla. At yesterday’s close the ratio works out to an 11.5 share Exide buy for each shorted share of Tesla. The results this time around should be even better than last year because the valuation disparities summarized in the following table are so immense.
|Price Per Share||$2.87||$33.22|
A couple days ago I suggested that Exide’s Recent Price Collapse Was Unjustified and explained how forced liquidations by a large Exide shareholder have crushed its stock price on two occasions during the last two years. Today I’ll summarize a few of the headwinds that Tesla must face and overcome if it hopes to avoid a major price decline.
Battery Safety Questions. Over the last week there have been numerous news stories about an NHTSA inquiry into the safety of automotive lithium-ion battery packs after a GM Volt that had been used for crash testing spontaneously caught fire at an NHTSA facility. While the stories remain optimistic about the outcome, they overlook the inconvenient truth that safety testing of lithium-ion battery packs is not comparable to the procedures automakers used for other batteries.
In the late 90s Ford built a test fleet of electric delivery vans called the EcoStar that used sodium sulfur batteries. As part of their normal testing, Ford took a “Vlad the Impaler” approach to safety and used a hydraulic ram to drive a ten-inch long four-vaned arrowhead wedge into a fully charged 35 kWh battery pack. The sodium sulfur battery passed the test. As far as I know, safety testing for lithium-ion batteries is limited to driving an eight penny nail into a single cell. I have not been able to find any published reports of destructive pack level testing to determine how the failure of one cell might cascade through a battery pack that contains up to 6,800 cells.
To put the safety question into sharper perspective, Japan’s NGK Insulators suspended its sodium sulfur battery production and asked its customers to stop using its products until an investigation uncovered the cause of an unexplained battery fire. Before the incident NGK had a flawless 10-year safety record, but it still asked its customers to suspend operations on an installed base of 305 Megawatts of power and over a gigawatt hour of energy storage at 174 locations worldwide because of a single incident where nobody was hurt.
If the NHTSA reaches an entirely reasonable conclusion that pack-level testing of lithium-ion batteries has been given short shrift in the headlong rush to bring electric vehicles to market, the delays and risks of thorough pack level testing and the associated news coverage could be catastrophic for specialty EV manufacturers.
Charging Infrastructure Issues. For several years China has been perceived as a global leader in vehicle electrification. Over the last several months, public statements from Chinese leaders have grown increasingly wishy-washy, suggesting that fuel efficiency and HEV technologies would be easier and less expensive to implement at relevant scale. Just this week Forbes reported that China’s power-grid giants – China Southern Grid and State Grid – may throw another monkey wrench into the works by insisting on battery exchange schemes instead of distributed charging infrastructure. While actions in Mainland China will probably not have much direct impact on Tesla, the risk of similar restrictive decisions by utilities in more important markets cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Resale Value Questions. One of the biggest unanswered questions in the electric vehicle space is resale value. Advocates assure us that EVs will retain their value better than conventional cars despite the fact that the battery packs that represent up to half of the vehicle cost are consumable and wear out over time. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reported that vehicle leasing firms in Israel were having second thoughts about Project Better Place because of uncertainty over residual value. While leasing and residual value issues may not be critical to buyers of the Tesla Roaster, they’re likely to be important to buyers of the upcoming Model S which is targeted to an upscale consumer market where vehicle leasing is commonplace.
The Valley of Death. There are no greater, crueler or more universal truths in the stock market than the hype cycle and the valley of death. While there are exceedingly rare exceptions like Google, substantially all new companies and new industries go through a cycle of inflated expectations followed by profound disillusionment. Substantially all cases where companies have avoided the hype cycle have involved a high level of business maturity and close to flawless execution. The following graph from the Gartner Group illustrates the typical stages.
Tesla’s execution to date has been pretty good and as far as I can tell it hasn’t encountered any significant delays or setbacks. Unfortunately its stock is priced to perfection and anything less than flawless execution going forward can be a catalyst that pushes the stock off the peak of inflated expectations and into the trough of disillusionment. Given the substantial external risks I’ve discussed above and the inherent risks discussed in Tesla’s SEC filings, I think the downside risk in Tesla’s stock outweighs the upside potential by an order of magnitude.