Ian Wyatt is out with a new teaser promo for his $100K Portfolio service, and it’s all about a young company that’s growing rapidly and changing America in a substantial way … with a free new “highway” across the country.
He pitches this secret stock using the same kind of language that several other growth-focused newsletters use — he calls it a “Game Changer” and says Wall Street is missing out — in Ian’s words:
“I call these unique investments ‘Game Changers.’
“Because they are fast-growing companies that are led by visionary entrepreneurs…
“They have a product so revolutionary that it disrupts an existing industry and creates an entirely new one.”
Yeah, Ian, you and everyone else — “Game Changers” or “First Movers” or “Disruptors” … you can call them whatever you want. Unique companies that are creating new markets, and starting expected runs of tremendous growth, are catnip to speculative investors — and they are also almost always easy to criticize, because they often have ugly looking income statements or extremely volatile stock prices because the stocks trade based on what could be in a few years or a few decades, not so much on sales of (or profits from) their product or service today.
We end up writing about these kinds of stocks quite often, of course — and I often give a fuddy-duddy quick and skeptical reaction because buying a “Game Changer” requires belief in the future or in the ability of the company to “change the game”, not something your friendly neighborhood Gumshoe can pick up from 15 minutes with the income statement and the conference call transcript.
So we’ll start with that caveat, when I unveil a teaser stock like this, whether it’s Amazon (AMZN) or LinkedIn (LNKD) or UniPixel (UNXL) or 3D Systems (DDD) or Parametric Sound (PAMT), I’m going to have to leave it to you to decide what kind of future world or future growth or future change at that company justifies your leap of financial faith.
From Wyatt’s tease of this one so far (I’m sure we’ll find out shortly which stock it is, just hold your horses), I’m guessing it’ll be in this same category of “future faith” stocks. Which is, indeed, where great 1,000%+ returns and fortunes are made over time … and also where many 90%+ losers begin. (I happened to bring just a handful of “Game Changing” picks to mind there, all of which have done well of late, but that’s now always how it works out).
Bla bla bla, can we get to the clues now?
“I’m writing you today to tell you about an opportunity that could very soon have a dramatic impact on your wealth…
“It’s the chance to invest early in this ‘new highway’ being built across America…
“Now, it isn’t what you might think…
“It has nothing to do with an information super highway or the Internet or anything like that…
“I’m talking about something that’s forever changing our nation’s transportation system…
“and improving almost everything about our modern lives…
“It’s the kind of once-in-a-generation opportunity that’s helped daring investors make quick fortunes time and time again.”
Nice, right? How about some more specifics for us … from the ad:
“In 1995… a math genius started a little known tech company…
“that provided door-to-door directions and interactive navigation over the Internet.
“Something we take for granted now, but… at the time it was a technical marvel… no one had this technology:
“GPS units sold for over $1,000…Are you getting our free Daily Update
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“travel agents booked trips by hand…
“and MapQuest didn’t even exist.
“A few years later he sold his company to Compaq for $307 million….”
That gives us the first thread to follow as we track down the serial entrepreneur behind this “New Highway” …
“The man behind this company is so successful, he’s routinely called the “Next Steve Jobs”…
“He’s the math genius I mentioned earlier…
“And the brains behind the internet navigation company.
“Like Jobs, this man is a serial entrepreneur.
“He launches Game Changer after Game Changer.
“He was just 24 when he and his investors pocketed millions from the sale of his first company ….
“He was set for life and could have sat poolside and taken it easy.
“But entrepreneurs like this never rest.
“He and his investors immediately created a new business…
“another publicly-traded company… a financial commerce company.
“A company that grew to make up the backbone of commerce websites all around the world.
“In fact, you’ve probably personally used its technology…
“At one time, ninety one percent of transactions on the Internet flowed through this company….”
OK, so those who are parsing this story alongside your friendly neighborhood Gumshoe might already have figured out who this entrepreneur is (no raising your hands! Let the rest of the class catch up!) … but we’ll see what clues we get about this specific company, too, to toss into the Thinkolator to get some confirmation for you.
Thankfully, we get a lot of clues about the entrepreneur behind this company … because specific clues about the stock are quite thin on the ground:
“… the chance to invest in a genius… an extraordinary leader of a game changing company…
“someone who can turn a few thousand dollars into billions with the right vision and idea… like Henry Ford or the Wright Brothers!
“It’s entrepreneurs that have forever changed our nation’s transportation system…
“I want you to know that this entrepreneur isn’t just an idea man.
“He’s a savvy businessman.
“He has a track record of rewarding his investors. He puts his shareholders first.
“And you’ll be happy to know he’s secured 250 patents to protect the technology behind this “new highway.”
