Why weak demand for Tesla’s vehicles signals a terrible start to 2023

The EV maker's market value briefly dropped below Facebook parent Meta Platforms’ for the first time in more than a year

Tesla Model 3 vehicles at its factory in Shanghai. Tesla's stock has been in freefall over the past three months. Reuters
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Tesla shares began the new year on an ominous note, buckling this week under renewed concerns about weakening demand for its electric cars, and sending its market value briefly below Facebook parent Meta Platforms’ for the first time in more than a year.

The Elon Musk-led EV maker’s shares fell as much as 7.7 per cent to $101.81 in early trading on Friday. The stock later erased the losses to close up 2.5 per cent as the broader market rallied after economic data showed wage gains have slowed down, a development that can help the US Federal Reserve fight inflation.

Earlier in the session, Tesla’s market capitalisation dipped to around $321 billion, dropping below Meta’s roughly $334 billion.

Tesla’s stock has been in freefall over the past three months, as wider anxiety about the technology selloff and Mr Musk’s preoccupation with his acquisition of Twitter gave way to growing doubts about the demand for EVs in the face of a recession.

Two big events in the first week of the new year — weaker-than-expected deliveries for the fourth quarter and another round of price cuts on its vehicles in China — have intensified those fears.

It is those risks that make investors wary about the stock’s future, at least in the near term.

“With all the moving parts to Tesla — China price cuts and increased competition, there are currently too many unknowns to get a good handle on what an appropriate valuation is,” said Mark Stoeckle, chief executive of Adams Funds, which holds Tesla shares.

“When you see a train wreck like this, it is better to stand back and observe, not jump in.”

Though mega-cap tech companies, key drivers of the prior Wall Street bull market, struggled last year as they bore the brunt of rising interest rates and lower investor appetite for risky investments, Tesla’s decline still stands out.

The company finished 2022 at the very bottom of the NYSE Fang+ Index, a gauge of 10 technology behemoths, including names like Meta, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.com.

Tesla’s valuation dropping below Meta’s also highlights the many commonalities between the two stocks. While they have very different businesses, both companies are facing a general scepticism among investors about their futures while their highly prominent chief executives have made recent missteps.

Mr Musk’s hold over retail investors, among whom Tesla enjoys an almost cultlike status and who have been net buyers of the stock even through its worst-ever performance, have also started to wobble. The first signs of retail exhaustion in Tesla are emerging, analysts at Vanda Research wrote in a note on Thursday.

“Retail investors have bought more Tesla stock over the last six months than they have done overall in the 60 months prior, meaning that this group is definitely feeling the pinch of the recent months’ fall,” Vanda’s Marco Iachini and Giacomo Pierantoni said.

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The sharp value declines over the past year have ejected both Meta and Tesla companies from the elite $1 trillion stock market club in the US — an exclusive grouping that only six firms ever made into. Only three Wall Street firms are now worth more than $1 trillion — Apple, Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet.

Tesla’s stock closed out 2022 with a record 65 per cent tumble, eclipsing the Nasdaq 100 index’s 33 per cent decline. In the first trading session of 2023, the Austin, Texas-based car maker’s shares fell more than 12 per cent after delivering fewer vehicles than expected last quarter, despite offering hefty incentives in its biggest markets.

Meta, in contrast, has fared better in recent months. Its shares have climbed more than 46 per cent from a November low, as the social media company embarked on drastic cost-cutting measures that included culling more than 11,000 jobs. Since the start of this year, it has gained more than 8 per cent.

Updated: January 08, 2023, 5:55 AM