In addition to battling over whether the company will achieve its ambitious product and manufacturing goals, Tesla Motors (TSLA) bulls and bears have gone back and forth over just how much it will cost Tesla to achieve them. The company's third-quarter earnings report gives the bulls some talking points, albeit ones that aren't as strong as they might appear at first glance.
Tesla reported Q3 revenue of $2.3 billion (up 145% annually) and adjusted EPS of $0.71. The former was slightly below a $2.35 billion consensus analyst estimate; with Tesla having already provided a preliminary Q3 vehicle delivery figure, analysts had a good handle on the company's sales. The latter was well above a 9 cent consensus, thanks to the boost provided by $139 million in zero emission vehicle (ZEV) credit revenue.
Tesla finished after-hours trading up 4.3%. SolarCity (SCTY) , which Tesla is still planning to acquire through an all-stock deal, rose 3.6%.
In addition to the credits, EPS benefited from Tesla's adjusted automotive gross margin, which improved to 25% from 23.6% in Q2 and 23.7% a year ago. Manufacturing/operational efficiencies and higher car volumes provided a lift. Tesla still expects its automotive gross margin to rise by 2 to 3 percentage points over the whole of 2016.
Not surprisingly, Tesla maintained its guidance for 50,000 second-half vehicle deliveries. With 24,821 deliveries in Q3, Tesla was nearly halfway there going into October. Combined net orders for the Model S sedan and Model X SUV grew 68% annually last quarter.
Getting a lot of attention: Tesla cut its 2016 capital expenditure guidance to $1.8 billion from $2.25 billion, after having previously raised it from $1.5 billion to reach its goal of producing 500,000 vehicles in 2018. On its earnings call, Tesla insists that its goal remains in place, as does the company's ramp schedule for its Model 3 sedan. It suggested the budget may have previously been raised too much out of caution and that more efficient spending contributed to the cut.
But it's worth keeping in mind that Tesla expects capex to rise next year due to its Model 3 ramp. Though the company has $3.1 billion in cash (to go with $2.7 billion in long-term debt and capital leases) and says it could fund the Model 3 ramp without a capital raise, it isn't ruling out the possibility of raising additional funds to help pay for the ramp.
Likewise, Tesla trumpeted the fact it produced $176 million in free cash flow in Q3. But this was made possible by the ZEV credits, along with how Tesla's accounts payable and accrued liabilities--that includes money the company owes but hasn't yet paid--rose by over $600 million sequentially to $2.3 billion. It's likely cash flow will be negative for much of 2017 due to the Model 3 ramp. The situation could, of course, look much better in 2018 if the Model 3's ramp and customer reception go as hoped.
Elon Musk once more provided some noteworthy soundbites on the earnings call. When asked about the company's use of both radar and vision processing technologies to enable its latest autonomous driving hardware, Musk used colorful language to take a veiled shot at the commentary of vision processor supplier Mobileye (MBLY) , which Tesla isn't relying on for its next-generation offerings. Nvidia's (NVDA) Drive PX2 module is believed to act as the brains of the new Tesla hardware.
Musk also indicated Tesla's planned acquisition of SolarCity remains on track--additional details about the deal are promised to arrive soon--and raised eyebrows by saying there's a chance SolarCity could be a cash contributor to Tesla in Q4 and cash-flow neutral next year. Though the solar installer has been working to lower its cash burn, its free cash flow over the past six quarters has been negative to the tune of over $1.4 billion, and many Tesla shareholders have been on edge about the deal's impact on the company's financials.
Much like the Q2 report, Tesla's Q3 report probably isn't going to change many minds--in one direction or another--about the company's long-term potential and its ability to make good on it. It does, however, provide some reasons to think the company is a little more mindful of investor worries about its free-spending ways and (though still investing heavily) is willing to take some steps to address them.
TheStreet previously covered Tesla's earnings report and conference call through a live blog.