“But also I must tell you, that if he were alive today…
“Henry Ford would not all appreciate this man’s vision.
“You see, this entrepreneur is threatening to topple the biggest names on the highway today…
“Ford, G.M., and Toyota could all be rendered obsolete as Americans start traveling for free on this ‘new highway.’ ….
“Now, this “new highway” isn’t a bullet train or some fantasy project that requires decades of building and massive government subsidies.
“It’s being built right now…
“In fact, vast stretches of this new highway are already in use…
“a massive 382 mile section runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco…
“and a new corridor between Washington D-C and Boston just opened up.”
And then we get a little clue in the obligatory “Wall Street doesn’t realize what they’re missing” bit — the part of a teaser ad that always makes us feel like we’re smart investors, in the know and seeing the big picture while the smart suits in Manhattan scoff:
“The Wall Street Journal… recently published a piece telling readers not to invest in this company building a new highway across America…
“”That means the newspaper on the doorstep of every mutual fund manager and financial advisor in America… is ignoring the biggest shift in transportation since Henry Ford and the Model T.”
So what’s our stock?
Well, as you might have guessed as we drifted through those clues, the young entrepreneur who built Zip2 as (in part) an online city guide for newspapers, then profited as it was sold to Compaq, was Elon Musk. Zip2 was successful for a young kid, for sure, but Musk still considers it somewhat of a failure and it didn’t do much for Compaq (which was going to meld the content into Alta Vista, their leading search engine — to give you an idea of how different the landscape was back then) … and it got him the capital and the connections to build his next project, X.com, which merged with another company to become PayPal, which was bought out by eBay, bringing Musk well into the hundred-millionaire camp just about 10 years ago.
Musk poured that PayPal money into two big ventures: a company that would reinvent space travel by making it much simpler and cheaper to launch satellites (SpaceX, which is still private), and the company being teased here, Tesla Motors (TSLA) …. the company that’s trying to bring the electric car to to the masses (eventually — we’re starting with the rich people).
And yes, Tesla is sort of creating a new highway — though perhaps it’s more reasonable to say that in the absence of an acceptable charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, they’re building that infrastructure. The “highways” that are teased — like the one from San Francisco to LA, and the “new” one from DC to Boston, are really just routes where long-distance travel has been made possible by Tesla for the new Model S sedan because of the installation of “Supercharger” stations.
And the location of these “highways” is no coincidence, of course — most of the folks who are going to be willing to spend close to $100,000 for an (admittedly spectacular) electric car are those on the coasts, where money and environmental sensitivity are most densely correlated. But though it’s an important step to get these Supercharger networks set up, because it helps to alleviate the “range anxiety” that deters some people from buying electric cars, it’s also not that huge of a deal. If your car has a range of a couple hundred miles, then building this “highway” from Boston to DC really just involves setting up two or three charging stations near major highways between two major cities. And as a bonus, if you’ve coughed up the cash to buy a Tesla that can use these Supercharger charging systems, you do, as Wyatt obliquely teases, get the electricity for free at these rest stops. (That’s not that big a deal — most people will still almost exclusively charge at home and use their cars primarily for commuting — and I expect the Superchargers are a push for the market to make buying a Tesla feel safe more than anything else, if we’re going to build out a real recharging network in the US for electric cars it will have to become universally available to all car models and be driven by the profit motive to grow anywhere near as quickly as the gasoline distribution network did.)
Tesla is a fascinating company, to be sure, and one that is both heavily shorted (lots of investors betting against the stock) and heavily covered in the media. Elon Musk has even jumped on a couple reviewers who he thinks falsified their range/recharging experiences in their reviews (including the big flap over the review in the New York Times last month, which even led to a bunch of Tesla enthusiasts recreating that road trip). I wrote about this one in a tease unveiling for the Irregulars back when David Gardner was pitching it for his Rule Breakers service and the stock is currently up maybe 10-15% from then, but it’s been a bouncy couple months and, before that, a very volatile year for Tesla.
And yes, just to check in on another hint, the Wall Street Journal did run a negative piece about the stock “recently” — though that was back in the Fall. Lots of other folks have said bad things about the stock, too — the company is partly buoyed by Musk’s cult of personality, it’s chewed through a lot of cash during this startup phase, it’s far from sustainable profitability, and, well, the list of visionaries who’ve tried to start a new American car company and failed is pretty long, so it’s easy to be a critic.
