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Is Tesla Really a Tech Company?

Tesla Motors
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Tesla Motors

"Tesla is a tech company' is the new buzz on Wall Street— and it better be. There's no other way to justify a valuation that long ago sped past the nosebleed level, and is today bigger than 36 percent of all S&P 500 companies.

The Tesla-as-tech idea shifted into high gear last week when Slate ran a piece that said: "Tesla is Apple on the outside, but it's Google at its core."

Not only that: It's headquartered in Silicon Valley.

But saying Tesla is a tech company is akin to saying Amazon is a tech company (and not a retailer) or Google is (and not a media company). I would agree Google is not a media company, even though it gets almost all of its revenue from advertising.

Reality: Amazon is a retailer—and an exceptionally good one, at that—and Tesla, for all its bells and whistles, is an auto company. Or giving it the benefit of the doubt, after consulting with my colleague Phil Labeau, who covers the auto industry for CNBC: It's a hybrid, but one that is more of an auto company than tech company.

Does it have exciting new battery technology? You bet! (But so does General Motors.) In the end, unless its business model shifts entirely to licensing its technology, it ultimately will make its money from assembling and selling cars.

(Read More: GM Turns the Corner With Investors)

There's no question that Tesla is currently a real company (albeit one helped by government subsidies) or whether it makes cars that woo even the toughest critics (it does).

Right now the Tesla story is about its stock, not whether it makes good cars. And it's a stock that by any standard is almost impossible to value—so impossible that in putting a $103 price target on it today Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas used a 15-year discounted cash flow model, "which captures the full maturation."

Fifteen years?! My guess is I'd have to go back 15 years to find those kind of price justifications.

(Read More: Tesla's Financing Altered After Criticism)

My take: I have no idea what will happen to Tesla -- the company or the stock. I've been around too long to make that kind of prediction. But I do know that anything short of perfection for Tesla will cause this stock to fall a whole lot faster than it has risen.

—By CNBC's Herb Greenberg. Follow him on Twitter: @herbgreenberg and Google

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Questions? Comments? Write to HerbOnTheStreet@cnbc.com

Disclaimer

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

  • CNBC's Senior Personal Finance Correspondent

  • JeeYeon Park is a writer for CNBC.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC

  • Rick Santelli joined CNBC Business News as an on-air editor in 1999, reporting live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

  • Senior Producer at CNBC's Breaking News Desk.