I occasionally like to short stocks for fun and profit. One of my recent shorts is Tesla, the maker of electric vehicles (“EV”) and energy storage systems. This one gives me particular pleasure because it is a great opportunity to take some money off the politically correct (“PC”) crowd precisely because of their cognitive deficiencies. Let me explain.
I have nothing against the Tesla car. Although I have never owned or even driven one, by nearly all accounts it is a pretty good machine (although clearly with some build-quality issues and probably some long-term reliability ones, too). Tesla has almost single-handedly revived electric automobiles and brought some useful practices to the automotive field from the technology sector, such as over-the-air software updates.
The Tesla car is also the darling of the chattering classes, particularly the West Coast variety. Sleek, fast, expensive and electric, nothing announces “I have arrived…but I am still the same laid-back, eco-friendly and PC guy I used to be” like a Tesla. This has made it a celebrity favourite, as demonstrated by, for example, this six-minute free commercial on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert which raves about Tesla’s recently downloaded auto-driving features. These features are common or garden variety for cars in this price category but we can’t apply normal standards to a Tesla. We are talking about a revolution here. Well, you know, we all wanna change the world.
Shares in Tesla benefit from the same cult following. I can’t prove this mathematically, but you only have to spend a little time in the Tesla section in something like SeekingAlpha, a popular investment website, to realize that the proponents of Tesla are on a PC mission. And like with their politics, these evangelists will not allow logic to distract them.
I have been a businessman for over 25 years. At every point in my career, including when I was working at the all-conquering Goldman Sachs, I have felt the hot breath of competitors on my neck. This is a reality of the “free-ish” markets in which most businesses operate that the PC crowd, most of whom have no direct experience of business, doesn’t understand or acknowledge. And this is the major reason why they are going to take a bath on their Tesla investments.
The free market never leaves bags of money lying around and waiting to be picked up. In fact, if you ever find this, it is almost certainly the result of government intervention. Remember the £1 billion that George Soros made betting against the British Pound in 1992? That was a direct transfer from the UK Treasury to Soros. Absent any barriers to entry, these types of extraordinary profit opportunities rapidly draw so much investment that the “arbitrage” disappears. Likewise Tesla’s $30 billion stock valuation.
The incumbent automobile manufacturers are now entering the EV market in force. VW/Audi. Mercedes Benz. BMW. Nissan. Honda. KIA. Porsche. Like turkeys welcoming Thanksgiving, the Tesla supporters applaud this, saying that it is an “endorsement” of the Tesla approach that can only help the company. One proponent recently entitled an article “The Auto Industry Just Admitted That Tesla is Right.” I am sure that this will be a great comfort when these competitors start eating into the growth and profitability that is the only rational basis for Tesla’s extraordinary stock valuation.
The massive entry of the incumbents proves two things. The first is that there are no barriers to entry – no “economic moat,” to use the popular phrase – that will give Tesla the competition-lite growth and profitability needed to justify its stock price. And the second is that the free run that Tesla has enjoyed so far is purely because the incumbents have been happy for Tesla to pioneer this market, knowing that the pioneers are often the ones with the arrows in their backs. Now that Tesla has been proven to be “right,” they can use their myriad scale and other advantages to eat Tesla’s lunch.
The PC crowd will never get this. Implicitly or explicitly, they assume that all businessmen are short-sighted, greedy dolts sitting around and waiting to be disrupted by some Silicon Valley type who says “cool” a lot, never wears a tie and supports liberal causes. They don’t realize that, for example, the automobile industry is one of the most internationalized, dynamic and competitive industries in the world. And it is also one of the most high tech, both in its products and the way it makes them.
Little known fact: automotive giants Volkswagen and Toyota are in the top-10 companies in the world in terms of R&D expenditures, with VW leading the pack at $13.5 billion per year. Much of this is spent exploring alternative drive train technologies, such as EV, cleaner and more efficient internal combustion engines (“ICE”), hybrids, fuel cells, etc. If the PC crowd backing Tesla thinks that the incumbents are sitting around waiting to be disrupted, then they should think again.
