What Does Tesla’s Share Price Soaring Mean for My Auto Dealership?

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Tesla, the custom luxury and electric vehicle company, has seen significant fluctuations in its share price in the past few months. On October 24th, the Company announced its first quarterly profit (of $143 million) after losing over $1 billion in the first two quarters. It followed this up with $386 million profit in Q4, including a jump in gross margin from 4.1% to 18.8%. If the company can sustain profitability over four quarters (including profitability in Q2 2020), Tesla will meet the minimum criteria to join the S&P 500 Index. It is approximately the 50th largest company in the US (as of March 6, 2020), and after its recent runup and automotive-adjacent Uber Technologies languishing, Tesla is currently by far the largest US company not included in the large-cap index. Should the company’s profitability remain, its share price may elevate even further as investors buy in advance of its addition to the index, a strategy called “index front running.”

While Tesla may or may not qualify later in the year, this isn’t the only trading quirk to exogenously impact the company. Share price skyrocketed to $887 at close on February 4th (up 56% in a week and 180% in three months) due in part to a short squeeze where traders faced margin calls and were forced to close their positions at a loss. There are about 18.4 million shares sold short, or about 12.6% of its float (shares outstanding excluding those held by insiders). While Tesla has accumulated a cult following of people both for and against, its share price likely has little to do with the value of franchised dealerships in the US.

How is Tesla Different?

Tesla has significant differences from dealerships with established brands across the spectrum such as BMW, Toyota, and Ford. These dealerships buy inventory through their auto manufacturers, whereas Tesla uses a direct sales strategy. The dealer franchise strategy has allowed for a large geographic footprint for other manufacturers whereas Tesla has been less able to mass produce. While less ubiquitous, the Tesla brand has benefited from its exclusivity. Further, its direct sales strategy has eliminated any conflict of interest between manufacturer and dealer. One example of this friction is when manufacturers overproduce and push inventory onto the lots of dealers, increasing floor-plan interest costs and oversupply can limit pricing growth.

Tesla’s cars are also unique beyond the initial sale. Unlike other cars, Tesla’s cars cannot be fixed by third-party service providers as easily. Whereas a consumer may opt to go a local body shop for their Ford truck, a Tesla owner is more likely to go to a Tesla related service department, which tends to be a higher margin business for dealers. This represents an opportunity for Tesla, provided it can properly address the service needs particularly as its manufacturing operations continue to scale. While not typically viewed as maintenance, Tesla’s power source is also unique. For electric vehicles, consumers can charge their cars at home or at Supercharger stations instead of gas stations. While electric vehicles are viewed as cheaper and more eco-friendly, adoption of EVs relies on an increasing network effect where charging options approach the abundance and accessibility as gas stations.

Future of Electric Vehicles (EV)

Tesla did not invent the electric vehicle, nor will it appeal to all consumers as electric vehicles have range limitations particularly on road trips. There are also large upfront costs both for the vehicle and in-home charging stations. Further, numerous brands also offer electric vehicles including Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, VW, Audi, Jaguar, and BMW, the latter of which just recently released it’s latest and greatest. While the EV market is expected to increase over time, Tesla will clearly not be the only benefactor despite its ability to garner headlines, due in part to their enigmatic founder, Elon Musk. The company’s share price may represent a long-term bet on this power source, though Tesla is not likely to harvest all of the benefits. Still, dealerships and more importantly their manufacturers will do well to keep up with shifting consumer preferences including both EVs and the increasingly prevalent SUVs (particularly the cross-over segment).

If Not Tesla, Where Do I Look for Valuation Insights for My Dealership?

For dealer principals looking to keep up with the current trends, monthly releases of SAAR give an indication of volumes in the US that is frequently quoted as a barometer for the market. However, this does not factor in a variety of considerations including the level of incentives to induce these purchases. Further it tells little to nothing about a dealership’s service department, where a significant portion of gross profit is made. Public auto dealers, such as Auto Nation and Asbury Auto Group, indicate how investors in public equities view dealerships. However, these are limited comparisons for dealerships that are more geographically concentrated, may carry fewer brands, and have limited access to capital markets. Looking at stock prices and valuations like Tesla or other manufacturers such as Ford and GM may give a look into the overall health of the auto sector but will be even more limited for dealers.

Transactions tend to be a reliable indication of value as it shows what someone was willing to pay for a dealership, not just a small, non-controlling fraction of it. Resources such as Haig Partners and Kerrigan Advisors publish quarterly indications of Blue Sky (value of a dealership in excess of net asset value, expressed as a multiple of pre-tax earnings) which cull transaction data. While frequently quoted in the industry, it is unlikely that buyers would simply apply such a blue sky multiple without rigorous due diligence to understand the idiosyncratic aspects of cash flow, risk, and growth, inherent in a target dealership.

At Mercer Capital, we provide a variety of services for owners of car dealerships and dealer principals. We analyze 13th month dealer financial statements, evaluate facilities (including rent factors, lots, and service bays) and develop independent and reliable valuation appraisals and calculations for a variety of needs and circumstances including buy-sell agreements, litigation, and more. For an understanding in how your dealership is performing along with an indication of what your dealership may be worth, contact a professional at Mercer Capital to discuss your needs in confidence.

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February 2020 SAAR