Tesla: 'America's 4th Automaker' (Update 1)

Updated from 12:13 p.m. EST to provide updated share price and additional analyst comments in the seventh paragraph.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- To say Tesla Motors ( TSLA) has been a wild ride over the past few weeks would be the understatement of the year. The company is now profitable, and Wall Street analysts are falling over themselves to raise price targets. Today is no different, except now Tesla is no longer be referred to as an electric car manufacturer. It's being referred to as America's fourth car manufacturer by one analyst.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas raised his price target to $103 from $47, reiterating his "overweight" rating, noting that the company has addressed fundamental concerns about its market. "Competency in technology is migrating to engineering, manufacturing and marketing," Jonas wrote in his note. "Detroit, Munich, Wolfsburg and Toyota City must feel a sense of astonishment... with a hint of anxiety."

Tesla has been able to do four major things to really help its business model, and become the first major car company to successfully go public since Ford Motors ( F) in the 1950s. By selling its zero emission vehicles credits to other companies, Tesla has been able to fund itself using other people's money, Jonas notes. The company's new financing product multiplies the addressable market for the Model S. I've found myself increasingly wanting to own one every time I cover this company, so it's clear the market is expanding, and rapidly.

Tesla's wild share price ride right now is being driven by vastly improved fundamentals, but is largely due to an enormous short position in the name. As of the end of April, there was nearly an 8-days-to-cover-ratio on Tesla, and that was after the company pre-announced its first-quarter earnings, saying it would be profitable on both a GAAP and non-GAAP basis. That's driven the stock up more than 104% over the past month. That's an exceptional run, and while the squeeze will not last forever, it's clear the market is re-rating Tesla rapidly as it understands the business model. Jonas suggests the high share price could allow "..Tesla to be opportunistic with tucking-in new equity capital with minimal dilution."

Tesla shares finished Tuesday trading in a wide range, close at $83.24, off 5.19%, after hitting a high of $97.12 earlier in the session.

The brand that Tesla and CEO Elon Musk have created is exceptionally strong. Jonas notes that the Model S has already won the Motor Trend car of the year, and was given the highest ever rating by Consumers Reports, better than anything Ford or General Motors ( GM) has received in terms of ranking. Tesla recently raised its sales guidance for 2013, and that's before any meaningful expansion in Europe and China, which is slated to begin later this year. "It's just a very compelling automobile - arguably one of the most important in automotive history," Jonas noted.

Items such as Model S and X reservations, additional announcements (including reduction of up-front deposits, a Supercharger network), and initial quality studies for the Model S are positive news items that could move the stock materially higher in the coming days and weeks, Jonas noted in his report. CEO Musk has noted that there are still two parts to the Tesla "trilogy" (a play on words, as there has been already three major announcements). Both of these announcements could move the stock sharply in one direction or another, based on the hype surrounding the company.

That isn't to say that Tesla is without its warts. A large portion of the share price move is being driven by short covering, and that will end at some point. The company also generates a significant portion of its cash flow and risk management from its regulatory credits, Jonas noted. "Credits such as ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle credits) and GHG (Greenhouse Gas credits) that Tesla accumulates from a surplus of long-range EVs that they can sell to competing manufacturers at auction are a big deal to Tesla." The regulatory environment on selling credits could change in the future, so this is something Tesla will need to keep an eye on. It's worth noting that Tesla has said in the past that it doesn't want to rely on selling credits for the long-term.

Tesla appears to have become the first company to successfully break the hold of the "Detroit 3" (Ford, GM and Chrysler) in garnering attention and mind share as an American automaker.

The company is still in its early growth stages, so it's going to be a while before anyone has any idea just how large the market is for electric cars. One thing is clear, though. Tesla is here to stay, and it's off to the races. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

-- Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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