I cover Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. out of San Francisco and my head is still spinning. Elon Musk is either in the midst of pulling off the go-private deal of the century, or he’s making the best of a weak hand in a game of high-stakes poker before the company reports earnings in early November. Or, potentially, some combination of both.
Musk has shown a facility for gambling before. The 47-year-old entrepreneur and billionaire has an exceptionally high tolerance for risk and has previously maneuvered his way out of countless financial tight spots. He’s also a master of distraction. But to make this one work, the man who has been insisting that he doesn’t want, or need, to raise debt or equity for his not-yet-profitable electric car maker will need to find many billions more in backing, even if he convinces existing shareholders to stick around.
The recap: On Tuesday, Musk dropped a bombshell, tweeting that he is “considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share. Funding Secured.” At first people wondered if it was a pot joke. Later, Musk tweeted that “Investor support is confirmed,” and Tesla released Musk’s email about the move to employees. Since then, an army of financial journalists, lawyers and investment bankers have scoured the globe in an effort to find out where Musk is getting this money from. Sources with knowledge of the discussions have said he’s canvassing a wide array of investors to avoid ceding too much control to any one party. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund may also play a starring role. That Musk wants to take Tesla private is no surprise: he’s said so, publicly, several times. If and how he does it remain the big questions.
Skepticism abounds. The Securities and Exchange Commission is intensifying its probe of the company following Musk’s tweets, which has already resulted in at least two lawsuits. And if large existing shareholders or the other luminaries of Silicon Valley are cheering Musk on, they’ve been remarkably quiet.
So where does Tesla’s narrative arc go from here? Will Musk execute financial jiu-jitsu and achieve the largest-ever corporate buyout, or potentially face prosecution for securities fraud? A few known unknowns to keep in mind:
What did the team know, and when did they know it? Was Musk’s executive team—including Chief Financial Officer Deepak Ahuja and recently hired Chief Accounting Officer Dave Morton aware that Musk was going to do this before the tweet? Or was Tesla’s leadership as blindsided as the rest of us? Six members of the nine-member board issued a terse statement that began, “Last week, Elon opened a discussion with the board about taking the company private.” The letter said the board met to “address the funding,” but that’s a far cry from #FundingSecured. The board, and the company, have been silent since.
Where are Elon’s billionaire buddies? A couple of Musk’s friends in Silicon Valley have publicly voiced support, with Bill Lee calling him “my hero” and Jason Calacanis saying that “you don’t want to bet against E.” But where’s Larry Page, or Musk’s PayPal Mafia cohort? One of them has said he has no idea what’s going down. Others have been largely silent. Could it be that some are actually banding together and kicking in money? Or are they in the dark, too?
Hearsay: Between the go-private deal, the SEC inquiry and the board’s review, an army of lawyers is going to be involved. So who the hell are they? The fact that this hasn’t leaked yet—besides journalists, attorneys are a notoriously chatty bunch—is amazing. If you have an idea, as always, I’m all ears—my DMs, and lunch calendar, are open @danahull and I’m on Signal.
As riveting as the financial maneuvering is, it’s worth remembering the scope of Musk’s other ambitions, from making several other vehicles to constructing additional factories in Shanghai and Europe. And Tesla is not just about cars: the company’s stated mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. In Musk’s home state of California, nearly one in six children has asthma and this summer has seen record-setting, devastating wildfires. The urgency of climate change, and Musk’s willingness to tackle the world’s toughest problems, are why so many people around the globe are cheering him on. But all of these plans take money that Tesla doesn’t currently have, which is also why so many doubt him.