Tesla's third-quarter deliveries miss may reveal a more worrying trend, according to JMP Securities.
"The delivery data show low single-digit sequential unit growth, and we know of no operational issues that could have prevented TSLA from delivering more vehicles if demand were available," JMP Securities analyst Joseph Osha said in a note Thursday. "To put it another way, yesterday's announcement was the first time since covering the stock that we found ourselves wondering whether demand growth for TSLA's cars might be leveling off."
Tesla dropped 4.2% in trading to close at $233.03 a share.
JMP Securities lowered its rating on Tesla's stock to market perform from market outperform. The firm does not have a price target on the stock.
But Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi disagreed that this was a warning sign for Tesla's demand, instead pointing to the company's backlog of orders. Tesla noted as much in its press release about the latest quarterly deliveries, saying that in the third quarter "nearly all of our Model 3 orders were received from customers who did not previously hold a reservation, solidifying the transition to generating strong organic demand."
"On net, we see collective demand data points as positive: orders grew sequentially for the 2nd quarter in a row," Sacconaghi said.
However, as Bernstein has a market perform rating on the stock, Sacconaghi said there is a different key question facing Tesla: Did the company lower its profit margins to boost demand for the Model 3 during the third quarter? In essence, Sacconaghi fears Tesla may struggle to reach its gross margin goal of 25% for its most popular Model 3. Gross margin is a measure of a company's net sales revenue, minus its cost of goods.
"Tesla could report flattish to slightly up Model 3 gross margins for the quarter, with fixed cost leverage being offset by potential continued price declines," Sacconaghi said.
Deliveries are a key metric in the auto industry, as it provides the closest estimate for a company's sales. Tesla set an in-house record for quarterly deliveries, as it delivered 97,000 vehicles around the world during the third quarter. But Osha expects Tesla will likely struggle now to meet even the low end of its forecast for 2019 sales, the imminent challenge for Elon Musk's company. Tesla previously told investors to expect 2019 deliveries between 360,000 vehicles and 400,000 vehicles. While Tesla could reach that goal if it delivers about 105,000 vehicles next quarter, Barclays pointed out that Tesla would need to deliver about 125,000 vehicles in the next three months to reach the midpoint of its range.
Barclays, which has an underweight rating on Tesla's stock, also noted that expectations for this quarter's deliveries number were raised by a leaked email from Musk to employees, urging them to reach 100,000 deliveries. J.P. Morgan, also underweight rated on Tesla, warned that the company's full-year forecast may be cut when it reports third-quarter earnings.
"[Tesla has a] lofty valuation coupled with high investor expectations, high execution risk, and the potential for a pending cut to full year delivery guidance at the time of 3Q earnings," J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman wrote in a note to investors.
— CNBC's Michael Bloom contributed to this report.