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Tesla bulls are stuck in 'The Matrix,' says analyst

Elon Musk has suggested reality as we know it may be a simulation — a world that is not truly real.

One analyst thinks Tesla investors may be stuck in a world that is not real at all.

Barclay's analyst and longtime Tesla bear Brian Johnson published a research note Thursday called "Red-pilling the Tesla bull case" where he counters what he sees as several "articles of faith" in the Tesla bull case that are unmoored from fact.

To make his point, Johnson draws on a plot point from the "Matrix" films, where characters choose between swallowing a red pill, which will awaken them to the true horrors of their world, or a blue pill, which will return their minds to a state of blissful delusion inside a computer simulation.

The report runs more than 20 pages, but here are highlights, with the bull case "articles of faith" in quotes, followed by Johnson's view, paraphrased.

    • "Tesla has a significant and sustainable advantage in battery packs."

      Johnson concedes that Tesla may be on its way to a $100 per kilowatt hour battery pack, but he thinks the company is understating the amount of time it will take to get there. Meanwhile, competitors, particularly big ones with the ability to scale quickly, are catching up.
      Baird analyst Ben Kallo estimates that Tesla's costs are between $150 and $200 per kWh, while some have estimated the industry average to be anywhere from $227 per kWh to as high as $350 per kWh.

    • "Tesla has a significant lead in autonomous driving, meaning it will be the first by several years to achieve a self-driving vehicle."

      Johnson says that Tesla is not necessarily ahead of other companies in developing self-driving cars just because it has released a product already. The quality of the data Tesla collects is unclear, and Johnson does not think Tesla has the "industrial rigor" and scale to develop autonomous technology.

      "Tesla will be a dominant share player in the auto industry, similar to the iPhone in the cell phone business."

    • While there may be plenty of demand for Tesla's cars, Johnson again notes Tesla's competitors and thinks production inefficiencies and cash burn might keep Tesla from meeting demand.

    • "Tesla will dominate in areas outside of auto, like energy, mobility and insurance."

      Johnson believes Tesla has competition in energy storage that is "vastly underappreciated." He also says Tesla may have difficulty competing in mobility, and would have competition from established players in insurance as well.

    Still, investors seem to prefer the "blue pill," Johnson writes. He thinks the company's stock price — recently at an all-time high, and hovering around $300 Thursday — is driven by momentum and not the company's fundamentals. And he does not see anything in the near future that will reverse the stock's momentum.

    "Barring a major sell-off in some of the high-value tech companies, the only thing that could send shares down over the next few months is something major happening with the Model 3 launch," Johnson said Thursday on CNBC's "Power Lunch."

    Still, Johnson maintains a $165 price target on the stock, which would represent an almost 50 percent drop from where the stock sits today.

    Tesla was not immediately available for comment.

    Others have argued that Tesla's share price reflects the company's potential. Musk said as much in a tweet Monday.

    Some analysts see further prospects for Tesla beyond electric cars. For example, in a note published Wednesday, Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas outlined several trillion-dollar markets Tesla could conceivably enter to further its growth.

    On Thursday, S&P removed Tesla from its CreditWatch Negative list, meaning that while the firm's outlook on Tesla is still negative, the electric carmaker is no longer at risk of a ratings cut.