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Tesla Motors: The Apple of Automakers

JPMorgan believes that "the investing community (and the majority of the automotive industry) is substantially underrating Tesla's potential, not just on electric vehicle powertrain technology (where converts arguably have been made of Toyota and Daimler) but more broadly on its ability to deliver world-class non-powertrain-related vehicle engineering and to eventually grow into a full-line premium carmaker with atypical cost competitiveness." The research team just visited Tesla's new production facility and met with management, which confirmed the bank's bullish view. JPMorgan's $30 target was derived from a discounted cash flow model.

However, several of the bank's assumptions are notably cautious. For example, it forecasts a terminal operating margin of just over 8%, standard for German luxury carmakers, whereas Tesla management forecasts a stable mid-teens operating margin over the long run. If management hits its projection, a higher share price is warranted. JPMorgan forecasts a loss of $1.88 a share in 2011, a loss of $1.46 a share in 2012 and a profit of $1.51 a share in 2013. Still, there may be material upside if demand for the S Model exceeds expectations. A video of the S Alpha version, operating in real-world conditions, was released online in January. The video received 85,000 hits in a matter of hours.

Ultimately, Tesla's success depends upon brand perception with global consumers. Environmentally conscientious, tech-savvy customers have propelled one company, Apple, to the rank of sector hegemon. It seems that Tesla is striving to be the Apple of auto, even modeling its showrooms in the likeness of Apple stores. But, risks abound. Although Tesla's the first mover in the electric-car space, many other first movers failed to achieve lead market share because of competitive pressures. The company's distribution network is far behind established peers and its capital limits marketing potential until cash flow ramps up. Nevertheless, Tesla's unlikely ascent is accelerating.

-- Written by Jake Lynch in Boston.

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