Tesla lost $702 million in the first quarter of 2019, after posting back-to-back profits for the first time ever to finish out 2018, the company announced in an official filing Wednesday. CEO Elon Musk had predicted Tesla would slide back into the red on a February 28th call with the media. Telsa generated $4.5 billion in revenue for the quarter, which is down from $7.2 billion in the previous quarter, but up from $2.6 billion in the first quarter of 2018.
The company also announced it doesn’t expect to turn a profit in the second quarter, either. Musk had previously guessed that Tesla would return to profitability for good starting this quarter. The $702 million loss was the company’s fourth-worst quarterly loss since it became publicly traded in 2010.
“Everyone expected a Q1 loss for Tesla, but nobody expected it to be this big,” Karl Brauer, the executive publisher at Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, said in a statement.
“This is the most difficult logistics problem I’ve ever seen.”
Tesla finished the quarter with $2.2 billion in cash on hand, a decrease of $1.5 billion from the end of 2018 — though $920 million of that was used to pay debt that came due in March. Of that $2.2 billion total, $768 million was customer deposits for vehicles like the Model 3, Model Y, second generation Roadster, Tesla Semi, and the company’s energy products. Tesla said it should increase the cash balance every quarter moving forward.
Tesla reiterated that it delivered 63,000 vehicles in the first quarter, which it originally announced at the beginning of the month, which is down from 90,000 in the fourth quarter of 2018. Tesla had previously attributed that decline to the challenge of shifting its focus to delivering the Model 3 in two new markets, Europe and China.
On a call with investors Wednesday afternoon, Musk discussed the difficulty of shipping three cars globally from one factory, which he said impacted the first quarter results. “This is the most difficult logistics problem I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some tough ones,” he said. New CFO Zach Kirkhorn called it “one of the most complicated quarters that I can think of in the history of the company.” Tesla said Wednesday it expects to get back to between 90,000 and 100,000 deliveries in the second quarter of 2019.
The loss is a sign that Tesla is still adjusting after a monster year of growth in 2018. Tesla went from delivering 1,550 Model 3s in 2017 to about 140,000 of them in 2018, in addition to about 100,000 Models S and X. The company more than doubled its 2017 total output despite suffering through self-inflicted “production hell” and “delivery logistics hell,” and it was rewarded with its first profitable quarters in two years (and only its third and fourth ever). The Model 3 also became the best-selling EV in the world.
Ever since posting those profits, questions have loomed over Tesla about whether it has exhausted demand for the Model 3 (as well as the Model S and X) in North America. Some Wall Street analysts are especially skeptical. For one thing, buyers of the company’s cars are no longer eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit, meaning Tesla’s cars started the year a little more expensive than they were at the end of 2018. (The company initially cut prices by $2,000 to help offset the tax credit dropping to $3,750, but it has since made many more changes to its pricing and availability across all models.)
Musk disputed this in January, saying that “demand for Model 3 is insanely high. The inhibitor is affordability.” To make inroads on the affordability side, Tesla finally announced on February 28th that it was making the long-promised $35,000 version of the Model 3 available for sale. Instead of achieving that price point through design, manufacturing, and engineering breakthroughs alone, as originally planned, the company announced it was cutting operating expenses by closing most of its stores, laying off workers, and shifting to an online-only sales model.
But Tesla later recapitulated and decided to only close some stores. The company now focuses mostly on online sales, but it hasn’t stopped taking them in store or by phone altogether. In all, these changes cost Tesla $67 million, the company said Wednesday. (Musk added on the call that he and the company didn’t do a good job handling the messaging of the closures, something employees had complained about.) Tesla also took a charge of $121 million related to the many pricing changes the company has made in recent months.
In the meantime, the $35,000 version of the car announced in February never shipped. Instead, on April 12th, the company said it would take a slightly higher-spec Model 3, use software to limit its features and ultimate range, and sell that version of the car for $35,000. The $35,000 Model 3 has finally shipped, but it’s only available for purchase in store or by phone. Musk said Wednesday that “very few people” were taking the company up on that offer, and joked that Tesla hadn’t put an “obstacle course” in front of customers who want to buy it.
The release of Tesla’s quarterly earnings results comes in the midst of a wild month of news for the company. A (not completely comprehensive) recap:
- April 3rd — Tesla announced Model 3 deliveries would be down for the quarter as it shifted attention to Europe and China.
- April 4th — Musk appeared at a courthouse in New York City to make arguments about his ongoing case with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is trying to hold him in contempt of court for allegedly violating the settlement he agreed to last year over the “funding secured” debacle.
- April 8th — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced it would pay Tesla “hundreds of millions of euros” to count the electric automaker’s cars as part of the FCA fleet in order to dodge looming European emissions fines.
- April 11th — An apparent spat between Panasonic and Tesla — who are partners in the Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada — surfaced.
- April 11th — Tesla changed its plans for the $35,000 Model 3. The cheapest version of the car is now only for purchase in store or by phone, and the original goal of making a dedicated battery pack and interior for this variant was killed off.
- April 18th — Tesla short-seller spots the company filming a drive for its upcoming “Autonomy Investor Day.”
- April 20th — Tesla was granted a temporary restraining order on that person, who also allegedly hit a Tesla employee with his car back in February.
- April 21st — A video of a Model S catching fire in a parking garage in China went viral.
- April 22nd — Elon Musk made a bunch of wild predictions at Tesla’s Autonomy Investor Day and showed off its first custom self-driving computer and chip.
- April 24th — Tesla announced a refresh of the Model S and Model X with new drivetrain components that boost the ultimate range of each, with the Model S now topping out at a previously unheard-of 370 miles.
It’s also not over yet. Musk and the SEC are due to submit an update to the judge in their case on Thursday. Earlier this month, that judge asked them to “take a breath” and “come back with [their] reasonableness pants on” in hopes of the two sides reaching an agreement.
The fight between Musk and the SEC began last year after Musk tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. When that turned out not to be true, the SEC charged him with securities fraud. The two sides ultimately settled.
On Wednesday’s call, Musk was asked how important it is to him for Tesla to be publicly traded.
“I would prefer we were private,” he answered. “But unfortunately, that ship has sailed.”