Of course, all of this has been pointed out to the Tesla proponents. But this is where their second cognitive failure comes in. Like with their politics, they are unable to imagine anyone could disagree with their messianic vision except due to evil or base motives. So, wade into the comments section of SeekingAlpha and dare to question the investment logic of Tesla. You will be met with a torrent of ad hominem abuse and attacks on your motives, intelligence and maternal parenting. But the one thing that you will not be met with is a reasoned retort. You are so obviously unenlightened that this is not deserved.
At the current stock price, I am slightly in the money on my Tesla short. But I am maintaining the position until I make enough from shorting Tesla stock to buy a Tesla car. Or, more likely, to buy one of the better, cheaper and more reliable EVs that Tesla’s incumbent competitors will shortly be producing.
More Reflections on the Democratic Debate
When asked about her volte-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the deal to liberalize trade between the US and various Asian countries, Hillary Clinton said that “I did say, when I was Secretary of State, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard.” In fact, her earlier statement was unequivocal. In 2012, she said: “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” So, this is how Clinton plans to “spin” this issue. Let’s hope that future questioners or debaters will not let her get away with this.
Clinton, when asked whether she was in favor of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, said that we should wait and study the results of the legalizations in Colorado and Oregon. But she also said that is a tragedy how many people are in prison for a minor offense like smoking marijuana. She didn’t say how she planned to square this circle.
The largest applause of the night, at least on the Roger Barris Applause-O-Meter, occurred when Clinton pointed out the contradiction between Republicans decrying big government but then wanting to interfere with a “woman’s right to choose.” She should thank the religious right in the Republican Party for handing her this layup.
Martin O’Malley, in his summary at the end, commented that, unlike in the Republican debate, there had been no denigration of women, no racist comments about immigrants and no comments about a person’s religion. Thanks to Donald Trump and Ben Carson for handing the Democrats these layups.
When asked about the one thing that would distinguish her administration from Obama’s, and then when asked about her being a Washington insider when the electorate is favouring outsiders, Clinton’s answer was, in both cases, “look at my genitalia.” Imagine if candidate Obama had said “look at the color of my skin” in the debates preceding the 2008 election. But both comments drew huge cheers from her Pantsuit Brigade, which is always pleased by a bit of pandering.
At one point, Clinton was asked whether Libya and Syria proved that she was prone to using military force too quickly. This is the real issue of Libya, as I have pointed out earlier and as Rand Paul points out in this video (at about minute 4:20). Unfortunately, the Republicans cannot attack her on this until they eliminate their own neo-con bellicosity. So we are left with the sideshow on Benghazi.
Finally, during the entire debate, I once again marvelled at the ease of being a Democrat. How simple it is to respond to every question or every identified problem with a five-point plan for this, or a government program for that. How easy this makes it to appear proactive, benevolent and clever in 15-second sound bites. How the unintended consequences of these actions or their costs are always much more time-consuming, complicated and curmudgeonly to explain. How you can claim, as Clinton did, that she is trying to “save capitalism from itself,” without ever being held accountable for the thousands of ways that she and her fellow Democrats have perverted “capitalism.” With this bias, it is amazing that we don’t have even more interventionist policies than we do.
Paul Ryan: Speaker of the House
It appears that the Republicans are coalescing around Paul Ryan to be the next Speaker of the House. There are worse choices, but there is no doubt that Ryan’s reputation for being a thoughtful and aggressive fiscal conservative is largely undeserved.
David Stockman did a great piece on this back in April 2014, after the publication of Ryan’s latest budget proposals, entitled “10,000 Monkeys Tapping An HP Calculator: Even Palin Figured Out Congressman Paul Ryan Is A Fiscal Fake.” Stockman takes Ryan to task for pretending that America’s fiscal problems can be solved without tackling entitlements and America’s overextended military commitments. Here are some of the key paragraphs:
“In short, the Ryan Budget is a complete, blatant and undiluted expression of beltway mendacity. Its central lie is that we can beat-up 10 or 20 million poor people and our entire fiscal calamity will go away. In truth, the problem reaches the entire population of 315 million Americans, and it cannot be alleviated without unprecedented sharing of burdens and pain – by virtually all spending beneficiaries and every taxpayer alike….
