April 2, 2018 / 12:44 PM / 7 months ago

Tesla shares fall on worries about Model 3 production rate

(Reuters) - Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) shares slumped 5 percent on Monday as investors awaited production numbers for the closely watched Model 3, a cheaper vehicle that analysts see as crucial to the luxury electric automaker’s long-term profitability.

FILE PHOTO - The company logo is seen in front of a showroom of U.S. car manufacturer Tesla in Zurich, Switzerland March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

A recent crash involving Tesla’s autopilot technology and concerns about the company’s ability to raise new capital also took a toll.

Tesla, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, declined to comment on production numbers for the Model 3, which are expected to be released this week.

The stock briefly pared losses after auto industry blogs - citing an unverified memo - reported that production of the Model 3 passed the 2,000 per week production rate. That would be short of Tesla’s own target of 2,500 per week for the end of March but far above the 793 Model 3s built in the final week of last year.

“Musk himself is focusing time on Model 3 production because it is the “highest priority,” a Tesla spokesman said on Monday, saying that engineering chief Doug Field was focused on vehicle engineering.

The company’s statement followed a report that Musk had taken charge of Model 3 production after several missed production deadlines.

In a series of tweets Musk said he had asked Field to manage both engineering and production to better align both businesses, a year earlier.

“Right now, tho(ugh), better to divide & conquer, so I’m back to sleeping at factory,” he tweeted.

Some buy-side Tesla watchers questioned whether the company could sustain such numbers - if they prove to be true - and also worried about profitability.

“There’s been a number of things combined to impact the stock,” said Tony Boase, senior research analyst with Nuveen Asset Management in Minneapolis. In addition to the Model 3 production rate, he cited a recent Moody’s downgrade of Tesla’s credit rating and the crash of a Tesla Model X and the company’s comments since the crash.

“It comes down to the Model 3. That’s the key,” Boase said. “If they can profitably build those cars that would be a huge step in the right direction.

“If you couldn’t do (2,000) without using all the resources and at a decent margin level, what have you really achieved?” he added.

Another investor who said he has profitably sold Tesla shares short four times in the last 18 months was also skeptical.

“Are they really at 2,000 or did they just stuff their system to achieve 2,000 for last week?” said David Kudla, chief executive and chief investment strategist at Mainstay Capital Management, who said he currently has no bets on Tesla.

“The only position I’d have on it is short because they aren’t making any money. Their operating losses are growing. The stock’s been overvalued for months,” he said.

Tesla said on Friday that the Model X involved in a fatal crash in California last week had activated its Autopilot system, raising new questions about the semi-autonomous system that handles some driving tasks.

Tesla’s shares closed down $13.65 at $252.48 on Monday, after earlier hitting their lowest level in just over a year. So far in 2018, the shares are down 19 percent, at a time when technology shares have suffered particularly as stock prices fall across the board.

Tesla has said it had about 500,000 advance reservations from customers for the Model 3, but manufacturing bottlenecks since last July have delayed production and deliveries to customers, exacerbating the company’s need for cash.

Failure to meet targets and pressures on funding prompted Moody’s downgrade last week, saying that Tesla was likely to raise more than $2 billion in new capital, partly to cover about $1.2 billion in convertible bonds due by March 2019.

Tesla still has loyal investors, including Zevenbergen Capital Investments in Seattle, which has owned the stock since the company’s initial public offering.

“Historically, volatility has provided good entry points. Looking at it today we believe the demand outlook remains robust and unchanged,” said Joseph Dennison, portfolio manager at Zevenbergen. “I still believe their product targets and outlook they’ve given in the past. While they’ve been optimistic on the timing they’ve always followed through.”

Reporting by Sinead Carew in New York; Sonam Rai and Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Henderson and Leslie Adler

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