Tesla has thrilled some investors and jarred others by soaring to a valuation of as much as $649 billion, more than what the world’s seven largest automakers were collectively worth at the beginning of this year. The company is now comfortably in a category by itself, defying even CEO Elon Musk’s warnings.
“I actually said the stock is too high a long time ago,” Musk said at the start of December. “But they didn’t listen to me.”
For startups aiming to mimic Musk’s success and for traditional automakers struggling to disrupt themselves, most lingering doubts about future demand for electric vehicles have dissipated. Thanks in large part to the Tesla phenomenon, a consensus has emerged that they are undeniably the future.
“What you’ve had is a greater realization of the inevitability” of EVs, said Michael Pye, an investment manager at Baillie Gifford, which oversees about $370 billion and is one of the biggest shareholders of both Tesla and China-based EV maker Nio. Ten years from now, “it’s likely we’ll look back on this as the electric decade.”
Tesla alone has not brought the world to this point. A mix of stricter regulations against internal-combustion cars, increased support for plug-in vehicle purchases, improvements in technology and benefits of scale have led more consumers to embrace electrics. Still, two big questions remain: Can any other startup meaningfully replicate Tesla’s success? And will the EV market grow quickly enough to support both incumbents and startups?
“A reason all the current frothy action is happening is no one wants to miss the next Tesla,” said Jeff Chamberlain, CEO of Volta Energy Technologies, a Chicago-area fund that focuses on energy investments. “The question is, which one is the next Tesla?”
Musk himself has described Tesla as having been “in mortal danger” before only recently pulling off a combination of high-volume manufacturing and cash generation. The time it took the 17-year-old company to get there suggests a high risk of failure for newer entrants trying to catch up.
That risk is giving prominent investors who doubted Tesla a shot at redemption. Famed short seller Jim Chanos, who has had a “painful” year wagering against Musk, is betting that Nikola and other EV companies riding Tesla’s coattails are overvalued.
“I would tell investors, if you’re in a hot area, be careful, because that’s an area in which promoters will try to foist off not only unprofitable but fraudulent businesses,” Chanos told Bloomberg Television.
The dramatic rise and fall of Nikola over just a few months was this year’s cautionary tale. The company founded by entrepreneur Trevor Milton set out to transform the trucking industry by replacing the diesels in big rigs with batteries and fuel cells. It also said it would build a hydrogen-station network and charge customers upfront for refueling.
In June, Nikola went public by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, led by a former vice chairman of General Motors. Optimism that the infusion of cash would help the startup begin to produce trucks briefly sent its valuation soaring past Ford’s. The stock collapsed by September after a short seller claimed Nikola had deceived investors about its technology; the company has denied this. Regulators opened investigations, and Milton left the company.
Nikola’s breakdown hasn’t deterred other SPACs. The so-called blank-check firms have raised $70 billion in 2020 — a fivefold increase from 2019 — and at least 15 EV companies have been taken public or have listings pending. Those that already made their debut include Lordstown Motors, which has said it will begin producing its Endurance electric pickup in September 2021, and Fisker, whose Ocean SUV is planned for 2022.
“I have had very credible people, with very large sums of money, DM me on Twitter to see if we’d be interested in working with their SPAC,” said Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, a California-based battery company, and ex-Tesla engineer. The blank-check company board member who messaged him reached out in early October, after Nikola’s implosion.
Tesla shares started their meteoric rise in late 2019, when Musk proved he could not only dominate the nascent EV market but also make a small amount of money in the process. The company got on a roll by accelerating production of Model 3 sedans in China and Model Y crossovers in California and has now recorded five consecutive quarterly profits.
Companies getting in on the coinciding EV stock-buying bonanza include XPeng, the Guangzhou-based company co-founded by He Xiaopeng, the billionaire behind one of China’s most popular mobile browsers. Within three months after its U.S. listing in August, the stock almost quintupled.