In all, Ryan’s budget gives a pass to $25 trillion of combined Warfare State and Welfare State/social insurance spending during the 10-year horizon. That’s half the budget – and the heart of where massive opportunities exist to actually do something about “Big Government.”
And here’s the thing. Ryan’s math is self-evidently phony, but his dis-service to the conservative cause is even more offensive. There is a valid and populist alternative that says take on the military-industrial complex; renounce an interventionist foreign policy which is obsolete and destructive; and demand that affluent retirees bear their fair share of sacrifice through a means-test on social security and Medicare.”
As always with American politics, we are forced to choose the lesser of evils. But on the current evidence, no one should expect Ryan to be more than that.
Deflating Switzerland Does Pretty Well
One of the leading memes of conventional economic thought is that deflation is a horror to be avoided at all costs. If so, then proponents of this view have a hard time explaining Switzerland.
The Wall Street Journal has recently published an article entitled “Deflation Can Coexist With Solid Economy” which describes Switzerland’s recent economic performance. Consumer prices in Switzerland have fallen for most of the last four years, recently hitting minus 1.4% per annum. This fall is largely driven by the strength of the Swiss franc, the value of which has been pushed upward by “safe haven” flows into Switzerland. As you may remember, the Swiss National Bank, after years of trying to fight this tide, gave up in January 2015, leading to a sharp rise in the currency.
Despite this persistent deflation, Switzerland suffers none of the ills conventionally thought to accompany deflation. Unemployment is 3.4%. The economy is growing in the range of 1% to 1.5%, which isn’t bad in a European context. Nominal wage growth is 0.6%, which translates into solid real income gains after a negative inflation rate. Short-term interest rates are negative, largely to dissuade further capital inflows, but still positive after inflation; savers in America wish they had it this good. And the strong franc hasn’t crushed exports: Switzerland still generates a trade surplus of 5% of GDP.
In particular, although consumption growth has slowed, it has not exhibited the collapse that the deflation-phobes would have the world believe awaits anyone who falls into a “deflationary spiral.” Not surprisingly, small rates of deflation do not materially affect people’s consumption patterns, causing them to delay purchases and exacerbate the deflation, any more than small rates of inflation cause everyone to rush out and buy everything today, bringing on hyper-inflation.
All of this leads one to wonder whether the price that we are paying for the fight against the deflationary bogeyman – the asset bubbles, wasted investments, growing inequality and devastated savers – isn’t too high. The deflation-phobes always point to Japan as proof of the ravages of falling prices. (Although they rarely explain why twenty-plus years of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies in Japan have failed to correct these problems, except of course Paul Krugman can always claim that they have failed due to “timidity.”) Maybe they should be required to explain why Switzerland isn’t doing too badly.
Roger Barris, Weybridge, United Kingdom
I Wish That I Had Said That…
“New Zealanders who emigrate to Australia raise the average IQs of both countries,” by Robert Muldoon, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, repeated in honor of the forthcoming finals match between New Zealand and Australia in World Cup Rugby
 “Shorting” a stock is a way of betting that its price will fall. To be precise, you short a stock by borrowing it from someone, promising to return it at a later date with interest; in this respect, it is just like any loan, except in this case the “principal” is the number of shares that you have borrowed and which you have to return. After you borrow the shares, you sell them at the current market price for cash. When it comes time to return the shares, you have to buy them back. You profit if the price of the stock has fallen in the interim and you can buy back the shares for less than you received when you sold them.
Short sellers are often derided as a type of financial parasite living off the misery of others. In fact, they should be strongly encouraged. Imagine, for example, what would have happened if investors had more vigorously shorted sub-prime mortgages in the lead up to the financial crisis. With much more shorting, the price of these loans would have fallen and it would have become unprofitable to create them. A huge amount of bad investment and financial chaos could have been avoided.
 As always, this is not any kind of financial advice.
 I say “revived” because, in fact, EV is a very old technology. Before being eclipsed by internal combustion engines (“ICE”) in the early 19th century, EV and ICE were neck and neck.
 Of course, we must never ask where the electricity comes from. Or the environmental impact of making the batteries.