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Tesla skeptics remain unconvinced, even after Elon Musk's big earnings beat

Elon Musk, CEO of US automotive and energy storage company Tesla
Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images
Elon Musk, CEO of US automotive and energy storage company Tesla

Bearish analysts are still skeptical about Tesla's future, despite the electric carmaker surprising many on Wall Street by posting its second-ever profitable quarter.

One day after Tesla said it earned 71 cents a share, adjusted, in the third quarter, several analysts poked holes in the company's unexpected profit and revenue beat.

While acknowledging that Tesla had a good quarter, JPMorgan analyst Ryan Brinkman told investors that his team saw "one reason why the [third-quarter] earnings report is not as good as it looks, and another reason why it might not be as good as it looks."

Brinkman's issues were both tied to Tesla's revenue beat. The automaker's results included just under $140 million in zero emission vehicle credits, which are handed out to companies for selling zero-emission cars. That's far higher than many analysts had forecast.

The JPMorgan analyst, for example, had expected the automaker to generate a mere $25 million from these credits. Tesla recognized a negligible amount of revenue from ZEV credits in the previous quarter.

Changes the company recently made to the way it reports revenue could be another reason its sales beat analysts' forecasts by such as wide margin, Brinkman said. Revenue came in at $2.3 billion versus a consensus estimate for $1.9 billion, "even though the approximate number of deliveries in the quarter was known ahead of time."

"We feel the difference clearly relates more to the change in accounting than it does to [average selling prices]," he said.

Tesla made this change to bring itself closer in line with GAAP accounting standards.

As for its bottom-line beat, analysts said Tesla's $247.6 million in capital expenditures were lower than expected.

Wall Street expects Tesla to ramp up capital spending over the next few quarters to fund the construction of its Gigafactory battery plant, the development of the Model 3 sedan and potential expenses resulting from the merger with SolarCity (if the deal is approved by shareholders).

Yet while Tesla said it will shell out $1 billion in capital expenditures during the fourth quarter, it lowered its total spending target to $1.8 billion for the year, from last quarter's estimate of $2.25 billion.

"In all, while 3Q was a better quarter, we would characterize it as only modestly better," wrote Brinkman, who left his underweight rating on the stock and $180 price target unchanged.

Tesla shares were up 1.1 percent to $204.55, in midafternoon trading Thursday.

Barclays analyst Brian Johnson wrote that Tesla finished the quarter with $3.1 billion in cash, which was "well above" its $1.8 billion estimate. But he too pointed out caveats.

"This included not only the higher ZEV credits, but under-spend on capex, a greater-than-expected increase in payables and likely re-borrowing," of money on Tesla's asset-backed credit line, he said.

Johnson has an underweight/neutral rating on the stock, with a $165 price target.

Of course, just as some analysts remain cautious on the name, others who have historically been more bullish on the stock are holding their positions as well.

Baird analyst Ben Kallo reiterated his outperform rating on Tesla, citing strong gross margin, improved operating efficiency and confirmation from management that the Gigafactory and Model 3 schedules are running on time. Kallo also reiterated future catalysts that he says could drive Tesla's share price higher, including sustained demand for the Model S.

Oppenheimer analyst Colin Rusch summed up the atmosphere in a research note he sent after Tesla released its figures.

"We expect bulls and bears to see support for their theses in this quarter's report," he wrote. Bulls, he said, will point to Tesla's "profitability, cash generation, solid deliveries, and maintaining guidance for Model 3 production in 2017."

Bears, on the other hand, "will pick apart" the company's gross margin numbers, and say that profitability was driven by ZEV credits.

"We are encouraged by the company's improved cash management but remain cautious on the ramp of the Model 3 being slower and more expensive than investors expected weighing on shares," he said.

Rusch has a sector perform rating on the stock with no price target.