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Even if Tesla delivers a profit for Q4, there are growing concerns for Musk and company

The automaker is facing a massive market assault from competitors as diverse as Audi, General Motors and Volkswagen.
Image: Workers assemble cars on the line at a Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on Feb. 4, 2015.
Workers assemble cars on the line at a Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on Feb. 4, 2015.David Butow / Corbis via Getty Images file

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is likely to have his work cut out for him on Wednesday if, as many on Wall Street are wondering, the electric car maker can deliver the promised profit for the final quarter of 2018 when the company reports its earnings after the closing bell.

Musk set off alarm bells earlier this week when he warned Tesla faces a “very difficult” road ahead, something some observers saw as a signal the fourth-quarter numbers might actually go into the red, reversing course after the company delivered a surprise, $311 million profit during the prior three-month period.

Even if Tesla holds itself in the black, as Musk said earlier this month, “with great difficulty, effort and some luck,” it raises further questions about what will happen in 2019. It clearly isn’t helping Tesla that federal tax incentives on its products were cut in half on Jan. 1 and will phase out entirely by the end of this year. To help offset that, Tesla announced a $2,000 price cut. But the hit on revenues may help explain why it has also launched a 10 percent reduction in its workforce.

It’s not just the loss of those tax incentives — which had totaled up to $7,500 for each Tesla Model S, X and 3 — that could pose problems for Tesla. The automaker is facing a broadening market assault from competitors as diverse as Audi, General Motors and Volkswagen. As many as 10 long-range battery-electric vehicles, such as the Audi e-tron, Mercedes-Benz EQC and Porsche Taycan, will enter the market this year, with dozens more following in 2020. VW, in particular, is taking aim at the entry-level market currently dominated by the Tesla Model 3.

Tesla’s short-term problems also come from places where it sees long-term opportunities. It continues to struggle to gain a foothold in China, now the world’s largest market for plug-based vehicles. It is racing to complete work on a new battery and assembly plant in Shanghai that could open before the end of 2019, but Tesla will have to work hard to avoid the “production hell” that critically slowed operations at its Fremont, California factory for almost a year after the launch of the Model 3.

Getting through that crisis forced the company to balloon its workforce, something it is now trying to reverse. Tesla desperately needs to improve productivity moving forward, not just to cover for its recent price cuts but also to help it finally deliver on Musk’s initial promise of offering a $35,000 version of its Model 3.

And that, Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting suggested, is one reason why many thousands of potential customers who placed early reservations for the Model 3 haven’t translated those into hard orders. The longer Tesla waits without that base sedan, the more likely it is that EV-oriented buyers will turn to alternatives like the Chevrolet Model 3 or Nissan Leaf Plus.

One other major concern nagging at investors is what will happen in March when Tesla has to make good on bond payments of $920 million. Unless its stock tops the strike price of $359.87 by then, it will have to come up with the entire payment — in cash.