Tesla is less than half a year away from offering a cheaper version of its mass-market Model 3, according to founder Elon Musk, a move that could erode margins as the electric carmaker tries to show investors it can deliver sustained profits after years of losses.
Maintaining the current price carries risks of its own, however, since a $7,500 federal tax credit for customers who purchase electric vehicles is phasing out, potentially undercutting demand. The credit decreases after a manufacturer sells 200,000 cars, a milestone that Tesla reached earlier this year. Starting on Jan. 1, it will lower to $3,750, then to $1,875 on July 1.
There is “no question we need to get to a point where we can sell a $35,000 car,” Musk told analysts on Wednesday evening, adding that the price may even dip lower than $30,000 from its current starting level of $49,000. Still, the billionaire CEO, who has intensified the strain on the company with his personal antics, downplayed any fallout from the reduced tax incentive.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based carmaker's pending expansion in China and Europe will mitigate any slowdown in the U.S., he said, and the introduction of a lower-priced Model 3 will also buoy demand.
Musk's comments came just hours after Tesla reported $311 million in profits for the three months through September, fulfilling a promise Musk made after the second quarter that every subsequent earnings period would be “profitable and cash-flow positive.”
One quarter probably won't be enough to convince stockholders, however.
“We do not believe investors will assume the company is fully self-sufficient without a more sustained period of execution,” Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas wrote in a note. “We are increasingly of the view that the confluence of economic, competitive, regulatory, political, and technological forces may potentially challenge Tesla’s status as a stand-alone entity.”
Tesla is "essentially learning how to become a manufacturing company on the fly," said RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak, who noted that a lower-cost Model 3 would erode the company's profit margin.
"While we don’t have meaningful reason to doubt that Tesla can eventually achieve its targets, doing so in a timely manner without some growing pains could prove challenging," he wrote in a note.
Whether a lower priced Model 3 would affect Musk’s pledge and the company’s future profitability remains to be seen. But several of Tesla’s other goals for the remaining months of 2018 would help shield it from future expense pressures.
Operating costs dropped nearly 11 percent in the third quarter as Tesla ramped up production of its Model 3 to 5,000 cars a week, and Musk hopes to curb them even further.
Along with reducing the time to get a vehicle from the factory to the customer to 10 days -- a fast turnaround for the auto industry -- he expects capital spending to be “very minimal” as Tesla tries to increase output to as much as 10,000 units a week.
“It gets a little harder as you start to go above 7,000,” Musk said. But “we're not talking about massive amounts.”