Skip to main content

Tesla’s Profitability and the Surprising Thing That Could Threaten It

Rising competition in the electric vehicle space could not only put a crimp in Tesla’s growth rate, but diminish a big source of income as well.

The explosion in electric vehicle (EV) demand has served to vindicate the vision of Tesla’s  (TSLA)  celebrity CEO Elon Musk. Indeed, the surge in demand for EVs has not only vindicated his foresight, but allowed his company to remain a market leader above late-coming competitors.

However, while the company Musk leads as Technoking is no doubt a market leader, it has not solely cashed in by beating its competitors in terms of sales. Instead, a key to the company's recent turn to profitability has come from taking advantage of government incentives and selling the excess incentives it holds to these very same competitors. And now that many of these competitors are engaging more aggressively in EVs themselves, Tesla may soon find itself without many of these customers and, therefore, without a significant contributor to its profits.

Cramer: Ford Will Crush Tesla With Its Electric F-150

Raking in the Regulatory Credits

The credits that Tesla has handsomely profited from are tradable credits offered by various governments around the world for zero-emission vehicles. The fact that they are tradable is crucial since this allows Tesla to sell the credits to other automakers who might not otherwise comply with emission standards without the use of these credits. The set-up allows Tesla to book the credits as purely additive to its top line, with the automakers buying these credits avoiding hefty fines from regulators.

Per Tesla’s most recent 10-K filing, the company earned $1.58 billion from the sale of these credits in 2020, up from $594 million in the year prior and $419 million in 2018. The year-over -year jump notwithstanding, the credit sales might appear to be a paltry sum given the company’s $31.5 billion in total revenue in 2020. However, their nature as purely profit, in contrast to capital intensive auto manufacturing, means they have been a pivotal part of Tesla’s push towards profitability.

Musk Delivers First Tesla Model S Plaid

Indeed, Tesla’s much-lauded $721 million profit in 2020, the very first profitable full year in its history, was clearly boosted over the top by the surge in regulatory credit sales. Had they remained consistent with the prior periods, the landmark year would have been left short of break-even, keeping up the company's trend of annual losses maintained since its inception.

The trend has continued into 2021 as the company reported $518 million in revenues from credit sales in the first quarter, which boosted the company once again to a $438-million quarterly profit. While vehicle deliveries consistently catch the headlines, it's clear that the regulatory credits are buoying the automaker into the black.

Competition Cuts Into Cash Flow

The problem with the profit margin may be approaching faster than some have anticipated as well, with the increased entry of traditional automakers like Ford  (F) , General Motors  (GM) , and Stellantis STLA into the EV space.

While much of the focus revolves around these companies’ threat to Tesla’s core auto sales, the popularity of Tesla among its devoted fans might sustain it amidst the hard-charging competition. As such, the trajectory of its sales, while now threatened by competent competition, remains somewhat murky at the moment.

Tesla Said to Be Subject of 30 Regulatory Inquiries Regarding Crashes

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

The question of regulatory credit impact is much more straightforward. If Tesla’s competitors are producing their own electric vehicles and fewer ICE autos, they have no need to spend so substantially on buying credits from Tesla.

Per a Reuters report, Fiat Chrysler agreed to purchase $2.4 billion worth of emissions credits from Tesla from 2019 through 2021, likely accounting for a lion’s share of the roughly $2.2 billion recorded in total in credits sold in Tesla’s 2019 and 2020 10-K filings. However, after Fiat Chrysler merged with French automaker PSA Group in May to form Stellantis, this reliable revenue stream looks likely to fade.

"With the electrical technology that PSA brought to Stellantis, we will autonomously meet carbon dioxide emission regulations as early as this year," Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares told French media after the merger. "Thus, we will not need to call on European CO2 credits and [Fiat Chrysler] will no longer have to pool with Tesla or anyone."

Already Anticipated?

To be sure, the looming threat of regulatory credit sales eroding is by no means a novel development. CFO Zachary Kirkhorn noted in a call with analysts in mid-2020 that “we don’t manage the business with the assumption that regulatory credits will contribute significantly to the future. Eventually this will reduce.”

Tesla Stock: Why This Real Money Expert Is Watching These Headwinds Now

Kirkhorn’s focus on the core business, especially in terms of battery technology, rather than the regulatory credit sales, is bolstered by the thoughts of prominent Tesla bulls.

“We have owned Tesla for a decade and from day one we expected regulatory credits to go to zero within three years,” Jennison Associates analyst Owuraka Koney said. “They are comfortable without these regulatory credits and they make money when you exclude these credits and these non-recurring costs that they face.”

Koney cited Elon Musk’s massive compensation package tied to the company's recent stock surges as a key non-recurring cost in this context. Further, Koney argued that the regulatory credit benefits are being unfairly compared to overall profitability, which he sees as an apples-and-oranges comparison. He explained that the more relevant comparison is to Tesla’s operating income, which was $1.99 billion on a GAAP basis in 2020, up over $2 billion from the figure in 2019. The leap suggests strength greater than that simply achieved via the regulatory credit benefit, in his view.

Former NYSE Trader: Watch This Level in Tesla

Mike Dovororany, VP of Automotive & Mobility at market research firm Escalent, seconded the rosier view held by Koney, reiterating that the risk of regulatory credits fading is well understood by savvy investors, and further that the current U.S. administration might actually aid Tesla’s ability to capitalize on regulation.

“Because credit sales have always been the main driver behind Tesla’s profitability, investors should be well-accustomed to this risk,” he explained. “Also, as the Biden Administration looks to reconsider stricter emissions regulations, the EV credit market could become more important than ever.”

With the administration now proposing a $174-billion investment in the electric vehicle market as part of the American Jobs Act, including new tax credits, there is certainly ample reason to be excited. Given Tesla's ability to capitalize on these incentives, it will be worth watching what the final bill entails when it crosses Biden's desk and whether it might mean lead to more big profits for Tesla.