Elon Musk is acting like he 'plans to never need to raise capital again'

Key Points
  • Elon Musk is either frustrated or never needs to raise capital again, says one analyst.
  • Many on Wall Street think Tesla may need to raise money soon.
5 outrageous Elon Musk moments from the bizarre Tesla call
5 outrageous Elon Musk moments from the bizarre Tesla call

Elon Musk is acting like he'll never need to raise capital again.

Musk's behavior on a Tesla conference call on Wednesday raises questions about Musk's relationship with the investors who have bought equity from the company year after year, including those who think Tesla may need to return to markets in the not-so-distant future.

Musk insisted on the call that he has no plans to raise funds at this point, and Tesla was not available for further comment.

But many on Wall Street say that insistence does not seem to square with what they see in Tesla's finances.

Musk's temperament not right to be CEO: Expert
Musk's temperament not right to be CEO: Expert

For example, CFRA analyst Efraim Levy told CNBC he thinks Tesla may have to raise money again before the end of the first quarter of 2019, either through selling equity or debt.

"I would expect it to be equity rather than debt, because it is cheaper and you don't have to pay it back," he said. The problem with that is, Levy added, that selling more equity will have a dilutive effect on existing shareholders.

The questions typically asked on these calls inform the research relied on by the large institutional shareholders who already own considerable stakes in the company.

"Irrespective of the Tesla CEO's annoyance with the genre of questions he was receiving from the analyst community, we note that an important part of Tesla's success has been its relationship with the capital markets in funding its ambitious plans," said Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas in a note following the call. "The analysts on the call represent the providers of capital that Tesla has throughout its history depended upon."

Jonas added that while such questions may seem "dry," as Musk called them, they are "extremely important for a highly levered and cash hungry company."

"As we have highlighted in our previous research, even the short-term cadence of Model 3 production can significantly impact cash levels, liquidity, and financial credit worthiness," he said.

The 10 largest institutions collectively own 61 percent of Tesla. Behind Musk himself, who owns 23 percent, Fidelity Investments owns an 11 percent share, Baillie Gifford owns a 9 percent share, and T. Rowe Price owns a 7 percent share, for example.

"It's ironic that they've had at least one capital raise per year every year since going public and now he is being combative with the Street," Morningstar analyst Dave Whiston said. "He's either just very much out of patience or plans to never need to raise capital again."

Apart from interrupting analysts and calling their questions about Tesla's finances "boring," it was bizarre that Musk gave so much time to Gali Russell, the Tesla shareholder who asked several crowdsourced questions, despite the fact that Tesla typically only allows analysts to ask one question and one follow-up, Whiston told CNBC on Thursday.

"[That is] another sign that Elon had had enough of the norm, but when you are public these are the types of questions you get asked," Whiston said. "If you don't like it, go private and stop relying on other people's money."

Indeed, other business leaders have either avoided public markets or taken their companies private so they can run them differently from how they might have to if they were publicly traded firms, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who is a senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale. Michael Dell, who founded computer company Dell Technologies, is one notable example.

If Musk wants to avoid scrutiny from Wall Street, he could do the same, Sonnenfeld said.

Musk's behavior seemed like an emotional outburst that raises questions about the balance between the creative volatility that makes him great and his openness to questioning and criticism — and that can derail his success, Sonnenfeld said.

"He has made his fortune on other people's money, and he needs to be accountable," he said.

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