Tesla is facing an ‘existential crisis,' says market watcher

A day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk's April Fools' joke that the company was facing bankruptcy, its shares lost $2.3 billion in value.

One market watcher wonders whether the joke was a prank or a cry for help as the electric car maker faces mounting pressure.

"Behind every good joke there's always a little bit of a kernel of truth," Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX strategy at BK Asset Management, told CNBC's "Trading Nation." "It speaks to the kind of psychological pressure he's under."

The main concern, Schlossberg says, is its rising pile of debt.

"Tesla is really sort of in an existential moment at this point because they're facing a massive, massive amount of debt due over the next 18 months and a big capital expenditure spend," Schlossberg said.

By the end of December, Tesla held $7.2 billion in total recourse debt on its balance sheet. That was up around 42 percent from December 2016. It ended 2017 with $3.3 billion in cash and cash equivalents.

"The only way they can get out of it is to do a capital raise," said Schlossberg. "That's the big question: Can they do another capital raise and kind of pull the rabbit out of the hat and go forward?"

Last week, Moody's analysts downgraded their credit rating on Tesla to B3 from B2. The firm said the company would need to raise more money and soon to cover its cash flow and expansion plans.

A large chunk of the market is betting on Tesla's failure, added Schlossberg.

"The shorts are feeling like they're just circling like sharks in the water at this point and I think they finally may have nailed the company to the downside," he said. Musk is "facing some very serious problems because debt is absolute. Stock is relative, sales are all relative."

Tesla has short interest at 22.6 percent of its float, making it the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq 100. The Nasdaq 100 has an average 3.5 percent short interest.

Tesla shares have fallen 35 percent since hitting a 52-week high in September. The descent puts Tesla well within bear market territory of a 20 percent drop from its recent highs.

Tesla's technical picture puts Oppenheimer's Ari Wald on the sidelines. Wald, head of technical analysis, told "Trading Nation" that Tesla's 200-day moving average has moderated and its recent downside gap makes any solid rebound more challenging. Shares could see a bounce if they reach $240, a March 2017 low, though $280 could prove a level of resistance, he added.

Tesla shares trade around 24 percent below a 200-day moving average of nearly $334. Tesla broke firmly below that key level in mid-March after bumping against it since the beginning of the year. It is on track for a 19 percent drop in 2018, its worst annual decline in its history.

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Trading Nation is a multimedia financial news program that shows investors and traders how to use the news of the day to their advantage. This is where experts from across the financial world – including macro strategists, technical analysts, stock-pickers, and traders who specialize in options, currencies, and fixed income – come together to find the best ways to capitalize on recent developments in the market. Trading Nation: Where headlines become opportunities.

Michael Santoli

Michael Santoli joined CNBC in October 2015 as a Senior Markets Commentator, based at the network's Global Headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.  Santoli brings his extensive markets expertise to CNBC's Business Day programming, with a regular appearance on CNBC's “Closing Bell (M-F, 3PM-5PM ET).   In addition, he contributes to CNBCand CNBC PRO, writing regular articles and creating original digital videos.

Previously, Santoli was a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance, where he wrote analysis and commentary on the stock market, corporate news and the economy. He also appeared on Yahoo Finance video programs, where he offered insights on the most important business stories of the day, and was a regular contributor to CNBC and other networks.

Follow Michael Santoli on Twitter @michaelsantoli

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