Tesla Inc. (TSLA) is slated to report its first-quarter earnings numbers to Wall Street on Wednesday, and expectations aren't exactly rosy.
On average, 19 analysts expect Tesla to lose $3.47 a share for the quarter, as huge costs from factory upgrades and production ramp-ups help obliterate revenue increases. But that's not the earnings number that matters most for Tesla's stock price this week.
Instead, that number is Model 3 production.
All year long, Tesla-watchers have been fixated on the company's ability to scale up production of its mass market Model 3 sedan at its Fremont, Calif. factory. Some high-profile production misses have been the defining catalysts that have pressured shares lower in 2018.
And because Tesla is the most-shorted stock on the market right now, Wednesday's earnings call might just be the most high-stakes event this earnings season.
The irony is that, from a practical standpoint, shifting Model 3's production curve to the right doesn't have a particularly direct impact on shorts' selling thesis. Tesla isn't going bankrupt because it gets to 3,000 units a week a couple months later than originally planned.
Regardless, that's the metric that the market is watching the closest right now.
Likewise, as S3 Partners pointed out in a recent analyst note, the number of Tesla shares shorted has had a very high correlation with weekly Model 3 production numbers; simply put, shorts have been playing a game of financial brinksmanship with Elon Musk all year long. And earnings could help usher a conclusion to that back and forth, one way or another.
According to Bloomberg's estimates for Model 3 production, Tesla is currently building approximately 2,323 units a week - with more than 22,000 Model 3s on the road at this point.
Meanwhile, a recently leaked internal email to Tesla employees from Elon Musk showed that the company is targeting 6,000 units a week of production in order to hit their end-of-Q2 target of 5,000 cars a week with a reasonable margin of safety.
Even though Tesla conspicuously missed production targets set early after the Model 3 launch, the firm has been tightening in on its goals more recently. Last quarter, for instance, Tesla's goal was 2,500 units a week, a target missed by fewer than 500 vehicles.
The firm's factory closures earlier this month in order to retool for faster production could have the side-effect of making it look like Tesla produced fewer vehicles in April than it's capable of building today.
A combination of extreme short interest in Tesla and relatively tepid expectations make this a stock with significant volatility potential in the wake of Wednesday's earnings release. The only question is which way that volatility unfolds. We'll have our answer soon.