Tesla’s Runaway Growth Faces Reality Check in Turbulent Economy

Elon Musk is dialing back expectations for Tesla Inc. as years of rapid expansion collide with rising interest rates and a more cost-conscious consumer.

(Bloomberg) — Elon Musk is dialing back expectations for Tesla Inc. as years of rapid expansion collide with rising interest rates and a more cost-conscious consumer.

After months of persistent price cuts, Tesla’s margins have fallen well below the floor once set by its recently departed chief financial officer. The company is “ruthlessly” cutting internal costs to keep up, according to vehicle engineering chief Lars Moravy. But an unpredictable economic environment has Musk feeling “paranoid,” and as a result, Tesla may delay its newest factory in Mexico.

“Tesla is an incredibly capable ship,” Musk said. “We’re not going to sink, but, even a great ship in a storm has challenges.”

Musk’s comments came as Tesla announced weaker-than-expected third-quarter earnings. He also lamented high interest rates, two ongoing wars and a ramp-up period for Tesla’s new Cybertruck similar to the past “production hell” the company endured.

The first stainless steel truck will be handed over on Nov. 30, about two years behind schedule, Tesla said. Though Musk warned it won’t be a significant contributor to cash flow for at least 18 months.

“We dug our own grave with Cybertruck,” Musk told analysts. “Special products that come along only once in a long while are just incredibly difficult to bring to market, to reach volume, to be prosperous.”

Tesla’s even willing to to ditch stickers and QR codes on its car parts if it means saving a few pennies of cost, Musk said.

The CEO’s dour tone also darkened the mood of shareholders. Tesla fell more than 4% at 8 p.m. in New York. Investors had pushed the stock higher for months despite deteriorating fundamentals. The shares had nearly doubled since the start of the year.

Tesla missed both earnings and sales expectations in the quarter. The company said profit, excluding some items, fell to 66 cents a share, less than the 74 cents Wall Street estimated. Revenue reached $23.4 billion, while analysts were expecting $24.06 billion. 

The company has repeatedly slashed prices of its cars this year, and Musk has said he’s willing to sacrifice Tesla’s industry-leading profits to protect sales volumes. Markdowns for its most expensive vehicle, the Model X, have exceeded 30%, making the cars more affordable for customers struggling with high inflation and interest rates.

Automotive gross margin ex-regulatory credits, a figure closely watched by investors, was 16.3% in the quarter. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg were expecting it to be 17.7%.

The Austin-based company already said it delivered 435,059 vehicles globally in the period, its first quarterly decline in a year, after planned factory downtime slowed production. Tesla recently launched a refreshed Model 3 sedan in China and Europe. 

Musk said Tesla is still planning a vehicle factory in Monterrey, Mexico, but isn’t ready to go “full tilt” on its construction because of the state of the global economy. The comments followed weeks of speculation about whether the plant, first announced in March, would be built at all.

“I don’t think Mexico is going to be a big part of their delivery growth any time in the next two or three years,” said Seth Goldstein, an equities analyst at Morningstar, in a phone interview after the hour-long earnings call.

Still, Tesla assured investors it’s on track to make and deliver about 1.8 million vehicles this year, a record. The company will have to pick up the pace in the fourth quarter to meet that goal.

–With assistance from Anne Cronin and Esha Dey.

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