Power

Elon Musk, the new king of debt

Tesla is nearly $10 billion in debt and Elon Musk is buying Tesla stock using loans he got by putting up shares of Tesla stock as collateral. What the hell is going on here?
Power

Elon Musk, the new king of debt

Tesla is nearly $10 billion in debt and Elon Musk is buying Tesla stock using loans he got by putting up shares of Tesla stock as collateral. What the hell is going on here?

Elon Musk, your friend and mine, has a problem. He wants to take his company Tesla private, but it turns out he can’t just, like, do that — he has to raise a bunch of money, get permission from his company’s shareholders, and inform the Securities and Exchange Commission of his plans. But because Elon Musk is Elon Musk, he did none of those things and instead just tweeted that he was “considering taking Tesla private at $420” per share, and that he already had “funding secured.”

Following Musk’s tweet, Tesla’s stock rose by 10 percent, dashing the dreams of the Tesla short-sellers that Musk so hates. Things were good, if you were Elon Musk.

Then, pretty much all hell broke loose. On August 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that the SEC was looking into whether Musk’s announcement was actually true or not, and if so, why he hadn’t run it by them first. Then a day later, Bloomberg clarified that the SEC had already been scrutinizing the company due to its “public pronouncements on manufacturing goals and sales targets” that, historically, it hasn’t managed to meet, and that Musk’s tweets had given the agency even more stuff to look into. And today, August 11, Reuters revealed that Elon’s Twitter Fingers had earned he and the company a pair of lawsuits — one accusing Musk of making false statements that Tesla didn’t correct, and another accusing Musk and Tesla of manipulating the company’s stock price.

Amid the storm, Tesla’s Board of Directors issued the following statement:

Last week, Elon opened a discussion with the board about taking the company private. This included discussion as to how being private could better serve Tesla’s long-term interests, and also addressed the funding for this to occur. The board has met several times over the last week and is taking the appropriate next steps to evaluate this.

So, there you have it. Tesla might actually be going private, and also, never tweet. What’s interesting, to me, however, is why Elon Musk might want to take Tesla off the stock market. For one, he receives most of his salary in the form of Tesla stock rather than money, and his compensation is tied to achieving various company growth goals. Privately owned companies aren’t subject to as many public filing requirements as publicly traded ones are, and share prices are much less volatile when off the market.

Meanwhile, some of Musk’s Tesla shares are tied up in an, uh, interesting financial situation. In Tesla’s most recent quarterly SEC filing, the company disclosed that, “Certain banking institutions have made extensions of credit to Elon Musk [...] a portion of which was used to purchase shares of common stock in certain of our public offerings and private placements.” The filing adds that Musk’s loans were “partially secured by pledges of a portion of Tesla common stock currently owned by Mr. Musk. If the price of our common stock were to decline substantially,” Musk might be made by his creditors to sell his Tesla shares, which “could cause the price of [Tesla’s] common stock to decline further.”

In that same quarterly report, Tesla posted a net loss of $1.5 billion for the first six months of 2018 — for comparison, by June of last year, the company’s net loss was roughly half that amount.

So Elon Musk, in order to buy more shares of Tesla stock than he already owns, got a loan for himself using his Tesla stock as collateral? Global finance is truly an incomprehensible beast. However, the fact remains that if Tesla’s stock suddenly dropped precipitously, Elon Musk might not be able to cover his debts. In this sense, taking Tesla private would be very good for Elon Musk, whose Tesla stock is, as we’ve established, to at least a certain degree tied up in loans for more Tesla stock. Tesla itself, meanwhile, is approximately $10 billion in debt.

Though Musk continues to make promises about Tesla’s production and revenue that never manage to come true, he also seems to have access to endless source of funds to cover his forays into solar energy, hyperloops, tunneling, artificial intelligence, and putting computers in people’s brains — not to mention literal rocket science with SpaceX.

In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber posits that “American imperial power is based on a debt that will never — can never — be repaid,” explaining that America borrows money from other countries that it has no intention of paying back, but because “it can, at will, with only a few hours’ notice, drop bombs at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet,” it manages to continually solicit new funds.

Now, I’m not saying that Elon Musk and Tesla are able to accrue massive amounts of debt because Musk will literally tell someone at SpaceX to shoot a rocket at his creditors if they want him to pay up. But it’s worth considering that in an age when corporations act more like governments and governments act more like corporations, it’s natural that the notions of power traditionally associated with one might shift to the other. Power perpetuates itself, and once you accrue a certain amount of it, there’s not really anybody who can tell you shit. Given that the plan for President Trump’s Space Force makes explicit mention of “expand[ing] the commercial space economy,” it stands to reason that Musk, via SpaceX, may very well be on the precipice of being absorbed into the military-industrial complex. Perhaps his plan to take Tesla private while obtaining goofy loans is Musk testing the outer limits of his influence, openly asking if he’s able to create money out of nothing just like governments can. And, if his gambit goes horribly awry, well, he can always fly a rocket into space and taunt his creditors from there.

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