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Tesla turns Model Y and China success into its first annual profit

Tesla turns Model Y and China success into its first annual profit


But it was also helped by selling regulatory credits to other automakers

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Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

Tesla’s record sales in 2020 helped the Silicon Valley company turn its first annual profit, according to financial figures released Wednesday, though not by much. Aided by a fourth quarter that brought in $270 million in profit on $10.7 billion of revenue, Tesla finished 2020 with a $721 million in profit on $31.5 billion in total revenue.

To help get over the line, Tesla booked $401 million in regulatory credit sales in the fourth quarter of 2020. The company generates this money by selling these credits to automakers that make fewer clean vehicles than are required by the US government and the European Union. The credit sales have come in handy the past year and a half, as they’ve generated hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter for Tesla.

Tesla shipped 180,667 vehicles total in the fourth quarter, and 161,701 of those were Model 3s and Model Ys. Ultimately, Tesla delivered 499,647 vehicles in 2020 — a few more than it estimated earlier this month, but still ever so shy of the goal of 500,000 for the year. Still, it’s quite the accomplishment considering that Tesla had to deal with prolonged shutdowns at both of its automotive factories in California and China due to the pandemic.

While Tesla didn’t lay out a specific delivery estimate for 2021 in its presentation, the company did say that it now has the ability to make as many as 1.05 million cars in a year at its factories in Fremont, California, and Shanghai, China. In a call with investors late Wednesday afternoon, CEO Elon Musk said he expects a potential 50 percent increase in production in 2021, which would result in around 750,000 vehicles.

Chief financial officer Zach Kirkhorn added that Tesla expects to see some output from its new factories coming online in Berlin, Germany, and outside Austin, Texas. “The range of possible outcomes this year is wide,” Kirkhorn said.

Tesla’s banner 2020 was bolstered by booming sales of the new Model Y SUV and increased success in the Chinese market after opening a factory there early in the year. Those developments, coupled with the continued success of the Model 3, helped Tesla absorb losing market share in Europe to the Volkswagen Group, which debuted multiple electric vehicles on its home continent last year.

Sustainable profitability had always eluded Tesla, in large part because the company spent much of the last decade trying to grow so much bigger. After the Model S sedan first went on sale in 2012, Tesla started working on the more complex and more expensive Model X SUV. By the time that hit the market, Tesla had started work on the more affordable Model 3 sedan.

Tesla turned a slight profit in the third quarter of 2016, not long after the Model X hit the market. But Model 3 development put the company back in the red. Trouble with Model 3 production kept it there until things started to smooth out in the second half of 2018, allowing Tesla to turn back-to-back quarterly profits for the first time in what the company called its “most pivotal year.”

After two more quarters in the red to start 2019, Tesla has remained profitable ever since.

A stable business is a good thing for Tesla’s future, but the company’s performance was also rewarded mightily in the stock market in 2020. Its share price skyrocketed last year, making Musk the richest man in the world and Tesla the most valuable automaker. Tesla used this incredible run to shore up its finances, too, amassing a $19.4 billion war chest by the end of 2020.

Tesla has long maintained that it is more than an automaker, despite the bulk of its revenues coming from its electric cars. The company shared Wednesday that it was able to keep increasing its sales of energy storage products by 200 percent year over year. Sales of solar products also went up, though by much less — just 59 percent year over year. That means Tesla’s solar division remains much smaller compared to what it acquired in the SolarCity deal in 2016.

On the call with investors, Musk said he was proud of the growth of Tesla’s solar business in 2020, but acknowledged that it was at a low point to begin with because he dedicated so many company resources to ramping production of the Model 3. “I think it will not be long before Tesla is by far the market leader” in solar, he said.

Musk was asked on the call whether he’s considered stepping away from the CEO role at Tesla now that things look more stable.

“Nobody should be a CEO forever.”

“Nobody should be a CEO forever,” Musk said, before saying he’d like more free time. But he said he expects to remain CEO for “several years.”

“There’s still a lot I’m super excited about doing, and I think it would be hard to leave projects” still in the works at Tesla, he said.

Musk reminded investors of the long list of projects during Wednesday’s call. Just before it, Tesla announced a redesigned Model S and Model X with new interiors and better range and performance. Musk also once again spoke about an electric van (“definitely going to make a van at some point”), the Tesla Semi and second generation Roadster, the Cybertruck, a new custom battery cell, and much more.

But the results Tesla posted Wednesday proved that Tesla’s recent growth is really attributable to one of its original goals: making electric cars more affordable. As the Model 3 and now the Model Y have become popular, Tesla’s made more money. They’re simply the most important products Tesla currently makes — save for the factories where they’re built.

Update January 27th, 10:25PM ET: Added information from investor call.