China Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group’s expansive pop-up showroom sits at the heart of Shanghai’s National Exhibition and Convention Center. With nine models on display, it’s hard to miss. The electric vehicle upstart has one of the biggest booths at China’s 2021 Auto Show, which starts Monday, opposite storied German automaker BMW Group. Yet its bold presence belies an uncomfortable truth -- Evergrande hasn’t sold a single vehicle under its own brand.
China’s largest property developer has an array of investments outside of real estate, from soccer clubs to retirement villages. But it’s the recent entry into EVs that’s captured investors’ imaginations. Shareholders have pushed Evergrande NEV’s Hong Kong-listed stock up more than 1,000 percent over the past 12 months, allowing it to raise billions of dollars in fresh capital. It now has a market value of $87 billion, greater than Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.
Such exuberance over an automaker that has repeatedly pushed back forecasts for when it will mass produce a car is emblematic of the froth that has been building in EVs over the past year, with investors plowing money into a rally that briefly made Elon Musk the world’s richest person and has some concerned about a bubble.
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in China, home to the world’s biggest market for new energy vehicles, where a mind-boggling 400 EV manufacturers now jostle for consumers’ attention, led by a cabal of startups valued more than established auto players but which have yet to turn a profit.
Evergrande NEV is a relatively late entrant.
In March 2019, Hui Ka Yan, Evergrande’s chairman and one of China’s richest men, vowed to take on Musk and become the world’s biggest maker of EVs in three to five years. Tesla Inc.’s Model Y crossover had just had its global debut. In the two years since, Tesla has gained an enviable foothold in China, establishing its first factory outside the U.S. and delivering around 35,500 vehicles in March. Chinese rival Nio Inc. earlier this month reached a significant milestone when its 100,000th EV rolled off the production line, prompting Musk to tweet his congratulations.
Despite his lofty ambitions and Evergrande NEV’s rich valuation, Hui has repeatedly pushed back car-production targets. The tycoon’s coterie of rich friends, among others, have stumped up billions, but making cars -- electric or otherwise -- is hard, and hugely capital intensive. Nio’s gross margins only flipped into positive territory in mid-2020, after years of heavy losses and a lifeline from a municipal government.
Speaking on an earnings call in late March after Evergrande NEV’s full-year loss for 2020 widened by a yawning 67 percent, Hui said the company planned to begin trial production at the end of this year, delayed from an original timeline of last September. Deliveries aren’t expected to start until some time in 2022.
Expectations for annual production capacity of 500,000 to 1 million EVs by March 2022 were also pushed back until 2025. Still, the company issued a buoyant new forecast: 5 million vehicles a year by 2035. For comparison, global giant Volkswagen Group delivered 3.85 million units in China in 2020.
It’s not just Evergrande’s delayed production schedule that’s raising eyebrows. A closer look under the company’s hood reveals practices that have industry veterans scratching their heads: from making selling apartments part of car executives’ KPIs, to attempting a model lineup that would be ambitious for even the most established automaker.