What’s the Real Story of Tesla in China

What’s really going on for Tesla in China? Global supply chains remain fragile as the Chinese flex their muscles and national buying power. That may prove problematic for western firms, and especially Tesla. But also it raises questions about investment imperatives on China growth vs flatline in the West.

Blain’s Morning Porridge – 27 April 2021: What’s the real story of Telsa in China?

“Beware the sleeping dragon, for when she stirs the earth shall shake..”

This morning: What’s really going on for Tesla in China? Global supply chains remain fragile as the Chinese flex their muscles and national buying power. That may prove problematic for western firms, and especially Tesla. But also it raises questions about investment imperatives on China growth vs flatline in the West.

There is lots to be positive about this morning. The first headline to catch my eye was a prediction from Goldman Sachs raising their target to 7.8% UK growth in 2021 – up from the 5% consensus. Great stuff! A colleague sent me the FT’s analysis of the Pandemic end-game: 5.2% people have been infected last week, but vaccines are clearly working and saving lives. And there are some spectacular company results hitting the screens.

But across the globe supply chain ructions continue. Jaguar Land Rover has shut down a number of factories over the global shortage of chips. There are warning of everything from autos, fridges, toasters to airplanes being delayed due to apparent hoarding by Chinese manufacturers concerned about possible sanctions if the current cold war heats up.

  • We have a global explosion of repressed consumer spending set to hit the market.
  • There is a global shortage of goods. (I know this – it looks like our new kitchen will have a wine-chiller shaped gap due to the lack of supply! Shocking…. Simply shocking…)
  • There is the threat of further supply shocks on the back of rising trade and cold-war ructions.

The world is less stable than we hope. And it boils down to a very simple question. What’s really happening in China? That, I suspect, is the critical factor when it comes to predicting just how strong pandemic recovery will be, or how constrained it may become.

I saw a headline flash by this morning anticipating Apple iPhone China sales fell in March as sales of new domestic smart-phones kicked in. According to Seeking Alpha high China sales in Jan/Feb have reversed despite the success of the new iPhone 12. (Apple numbers are tomorrow.) Why would China sales fall? Is it because Chinese consumers are increasingly persuaded to buy home-grown product, fuelled by a patriotic duty to do so?

Tesla is finding itself on the receiving end of pointed official China criticism – and Musk (surprisingly) has bowed his head and promised to do better. The headlines about a US Tesla crash where there is a dispute about whether anyone was actually driving is just noise and distraction. The real story is the future for Tesla demand in China.

If Tesla was criticised in the US for shoddy servicing, poor customer care, and was accused of breaching privacy rules with car mounted cameras, you can bet Musk would be screaming obscenities, appearing on prime time TV smoking a joint to tell us regulators are idiots, and that the press knows nothing. Allegations of customer dissatisfaction would be steamrollered by a barrage of Tesla Fanboy hate posts and denials refusing to discuss the matter.

But, when Tesla gets accused of the same failings in China – suddenly Musk does the right thing and kow-tows, promising to do better. Musk is beginning to understand that displaying “sincerity” in China means doing exactly what the state tells him to do.

Tesla is walking a very thin line in China – and Elon knows it. On one hand, he’s bet the shop on promises the EV maker will deliver big into China. On the other, the recent Shanghai Motor Show featured a couple of Teslas, but, more importantly, a vast number of sophisticated Chinese new models EVs set for launch in the coming year.

Musk may soon realise the Chinese might just have played him for a chump – supporting and financing his gigafactory build to get EVs established in the Chinese consumer mindset, while also conclusively demonstrating to the Chinese autofirms the foreign rival products they have to beat.

And since we’re talking about Tesla, let’s get off the China theme for a moment, and think about the results it announced y’day: Congratulations to them for beating Q1 expectations. Net income of $438mm, revenues up 74% and 185,000 cars delivered.

But… all that glitters is not revenue from car sales… Let’s see… what did the results really tell us? That profit was based on $518 mm of regulatory credit sales and a $101 positive gain from its Bitcoin position and sales. Strip these out and… and Telsa lost $181mm selling cars.

To this day I don’t believe Tesla has made a single brass cent selling cars, yet the purveyor of fine regulatory credits and dabbler in cryptocurrencies has made its owner the second richest man on the planet. (And yes.. I still hold a small position in the stock.)

