8 years after Tesla's IPO, it's raced past competitors. Here are three hurdles that could cause it to stall

  • Tesla shares debuted eight years ago at $17 per share.
  • The stock hit an all-time high of $389.61 in September.
  • To push its shares higher, Tesla will have to prove three things: it can sustain a profit, it can add production worldwide and it can expand its line-up.

When Elon Musk talked with CNBC after Tesla’s IPO eight years ago, he dismissed the skeptics who were predicting Tesla wouldn’t last.

“People at this point ought to be a little more optimistic about the future of Tesla because we’ve confounded the critics at every turn,” Musk said moments after Tesla went public at $17 a share. “At a certain point, people have to get tired of being wrong.”

Eight years later, Tesla's market value sits at $58.7 billion, higher than traditional automakers General Motors, which is valued at $56.4 billion, and Ford, which has a market cap of $44.1 billion. But Musk is still fending off the skeptics, especially those who doubt the company will ever turn a profit.

Tesla shares, trading at about $347 on Friday afternoon, have gained nearly 2,000 percent since the stock debuted. The shares have been trending back toward a record high of $389.61, which it hit in September. But to continue on that path upward, Tesla needs to clear three big hurdles.

Investors already saw in April what happens when Tesla falls short of its targets. Worries about production growth were one key reason why the company's stock sunk to a 52-week low of $244.59 in April.

Sustained profitability

This is far easier said than done. In the last four quarters, the company has posted net losses totaling $2.3 billion as it invested heavily ramping up production of the Model 3. Still, Musk promises the company will be profitable in the second half of this year, largely due to the fact it expects to be cash flow positive by hitting its goal of building 5,000 Model 3 vehicles per week.

More than a few on Wall Street are skeptical, including Goldman Sachs analyst David Tamberrino. In a note reiterating his sell rating on the stock, he said even if Tesla hits the mark, “the question that will remain is how sustainable that run-rate of production is for 3Q18 given the historical volatility of the Model 3 production rate, where Tesla has taken intermittent downtime.”

Musk responded to Tamberrino in an email to employees by saying: “They are in for a rude awakening :)”

Adding production worldwide

Within the next month or two, Tesla is expected to announce plans to build a Gigafactory in China that will not only supply battery packs, but also build Tesla models for the China market. This will be Tesla’s second final assembly plant and with it comes a new level of complexity. What happens if China’s production is running shy of hitting a target deadline? Will Musk fly there, sleep in the factory and push the team to increase output as he has done over the last month and half at the company’s Fremont, California, plant.

Workers add seat belts to a Tesla car at the assembly plant in Fremont, California.
Noah Berger/Bloomberg | Getty Images
Workers add seat belts to a Tesla car at the assembly plant in Fremont, California.

Wall Street has largely stayed quiet on whether Tesla’s expansion into China will be a smooth one. Jamie Albertine, auto analyst for Consumer Edge Research, said he thinks Tesla will do fine with its expansion.

“Tesla is getting significantly better when it comes to manufacturing,” said Albertine. “Yes, they’ve had a lot of growing pains, but they are also learning a lot.”

Expanding the line-up

When Tesla went public in 2010, Musk stood in front of a prototype Model 3 and talked confidently about the future. In the eight years since then, Tesla has added the Model X and the Model 3. Next up will be the Model Y, a small crossover utility vehicle. Also on the drawing board is the Tesla Electric Semi, an all-electric pickup truck and a new version of the Tesla Roadster.

On paper, the line-up expansion makes sense. In reality, adding those models will require frequently reworking the assembly lines at Tesla’s Fremont plant and at other facilities the company plans to build around the world.

Albertine, who has a buy rating on Tesla shares, is optimistic. In part because of how far the automaker has come since going public. “What they’ve been able to do in the last eight years is what makes Tesla a powerful innovator,” he said.

Correction: Tesla went public in 2010. An earlier version misstated the year.