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Tesla 'much bigger' than Elon Musk and is doing things others can only dream of, analyst says

Key Points
  • Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois says Tesla has become "much bigger" than Chief Executive Elon Musk.
  • He says Tesla is doing things "that other carmakers are only just thinking about or dreaming about."
  • Houchois hopes Tesla will grow profitably and destress its balance sheet, "and from that it can grow again."
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Tesla is 'much bigger' than Elon Musk, analyst says

There's more to Tesla than its billionaire boss, according to one analyst.

Philippe Houchois, equity research analyst for U.S. and European autos at Jefferies, said the company has become "much bigger" than Chief Executive Elon Musk, who is seen by many as the face of the electric vehicle maker.

"Tesla at this stage is much bigger than Musk," Houchois told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe " on Monday. "Of course, Musk gets a lot of attention. But Tesla has been able to be profitable, at a level of pricing and product that nobody expected to generate cash."

Houchois does not own shares of Tesla, he told CNBC later in the day by email.

Last year was a challenging one for Tesla and its CEO, marked by an ill-fated take-private deal, quibbles with Wall Street analysts and what Musk described on Twitter as a transition "from production hell to delivery logistics hell."

Musk's tweets have proven to be a source of contention for investors. He and Tesla were fined $20 million each last year over a tweet in which the former said he had "funding secured" for a deal to take Tesla private at $420 a share. The Securities and Exchange Commission claimed he had misled investors.

Then, earlier this year, regulatory issues returned to haunt the company and its boss, after the SEC asked a judge to hold him in contempt for violating its settlement deal by making an "inaccurate" February 19 tweet about production.

Musk has continued to use Twitter to make announcements related to the company. Just overnight, Musk said Tesla would unveil its highly anticipated Model Y SUV on March 14.

Tesla doing things others are only 'dreaming about'

Tesla turned its first quarterly profit in two years in the third quarter of 2018, and followed up with a smaller profit in the fourth quarter. Musk, however, has since warned that he doesn't expect the carmaker to report a profit in the first quarter of 2019, citing one-time charges and challenges with deliveries to Europe and China.

Elon Musk
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His comments arrived as Tesla launched the long-awaited $35,000 standard version of its Model 3 sedan, and said it would shift all sales online, a move that will result in store closures and job cuts.

Many on Wall Street reacted negatively to the news, with Barclays analyst Brian Johnson going as far as to call it the "un-iPhone moment."

Houchois takes a different view.

"Every carmaker dreams about the ability to sell cars online," he said. "They are implementing a number of developments… that other carmakers are only just thinking about or dreaming about."

The strategist said the investment case for Tesla only works if it puts the brakes on growth, adding that it was his expectation the company would "definitely" grow at a slower pace in 2019.

Long term, Houchois says he hopes the automaker will grow profitably and destress its balance sheet, "and from that it can grow again." Tesla paid off a $920 million debt obligation in cash on Friday.

It has also made a number of cost-cutting decisions at looks to lower the price of its vehicles, including scrapping a customer referral program that offered benefits like limited free charging and laying off 7 percent of its full-time workforce.

"I think right now… what they will demonstrate hopefully… is the ability to stabilize the cash generation and stabilize the balance sheet by growing more slowly while still moving to that phase where they're not just a niche premium into a more volume," Houchois said.

He added: "If they go into that phase reasonably successfully, I think there's a very strong case that Tesla can be self-funded."