I won’t bore you with the full rundown of what’s going on with Tesla, but the summary is this: They are expected (promising) to deliver 20,000 Model S sedans in 2013, analysts think they will be able to break even at that pace and Elon Musk has said they should be booking profits by the end of the year and be breaking even on a cash flow basis before then … and they are expected to make a meaningful profit and release their third model, the Tesla Model X sporty SUV with gull wing doors, in 2014 (well, probably 2015 now — everything with Tesla ends up getting pushed back at least a little bit). And just about half of the publicly floating shares (those that aren’t held by insiders) are sold short, and have been for a long time, in anticipation that this extremely tough transition from a boutique car builder to a major large-scale manufacturer of precision electronic luxury sports cars will hit more serious hiccups and make investors want to sell.
I saw a presentation by Whitney Tilson at a Value Investing Congress seminar arguing the short case against Tesla back in October, and I must admit that his rationale was perfectly reasonable — they’re selling cars to rich people with high standards, from a new (well, revamped) factory, with high sticker prices, and when it comes to funding their day to day operations they’re floating both on government loan guarantees and on fully refundable deposits that early “wait list” folks can get back if they change their mind.
You can definitely see the potential for a bit of bad news (ie, real life for the first few thousand Model S sedans isn’t as sunny as hoped, or a few of them catch fire, or people complain about a design flaw or a programming bug, etc.) could waterfall into a big issue if it brings mass cancellations of orders or tarnishes the brand. But so far, despite cancellations of a few orders, that hasn’t happened. That there should be quite a few cancellations this year as they ramp up production is natural and expected — you could have put down a few thousand bucks for a spot on the waiting list two or three years ago, but once your order goes “live” as the assembly plant continues to spit the cars out you have to actually commit to specs and put down a much larger payment to order and buy the car, so some people will back out when they’re faced with paying $50-90,000 in real cash, particularly since the advanced recharging and longer range aren’t available at that lower-end $50,000 (after tax credit) price.
But still, Elon Musk comes out with a press release or a tweet every few weeks and gets folks excited again — and, frankly, the car looks spectacular and no one seems to be complaining much about the first few thousand who are out there in the real world so far. And just this week Musk was out with a new tweet about big Tesla news that he initially said would be released on Thursday and now says will come out on Tuesday — in his words, “Really exciting @TeslaMotors announcement coming on Thursday. Am going to put my money where my mouth is in v major way.”
There’s plenty of speculation about what this might mean, and with this huge a short ratio and no real underpinning of earnings just yet any news at all can move the stock. Some folks are suggesting that this means Tesla will be raising money, making a secondary offering that Musk will participate in, and Tesla will almost certainly indeed have to raise money by selling more stock at some point if they’re going to grow production — but why Musk would tweet such news before it’s released is a mystery to me. It’s hard to see him and Tesla not at least getting into a bit of trouble with the SEC over this “disclosure.”
So yes, Tesla will probably release something interesting next week by way of news … and the next earnings release, which will be in about five weeks, will very very, very closely watched as the company continues to say that they’re on pace to be breaking even soon and hitting their production targets. Elon Musk is a visionary guy, and one who apparently has great personal drive to accomplish projects to a perfectionist shine while micromanaging — not unlike Steve Jobs, and early Tesla adopters are not unlike the much mocked Apple “fanboys” who stand in line for new products — and investors are buying both Elon Musk’s vision and the promise of electric cars at least as much as they’re buying this $4 billion startup car company.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make a case for TSLA stock here — you certainly can. Anything with a huge backlog of preorders, an adoring early adopter fan base, a visionary leader, and a cool product can absolutely turn into a hugely profitable machine if they flip the right levers and get enough time to build capacity and become profitable — especially if that product can be successful by addressing just a tiny part of a huge market. There are roughly 15 million cars sold in the US every year, and we’re talking about a company that will probably be an unqualified success if they can reach 50,000 cars (they’re shooting for 20,000 this year, and in these early months they seem to be at least close to on pace for that number). As long as the cars are selling at average prices in the $60-80,000 range, it’s hard to see them getting a lot beyond that, more volume growth will depend on moving the electric car technology down the price scale into more mainstream models ($20-40,000) — last year, Cadillac and Audi sold about 150,000 cars in the US, and BMW and Mercedes each sold nearly twice that many, and most of those makes have much more production flexibility and larger sales in Europe and China, and sell most of their volume in the cheaper models that are priced below $40,000. Tesla is exporting, but they’ll have to build their US base business before real overseas expansion could speed up … and they’re talking about a $30,000 sedan for 2016, which they need in order to to get economies of scale, but we haven’t seen any details about that future car yet.
I wish them the best in this worthwhile and extremely expensive endeavor, and I hope they do transform the American highway and manufacture enough cars to push battery technology forward, democratize electric cars, and make a huge difference, but I bet it’s going to continue to be a very bumpy ride over at least the next six months … and I’d expect that any great share price increases in the near term will be countered by capital raises to feed the growth of this capital-intensive business.