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Tesla stocks slide as Wall Street asks, 'Show me the money'

The big question is where the money to take Tesla private would come from.

Even for high-flying companies like Tesla, gravity has a way of coming into the picture –- or so it seems after the California carmaker’s stock took a sharp tumble Thursday, nearly wiping out the gains made in the hours after CEO Elon Musk suggested he was planning to take Tesla private just two days earlier.

TSLA shares closed Thursday at $352.45, a 4.83 percent decline, after nearing the company’s $389.61 record close. Tesla stock has a history of taking investors on a roller-coaster ride, but few were prepared for what happened when Musk tweeted on Tuesday that he was “considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share.” What appeared to add momentum was the tagline to that tweet: “Funding secured.”

While six Tesla board members subsequently issued a statement appearing to back the South African-born chief executive, saying they will continue to discuss “how being private could better serve Tesla’s long-term interests,” others are demanding answers now, and that appears to include the SEC -- which wants to be sure, among other things, that Musk wasn’t simply trying to move the market in his ongoing battle with Tesla short-sellers.

Among the many questions that have raised concern: Why $420 a share as the target price? Some observers have noticed the curious coincidence that that figure is also common slang for marijuana. Whether there’s any connection, it’s a big number and would set the market capitalization for Tesla at a whopping $70 billion or so. That might be small compared to the $1 trillion valuation of Apple, but it would be more than 30 percent above what domestic auto giant General Motors is currently worth.

And the big question is where the money to take Tesla private would come from. Despite Musk’s apparent confidence he has a deal lined up, the statement by those half-dozen board members appeared to suggest they weren’t yet in the know. That’s backed up by a Reuters report that noted Thursday, “While Tesla’s board has held multiple discussions about the proposal, it has not yet received a detailed financing plan.”

That’s not to say there couldn’t be deep pockets waiting to step in. Tesla has some big-dollar investors and, it was revealed this week, had held discussions with Japan’s mega-equity firm SoftBank. Saudi Arabia's sovereign fund has plunked down around $2 billion.

Meanwhile, Musk also suggested a relatively novel approach, tweeting that he wanted “all” existing investors to stay onboard. In a process previously used by his rocket-launching firm SpaceX, that would essentially limit stockholders’ say in management affairs, and even restrict when they could sell off their holdings.

Such an approach would seem to fit nicely into the rather autocratic management style Musk has developed. But it would also appear to give him and Tesla more of a free rein to move forward on their plan to develop future products without the constant nagging of Wall Street analysts who finally want profits from a company that has only been in the black twice since going public in 2010.

Bringing in big-dollar investors –- or an investment consortium -– might also sidestep the company’s possible need to raise more capital to fund current and future products, as well as plans to add more factories, including one on tap for Shanghai.

As has been the norm for Musk, he initially announced the privatization plan on Twitter, rather than through the classic approach of a government filing. The courts have upheld the right of companies to release news by tweet, but they and their managers still must live within specific guidelines. Musk could be in serious trouble if he were to have intentionally misled investors to drive up Tesla’s stock price -– or to hammer short-sellers who already lost out after Tesla shares surged following the release of Tesla’s second-quarter earnings.

If past is prologue, Thursday’s sharp sell-off won’t be the final word from investors. The Tesla amusement park ride could rebound, especially if Musk reveals details about the funding.