The Ratings Game: Tesla bull praises ‘Picasso-like’ quarter, but others question whether profit can be sustained

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Tesla Inc. shares continued their late-session rally in premarket trade Thursday, as analysts weighing in on its third-quarter surprise profit waxed lyrical in their evaluation of the numbers.

Wedbush bull Daniel Ives said the Silicon Valley electric car maker TSLA, -0.35% had delivered a “Picasso-like quarter” which was potentially “game changing” with the unexpected profit and strong cash flow “signaling what could be a new era for Musk and Fremont going forward.”

Ives said strong Model 3 deliveries appear to be picking up speed on healthy demand in Europe and the U.S.

“The white knuckle unknown variable from the Street was around the bottom-line, as Tesla prior to last night had struggled to get out of the red ink,” he wrote in a note to clients.

See also: Why Tesla’s future might not be in Elon Musk’s hands

The big beat in EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, of close to $900 million, compared with Street estimates of $646 million, “speaks to a business model which has significantly lower costs, more production efficiency, and automotive gross margins approaching 23% which is extremely impressive on the heels of the lower margin Model 3 shift,” he wrote.

Wedbush is sticking with a neutral rating on the stock but raised its price target to $270 from $220 to reflect a new profitability trajectory going forward.

See now: Tesla is profitable again. How long will it last this time?

Piper Jaffray’s Alexander Potter agreed, and said it’s becoming hard to see Tesla’s rivals catching up with it in the next three-year time period.

“We continue to believe that investors underestimate Tesla’s ability to consolidate the automotive market, and we reiterate our Overweight rating,” Potter wrote in a note to clients. The analyst is keeping his price target unchanged at $372.

But there were skeptics too, including RBC analyst Joseph Spak, who said the stock reaction — it was last up about 18% premarket — was overdone and valuation still seems stretched.

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“We’d like to have more confidence in the improvement but details are limited,” Spak wrote in a note. “The bulk seems to be driven by material and general costs reduction.”

Tesla said it earned $143 million in the third quarter, or 80 cents a share, compared with $311 million, or $1.82 a share, in the year-ago quarter. Adjusted for one-time items, Tesla earned $342 million, or $1.91 a share, compared with adjusted earnings of $3.02 a year ago.

Also: Ford stock slips on fourth-quarter headwinds

Revenue fell to $6.30 billion from $6.82 billion in the year-ago period. Analysts polled by FactSet expected an adjusted loss of 46 cents a share on sales of $6.43 billion for the quarter.

In a call with Wall Street analysts following results, Tesla executives reiterated that both the “gigafactory” in China and the Model Y, Tesla’s next vehicle, are ahead of schedule; reaffirmed the goal to remain in the black; and said they believe the Model Y, which will be more profitable, won’t cannibalize Model 3 sales. Analysts polled by FactSet expected an adjusted loss of 46 cents a share on sales of $6.43 billion for the quarter.

For more, read: Tesla stock rallies 20% after surprise quarterly profit

“Cost control can help a quarter, but we struggle to understand how spending doesn’t have to go up to support Tesla’s growth ambitions,” said Spak. He noted that capex continues to come in lower and absolute sales, general and administration costs are still near 2017 levels, when deliveries were at about 23% of third-quarter 2019 levels.

“Tesla already hinted that margins could start to take a step back in 4Q19 as China factory comes online. This could accelerate in 1H20 as China continues to ramp, and recall on the 2Q19 call, Elon indicated demand to start 2020 could be “tough”,” Spak wrote. “We believe Tesla has been deferring Shanghai capex payments into 2020, so cash flow could get hit further. Net, profits/cash flow could be tougher over next 3 quarters.”

Needham analyst Rajvindra Gill also asked if the profit was sustainable, noting that Tesla said it has now reached a point of being self funding with “possible temporary exceptions,” like product launches and ramps.

“We believe the latter is a key caveat as Tesla focuses on ramping Gigafactory Shanghai or Model Y,” Gill wrote in a note. The analyst is sticking with an underperform rating on the stock.

JPMorgan analysts Ryan Brinkman and Rajat Gupta raised their price target to $220 from $200 on the numbers, but reiterated their underweight rating. The analysts said they are unsure that the quarter is really the breakout touted by the bulls.

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“Our conversations with investors suggest they are more focused on gross margin than operating expense (and hence more likely to reward gross margin-driven beats than operating expense-driven beats),” they wrote in a note. “This is because of the belief that the current period trend in gross margin is more indicative of the likely future trend than in the case of operating expense.”

But gross margin is dependent on variable product costs and gross margin-driven beats suggest Tesla is making progress on that front, one about which there has been a great deal of debate, they wrote. And while gross margin beat, “we are not certain about the quality of this beat.”

The analysts said if given the opportunity on the earnings call, they would have asked questions about non-recurring items, which they said may or may not be material.

Tesla shares have fallen 23% in 2019, while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.28% has gained 20% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.17%  has gained 15%.

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