SAN FRANCISCO -- Elon Musk’s declarations that Tesla Inc. was done losing money and needing to raise more cash turned out to be premature.
The CEO is reopening the door to seeking capital for the maker of the electric Model 3 sedan after posting a bigger-than-expected loss for the first quarter. A record drop in deliveries, combined with the company’s largest-ever debt payment, depleted cash to the lowest level in three years.
Tesla shares fell 2.1 percent in early trading to $253.28 in New York.
Musk, 47, assured investors that higher deliveries and cost cuts will help Tesla post a narrower loss in the second quarter and return to profitability the following three months. But he also went a step further than his hint earlier this week that Tesla may seek more funds as he embarks on a hugely ambitious pursuit to unleash fully autonomous robotaxis in a shared service next year.
“There is merit to the idea of raising capital at this point,” Musk said on an earnings call Wednesday. “It is very important as the company scales to make sure we are on a solid foundation and that we have the appropriate financial discipline across the company and that we are spending money very efficiently. At this point, I think we are doing that.”
Tesla reported an adjusted loss of $494 million, or $2.90 a share, for the first quarter, missing analysts’ average estimate for a $1.30 deficit. The net loss during the quarter was $702 million.
More expenses than cash
The company is planning as much as $2.5 billion in capital expenditures this year as it develops new vehicles including the Model Y crossover and Semi truck. That’s more than the $2.2 billion in cash and equivalents that were on the balance sheet at the end of March.
“$2.2 billion in cash is a lot of money, but not when you’re making the kinds of investments Tesla is making,” Rebecca Lindland, a longtime auto-industry analyst and founder of the car-review website RebeccaDrives.com, said on Bloomberg Television. “I’m definitely concerned about some of their projections.”
In addition to operating cash flow worsening relative to the previous quarter, a February debt payment -- the company’s largest ever -- drained $920 million from its coffers. The company has another $566 million of convertible bonds coming due in November.
The halving of a federal tax incentive for Tesla purchases starting in January dragged on U.S. demand in the quarter, and Tesla struggled to offset that drop by starting deliveries of the Model 3 in Europe and China.
Also putting a damper on results were were frequent price changes and a botched retail strategy shift that stoked confusion among employees and customers. Musk announced Feb. 28 that in order to offer a long-promised $35,000 version of the Model 3, Tesla was shifting all ordering online and closing down most of its stores. The company backtracked just 10 days later, saying it would only shut roughly half as many locations as planned.
Many Tesla stores in high-end malls and shopping centers have long-term lease obligations that totaled $1.6 billion at the end of 2018.
“We will certainly continue to have stores and we will continue to add stores, provided they are in locations where there is high foot traffic,” Musk said Wednesday. “But we will close stores in locations where they’re incredibly hard to find where foot traffic of potential buyers is very low.”
Tesla finished the quarter with $768 million in customer deposits, a dip from $793 million at the end of last year, despite the unveiling of the Model Y in March. When asked about the state of orders for the vehicle the company expects to produce next year, Musk declined to comment on the “granularity of deposits.”
During Musk’s deep dive on Monday into the technology behind Tesla’s Autopilot system and its plans for a fully autonomous robotaxi, the CEO reset expectations for future cash flow. Whereas the company had said in the past that it expected to be positive in every quarter beyond the first three months of this year, Musk said the goal is now to be “neutral” while Tesla is building up a fleet of self-driving vehicles.
When asked by an analyst Monday how much the autonomous endeavor is costing Tesla, Musk replied: “It’s basically our entire expense structure.”
On Wednesday, Tesla re-affirmed a forecast that it will deliver 360,000 to 400,000 cars in 2019. The company delivered about 63,000 vehicles in the first quarter, so it’ll need to average handing over roughly 100,000 cars to customers in each of the next three quarters to reach the low end of its guidance.
Musk’s comments on Tesla’s cash position were a far cry from a year ago, when he interrupted an analyst who told him many investors were in favor of the company raising capital when it didn’t need to.
“I disagree,” Musk said in May 2018. When asked whether he might want to raise cash, he replied: “No. I specifically don’t want to.”
Automotive News contributed to this report.