Personal Finance

Tesla might go private. Here's what that would mean if you own its stock

Key Points
  • If a fund were established to allow shareholders to keep their Tesla stock, only "accredited investors," those who meet minimum asset requirements would be able to participate, experts say.
  • Selling shares at Musk's cited $420, which is a premium over the current $373, would generate capital gains taxes for the seller.

With Tesla CEO Elon Musk floating the idea of taking his $62 billion company private, investors in the electric car maker might wonder whether they'll be able to go along for the ride.

It depends. Musk's surprise announcement included the idea that investors could remain invested if they want, albeit in a special fund created for that purpose.

While it's unclear at this point exactly how such a fund would be structured or exactly which shareholders actually would be able to remain invested, there are aspects of the deal that investors should consider.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For starters, there's a big difference between being invested in a public company — one whose stock trades on a U.S. stock exchange — and a private one.

Public companies must adhere to stricter reporting requirements, including quarterly financial statements that can be viewed by the public on the Securities and Exchange Commission's website. They also face prying questions from Wall Street analysts, whose reports can sway investor opinion.

Private firms, on the other hand, generally can avoid publicly sharing their financial information. That might be a bonus for the firm itself due to reduced scrutiny, but it leaves investors with less ongoing information to base investment decisions on.

Additionally, it's unclear exactly how a special fund could be structured in a way that would allow shareholders to stay if they want, despite Musk's hope.

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"It's hard to do these types of big-dollar transactions under the best of circumstances," said J.R. Lanis, a partner at the Los Angeles office of national law firm Drinker Biddle. "If you bring in smaller investors, it's a coordination nightmare."

Generally speaking, private companies are allowed to have up to 2,000 regular shareholders without triggering SEC reporting requirements. If a fund were created, it could be a way be a way to sidestep the limit.

However, in that case, experts say the investors would need to be accredited — meaning they need to have at least $1 million in investable assets excluding the value of their home or average yearly earnings of $200,000 ($300,000 for married couples).

In other words, that would remove the option to remain invested for anyone who could not meet those minimum requirements.

"The profile of the typical Tesla investor is someone who is wealthy and a young tech investor, who may or may not be accredited," said certified financial planner James Gambaccini, a managing partner at Acorn Financial Services in Reston, Virginia.

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Even for those who could stick with the company, it would mean less flexibility in when you can buy or sell shares. Musk's email to employees said he envisioned allowing shareholders to buy or sell about every six months.

Meanwhile, Musk also said he'd pay $420 per share to investors who would rather sell. Based on the stock's current price of $373, you'd face capital gains taxes if you choose to sell.

If you've held the stock for less than a year, you'd pay ordinary income tax rates on that profit. If you've held it for longer, you'd be taxed at long-term capital rates. Those rates are either zero, 15 percent or 20 percent, depending on your income.

By and large, Tesla investors have been rewarded for their confidence in the independent-minded Musk and his vision for Tesla. In June 2010, Tesla went public with an opening share price of $19. Since then, it's climbed to its current $373 — and that's despite the company continuing to post losses. In 2017, Tesla had a reported a net loss of $2.24 billion, widening from $773 million in 2016.

Despite those losses, $10,000 invested in Tesla when it went public eight years ago would be worth close to $200,000 today.