Elon Musk's Tesla shocked some skeptics after managing to surpass a weekly production target of 5,000 Model 3 sedans in the final week of the second quarter, its mass-market product costing $35,000 and up. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company also built a couple thousand Model S and X vehicles, which are priced in the mid-to-upper $70,000 range.
Still, to meet its target, the company with a market capitalization of $52.9 billion constructed a general assembly line in a tent-like structure that's about the size of two football fields. Tesla also eliminated brake and roll tests on the Model 3 cars to meet the production target, according to a Business Insider report. Tesla confirmed it eliminated the tests but said they were redundant. That's not a viable strategy going forward, analysts said.
"The efforts taken (tent, overtime) represent a burst rate, not a yet sustainable pace," said RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak, who rates the company at "sector perform" with a target price of $280.
CFRA analyst Efraim Levy, who cut his rating on Tesla from Hold to Sell but maintained his $300 price target, said Tesla's production rate isn't operationally or financially sustainable.
Still, Tesla's focus on transforming the way people get from point A to point B has gotten the attention of Ford and GM, and they plan to compete hard. Ford's smart city-focused CEO Jim Hackett is doubling down on being a leader in electric cars, committed to leveraging the century-old automaker's access to capital, a more stable investor base and a brand name that has demonstrated staying power in a highly cyclical industry.
Ford, in fact, decided to point out to investors that it doesn't need to build a temporary tent to meet production targets. After Musk celebrated his company's production achievement with a Tweet reading, "7000 cars, 7 days," Ford's Chairman and CEO of Europe Steven Armstrong responded saying, "7000 cars, circa 4 hours," illustrating the utility of having well-established assembly lines.
Tesla shares fell 7.2% $310.86, while GM slipped 1.2% to $39.03 and Ford fell 1% to $10.99.
Though Tesla surpassed the two legacy American automakers in market capitalization for a bit (Tesla's losses today dropped it below GM's $54.9 billion market cap), GM and Ford are shifting their strategy to keep up with the demands of the market, and turning their focus toward electric vehicles and autonomous driving technology.
Ford, for instance, is shifting away from cars and, in turn, focusing SUVs, trucks and hybrids. The company plans to have a hybrid for every model of car or truck sold in North America.
"We're going big on hybrids," Jim Farley, Ford's president of global markets, said at a company event in mid-March. "They will bring new capability and emotion to our highest volume and most profitable vehicles. They will also protect our customers against higher gas prices."
Ford recently acquired Detroit's 105-year-old Michigan Central Station and will transform the train station into a hub for its mobility team, which works on autonomous vehicles.
"Michigan Central Station is a powerful symbol of Detroit's struggles and now its resurgence, but Ford's investment in Corktown is far from symbolic," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in June. "We aren't just making a bet on Detroit. We are making a big bet on the future for Ford and the future of transportation."
Meanwhile, GM's Cruise unit, which plans to launch self-driving taxis in 2019, recently received an investment from Softbank Vision Fund. The investment in GM's Cruise assets raised the valuation of the autonomous unit to $11.5 billion, according to Evercore analysts. GM shares jumped in mid-June on reports that the Detroit-based automaker is considering listing shares of its Cruise unit.
Still, the risks of import tariffs could weigh on GM and Ford. GM last Friday warned the Trump administration that U.S. tariffs on imported vehicles could lead to a "smaller GM" and fewer jobs in the U.S.
"President Trump's tweet threatening 20% tariffs on European vehicles imported to the U.S. will likely not directly materially impact domestic Ford and GM results, in our opinion," CFRA's Levy said on June 22. "While we think there is much posturing, with the threat as a negotiating ploy, we do see risk of an escalating broader global trade fight, including China, Canada and Mexico."
Levy said Ford is largely insulated from the trade dispute with Europe, as "most of what it sells in Europe is produced there." However, the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker would be more exposed to higher tariffs on its exports to China, Levy said.
Ford said in late June that it encourages both the U.S. and Chinese governments to "work together through negotiation to resolve issues between these two important economies."
Because the president has yet to impose tariffs officially, that risk remains. Otherwise, analysts have been increasingly positive on Ford. J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman in mid-May said the case for investing in Ford relative to GM is improving, considering that Ford is trimming its product portfolio and investing in autonomous vehicles.
"We believe Ford is in the process of pulling the trigger, or soon to pull the trigger, on walking away from previously core but loss-making aspects of its business," Brinkman said at the time. Ford's "earnings -- and its multiple -- are likely to inflect higher as it undergoes this transformation."
Since mid-May, Ford stock has declined by about 3%, indicating that there is still an opportunity to buy.
Jefferies analysts also highlight Ford's "fortress" balance sheet, which beyond protection against cyclical risk, will be "a critical factor to implement mobility businesses."
Further, Ford's stock is relatively inexpensive, trading at 7.2-times 2019 price-to-earnings, compared to Tesla's 2019 price-to-earnings ratio of 128.9. GM was the cheapest amongst the three, trading at 6.1-times 2019 P/E.
"This is no longer the old Ford where they want to be in every single state and every single country, and that bodes well for Ford going to $14 [per share]," TheStreet's founder Jim Cramer said at the end of May.