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Cash Flows Are Critical for Tesla
In his debate on Wednesday night with President Obama, Mitt Romney referred to the electric-car maker Tesla Motors as a loser. He put it in the same group as Solyndra, the solar panel company that collapsed last year owing the federal government $535 million.

As it ramps up sales of its sleek electric sedan, Tesla doesnít appear to be much of a loser right now. But a closer look at companyís cash flows suggests it is hardly out of the woods.

For young companies like Tesla, calibrating cash flows is critical. Customer demand may be high for a companyís product, but mistimed spending can lead to a cash crunch. And Tesla has been spending heavily to set up production as well as acquire the parts that make up the new sedan, called the Model S. The specter of cash problems returned last week. The federal government eased terms of its $465 million loan to Tesla to ensure the company didnít breach key financial hurdles. The company then raised $193 million in a secondary stock offering, easing cash concerns.

This week, Teslaís chief executive Elon Musk said that he expected the company to become ďcash flow positiveĒ at the end of November.

If Tesla does start becoming cash flow positive next month, and doesnít stop, it certainly would not be a loser. But there are reasons to be skeptical.

First, it seems as if Tesla was running very low on cash in the third quarter. It said that, after the stock offering proceeds and drawing down the last $33 million of the federal loan, it had cash in hand of $293 million at the end of September. Another way of looking at the situation is that Tesla had $67 million of cash before it drew down the loan and did the offering. Thatís not a lot for a company that has been consuming $120 million of cash a quarter this year. That figure combines the cash consumed by Teslaís basic operations, as well as outlays for plant.

Teslaís fans believe its cash situation will rapidly improve. Capital expenditures should fall off, and as the Model S starts to sell in high numbers, the company will take in large amounts of cash from those sales. To this camp, the only big thing to worry about is whether Tesla experiences continued production delays.

ďInvestors, despite having that breathing room, will be keen to watch managementís ability to meet production targets,Ē said Amir Rozwadowski, a Barclays analyst who covers clean-technology companies.

But thereís a pessimistic school of thought, which holds that Tesla will struggle to produce adequate cash flows even if it sells a lot of cars. This theory says Tesla lacks the vast economies of scales that large auto companies operate under. As a result, its margins are likely to be slight and cash flows consistently weak. This may not become apparent for a while, since Tesla may initially tilt production toward high-ticket, customized versions of the Model S, which have higher margins.

For its part, Tesla is aiming at a 25 percent gross margin next year, which is twice that of General Motorsí auto operations in the 12 months through June. In other words, Tesla expects to be an outright winner, not an abject loser, among American automakers. But the way to track whether that is likely to be true is to watch those cash flows.
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