It has some competition, but no stock on the auto sector is a better reflection of the equity market’s recent exuberance than Nikola Corp.
The aspiring battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell truck maker debuted on the Nasdaq last week following a reverse merger and its stock quickly took off, doubling on Monday and rising another 28 percent shortly after Tuesday’s open. Trading was halted twice within the first 40 minutes due to volatility, with the shares plunging as much as 22 percent. They closed Tuesday's trading up 8.8 percent to $79.73.
The $34 billion market capitalization Nikola had at the intraday peak belies the company’s fundamentals. Nikola is forecasting zero revenue for 2020 and its first $1 billion year in 2023. It doesn’t expect to be fully utilizing an Arizona assembly plant that it hasn’t built yet until 2028.
Ford Motor Co., by comparison, is expected to report about $115 billion of revenue for this year. And yet Nikola, whose stock more than doubled Monday, traded up another 24 percent to as high as $90.71 in early trading Tuesday, giving the company a richer market capitalization than the almost 117-year-old maker of the F-150.
Skeptics have long questioned the market’s valuation of Tesla, which has yet to post an annual profit. But by pushing Nikola’s market cap to $34 billion on Tuesday, investors have taken appraisals of zero-emission vehicle manufacturers named after a celebrated Serbian-American inventor to another stratosphere.
“People are looking at this as the next Tesla, and they’re being stupid. Investors are being ridiculous,” Sam Abuelsamid, a transportation analyst at research firm Guidehouse Insights, said by phone. “While I think the tech absolutely has the potential to be disruptive, I don’t know that Nikola in and of themselves are, necessarily.”
“Nikola’s No. 1 goal is stable growth over time,” Trevor Milton, Nikola’s executive chairman, said in an emailed statement. The 38-year-old said several factors could be behind the stock’s gain and cited examples including his tweeted announcement that the company will start taking reservations for its Badger pickup.
Starting five years ago, when Milton founded Nikola, through the end of last year, the Phoenix-based company has lost about $188.5 million. It’s planning to start delivering the Tre battery-electric semi truck next year, followed by two fuel cell-electric models in 2023.
The Badger model that Milton said may have gotten the market excited on Monday might not actually make it into production. In Nikola’s public-offering filing, the company said it is focused on making Class 8 heavy-duty vehicles and doesn’t expect to build the Badger unless it finds an established manufacturer to partner with.
A spokesperson for the company said Nikola will announce a partner in the near future, without giving more specifics.
Last week, Milton ceded the CEO job to Mark Russell, a former COO of metals manufacturer Worthington Industries Inc., who has been president of Nikola since February 2019. VectoIQ Acquisition Corp., the company Nikola merged with, is led by Steve Girsky, a former GM vice chairman who helped lead the carmaker out of bankruptcy.
Nikola had about $86 million in cash at the end of last year. Prior to the stock listing, it had raised more than $500 million of private capital, though that includes a $150 million in-kind contribution from CNH Industrial NV, the truck maker linked to Italy’s billionaire Agnelli family. CNH also invested $100 million cash in Nikola last year.
The partnership with CNH includes a 50-50 venture in Europe that aims to start producing battery-electric trucks in Germany in the first half of next year and a North American alliance that Nikola will fully own.
Nikola is planning to build a 1-million-square-foot facility south of Phoenix and start making trucks in 2021. It’s expecting to reach full production of about 30,000 fuel cell-electric vehicles in 2027 and 15,000 battery-electric vehicles the following year.
Although Nikola touts reservations for 14,000 fuel cell-electric trucks that it says are worth about $10 billion of sales, those are far from done deals. The company told prospective investors in April that it was negotiating with strategic fleet partners to convert pre-orders into binding contracts with deposits.
While times are good for Milton -- his fortune now stands at $9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index -- he still covets something Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has: a blue check mark on Twitter.