MARK RECHTIN

Is Tesla worth more than America's entire coal industry?

Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor of Automotive News.Mark Rechtin is West Coast editor of Automotive News.
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LOS ANGELES -- There was disbelief when Tesla Motors' market capitalization passed that of longtime automaker Peugeot, then that of Chrysler owner Fiat, then that of both Peugeot and Fiat combined.

After all, Tesla has built literally thousands of cars in less than a year, whereas Fiat and Peugeot have built millions upon millions for decades.

But those storied automakers have serious weaknesses, among which is relying on the cratered European market for much of their profits. That has had a major impact on earnings, thus damaging their stock prices and market caps.

So let's look at the histrionics of Tesla's stock price -- which closed Monday up another 5 percent to $144.68 a share -- in another light. (The price retreated 1.8 percent to $142.11 today.)

But at $16.7 billion as of Monday, Tesla's market capitalization was nearly equal to that of the entire publicly traded U.S. coal industry.

This calculation comes from Twitterer @harfangcap, who describes himself as a "nobody hedge fund manager, fundamental value expat [who] feasts on Lemmings."

And this back-of-the-envelope calculation appears to be correct based on the combined market capitalization of the nation's top publicly traded mining companies, adjusted for their non-coal interests.

To be clear, @harfangcap is a shorter who sees Tesla as seriously overvalued, but he has a point.

Is Tesla really worth more in the scheme of things than all the companies that turn on the lights -- and, coincidentally, recharge the Teslas -- of more than one-third of America's households?

There are myriad factors that go into determining a company's stock price, and consequently its market capitalization. But to my mind, the factor that seems most sensible to me: How much would people care if this company suddenly went away?

If Tesla were to evaporate, there would be some tears shed, some regret that such a promising technology met such an early demise and some predictable Republican screaming that they were right about it being another Solyndra.

But if the entire U.S. coal industry were to suddenly shut down, America would be in chaos. Most of the homes and businesses east of the Rockies would be dark. Imagine that for a minute.

With Tesla scheduled to report second-quarter earnings on Wednesday, the market is awash in options trading. Bears with short positions took a bath when Tesla stock blasted from $30 a share past $100 in the few weeks following the company's first-quarter profit announcement.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com. -- Follow Mark on Twitter

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