More importantly, the Q1 results show Musk is caught between the proverbial rock and river. He knows winning in China is critical for his evolved EV scheme.

Ok – calling Tesla a pyramid scheme is harsh, but Musk knows he needs to keep up the positive news flow; continually demonstrating Telsa’s lead in EV, increasing his production numbers, upping the profits and feeding a never-ending stream of positive spin (like autonomous driving tomorrow – always tomorrow). Without the positive spin driving Tesla marketing and keeping up the stock-price, how will he continue to attract new buyers while persuading current investors to HODL! (Crypto-verse speak for “hold on for dear life”).

There is a big missed theme around Tesla – competition. Their EV tech moat is shallow. Today, the firm is still ahead in EV terms of consumer deliverables like quality, range, handling etc, but the rest of the Automotive world; from Tokyo to Munich, from Shanghai to Detroit is playing catch up fast.

Going back to China, the party is very keen to see domestic producers not only dominated the China market, but to establish themselves abroad. That’s as true in EVs as it will be in Smart-phones, fridges and all the other paraphernalia of modern life…

Let, me stir this a bit more. Should you bite the moral bullet and buy HSBC? The potential downside is its engaging with China – but its China that makes the bank so valuable. HSBC is a good illustration of the China conundrum.

The geopolitical tensions look high. There are few signs the US and China will reach anything better than a new cold war which is bound to further roil supply chains. There are a surprising number of articles around on how the newly empowered Chinese navy is set to take on American carrier task forces over Taiwan – and hammer them with land-based hyper-missiles. (None of this bodes well for the Big-Lizzie UK carrier strike group heading to the region this summer.)

The moral arguments against any China investment can’t be ignored. The treatment of the Uyghurs, surveillance, Tibet and the rest are difficult to square with any ESG investment mandate.

China critics will point to the case of Jack Ma and issues of the rule law as further reasons to remain shy of China investors. But its only by fully embracing capitalism and the market economy model – with Chinese Characteristics – the Chinese have been able to so successfully grow their economy and take it through its earlier export-led model to today’s consumption-led economy. The Chinese want their luxury and consumer goods, just like the rest of us.

The next couple of months are going to be fascinated in terms of how the China story develops. Trade Wars, its own internal markets, Patriotic buying programmes, and Geopolitics will all feature. At this point, remember my mantra no 4: “Things are seldom as bad as you fear, but never as good as you hope!”


I should perhaps warn readers my Reverse Blain Trading Strategy (RBTS) seems to be going wrong. A long time ago I handed a wodge of cash to my chums at Sanlam and told them to buy stuff I was saying not to.

But, the strategy is now coming apart. I seem to be getting some calls right. Back in Feb I correctly predicted Deliveroo would be a disastrous IPO – which it was, and while HSBC might be a bureaucratic monolith – its pivot back to Asia made it look investible again. This morning Deliveroo is making loads of money – for fund managers that shorted it, while HSBC knocked the leather off the ball with Q1 results.

Five Things to Read this Morning

FT – How Apple’s iOS 14.5 update is shaking up the app economy

WSJ – China Censors “Nomadland” Director Chloe Zhao’s Oscar Win

FT – “Pet mania” brings out animal instincts in eager investors

BBerg – Draghi Bets 261 Billion Euros to Redesign Italy

Torygraph – Never mind debts in Greece or Italy, it’s France that’s heading for crisis

Out of time, and back to the day job..

Bill Blain

Shard Capital


    • Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics.
      There are some great articles around suggesting the serendipity of the current socialist USA vs the capitalist China.
      At the end of the day – both China and the West will do whatever is required to defend thier corporate base.

  1. I have spent the last 7 years living in Qingdao, a prosperous medium sized city. Tesla was all the rage with the rich guys a few years, but the Trendoids have moved on. On any given day traveling around the city I only see 1 or 2 Teslas all day. However, I can see SEVERAL E/V’s EVERY minute on any busy street from the big Chinese car companies. Tesla is the only outside car company to open in China without a partner. Standard operating procedure is for all the new features to be found in the Chinese cars in 2 to 3 years. That is the price of admission to the world’s largest and most profitable car market. Tesla has almost no proprietary features. It uses 20 year old Li-Ion batter tech to power 100 year old electric motor tech. All they own is the battery management software that sets the cars on fire. Tesla will provides Chinese workers jobs for a while, then fail. China will have a factory they can repurpose.

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