Tesla ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ on $35,000 Model 3: analyst

Tesla introduced a Model 3 with a base price of $45,000 on Thursday.

Elon Musk has decision between angering customers who were promised lower price or destroying Tesla’s margins, Bernstein analyst writes

Tesla Inc.’s move to offer a slightly cheaper Model 3 sedan before launching the $35,000 version of the car that Chief Executive Elon Musk has promised for years shows that the company is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” an analyst said Friday.

Tesla TSLA, -1.48% announced a mid-range Model 3 with a base price starting at $45,000 Thursday, $4,000 cheaper than the previous lowest base price on the car that Musk has promised would be aimed at the mass market. Musk pointed out that the car would cost $35,000 after tax incentives (in California, at least), but the federal tax credit will begin phasing out for the company at the end of the year.

In a Friday note, Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi wrote that the unexpected launch of a car slightly cheaper than the high-end Model 3 but still nearly 30% higher than the promised base price shows the issue with Musk’s promised price tag. In hindsight, the analyst wrote, Musk probably shouldn’t have made the promise.

“In retrospect, it is unclear whether Elon Musk should have ever promised a $35K Model 3,” Sacconaghi wrote. “The car is years ahead of its peers, and likely would have generated huge demand along with a tremendous consumer following, even with a base sticker price of $40K or $45K.”

By promising that price, Musk now faces a choice between angering customers who placed deposits expecting a $35,000 car, or hurting the company by putting out a car that won’t be profitable enough for Tesla to satisfy promises it made to investors, Sacconaghi wrote.

“In some senses, Tesla may be ’damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ regarding the $35K Model 3,” wrote the Bernstein analyst, who has a market perform rating and $325 price target on the stock. “If it does offer the base price Model 3 in early 2019 as CEO Musk has stated, gross margins are likely to be pressured, perhaps materially. On the flip side, if Tesla chooses to delay introduction of the base model, or make it available on a limited basis/with long delivery times, the company risks facing order cancellations/demand pressure (and an incrementally frustrated customer base).”

Tesla shares were trading 2.5% lower with about an hour to go in Friday’s trading session. The stock has declined 17.4% so far this year, as the S&P 500 index SPX, -0.04% has gained 3.6%.

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