Analysts are starting to ask this queation: “Is Tesla even trying to be a car company?”

The question arrives as Tesla is minting new all-time highs for its shares – $335, versus Jonas’ target price of $305 – but failing to make a profit after 13 years in business.

Over the past year and a half, investors have collectively started to doubt that Tesla can make good on its promise of maintaining its market cap of more than $50 billion as a carmaker alone. Conveniently, Tesla has been busy during this time morphing itself from a profitless auto company to a profitless energy-storage/solar-roof/networked-mobility company.

The overarching investment thesis now, if you’re long Tesla, is that the company represents less of a focused disruption and more of an aggregate one.

Long before Tesla’s recent share-price surge, the company endured a period of wild volatility as Wall Street deduced, en masse, that it was dealing primarily with a carmaker’s stock, not a tech company’s stock.

On those terms, Tesla has been a weak performer, barely able to build and sell 80,000 vehicles a year while burning through cash at a ferocious rate to attack the low-margin, mass-market car business. Tesla’s disruptive identity was also trapped in 2010, reliant on the fading saga of the electric car. Uber and Lyft had created a new idea – shared mobility, electric or not – and Google was pushing forward on driverless cars.

The upshot is that Tesla began to shift its story – CEO Elon Musk turned considerable attention to Autopilot, the company’s semi-self-driving technology – and the financial community joyfully joined in. It knew what Tesla as a car company portended: moderate profit margins in a tough business, selling expensive electric cars to a relatively small market.

That’s not a $50 billion company, or even a $20 billion or $30 billion company, which was where Tesla’s market cap hovered when this realization took hold.

The ongoing denial of Tesla’s core business – not to mention Jonas’ notion that Tesla is on the verge of creating a valuable new business, Tesla Mobility or the Tesla Network – is necessary to keep the surge of enthusiasm about the company going. And to be fair, while Jonas is a Tesla bull, he isn’t an unqualified one. He never said the car business would add up to the company’s valuation over the past three years.

But the core business is the core business, and really, it’s all Tesla has to pay the bills. After all, Tesla has rarely made money and has been forced to issue convertible debt and hit up the capital markets for additional funding. The company has even had to sell off chunks of itself, as it did to Daimler and Toyota before its 2010 initial public offering and more recently to Tencent, with the Chinese company taking a 5% stake.

Still, don’t expect Tesla’s push to move beyond a carmaker to let up, particularly as auto sales in the US plateau and the industry prepares for a downturn. Tesla needs a nontraditional narrative to see it through its first true downturn with a valuation so epic that it now exceeds more experienced players such as Ford and General Motors.

 

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