Short-seller Jim Chanos warns Tesla bulls the good times are over—permanently

·4 min read
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Jim Chanos, the famed short-seller who profited from the collapse of Enron a good 20 years ago, is handing out free advice to Tesla bulls: The good times are over, for good.

“I think their profits are going to be under pressure, and I think it’s going to be relatively permanent,” Chanos told CNBC on Monday.

Borrowing shares you don’t own from a prime broker at a fee to sell a stock short in the expectation of profiting from its expected decline is not a profession for the faint of heart.

Given the risks are unevenly stacked against such speculators, it’s worth listening to their arguments simply because their conviction must be that much stronger compared with long-only investors.

And what Chanos is telling Tesla shareholders is that Elon Musk’s company is currently behaving like any mass-market car company pushing volumes into the market and hoping price cuts can lure incremental new buyers.

Granted a number of automotive industry analysts believe Tesla can weather the EV shakeout from a price war better than some of its industry peers, many of whom may already be losing money on each electric vehicle sold.

Chanos even seems to agree with that sentiment, arguing it’s fair to expect Tesla to be valued at a premium to other automakers. But ultimately it’s still just another cyclical car stock, not to be confused with a tech stock.

So while it does not deserve to trade at three to five times gross profit like a conventional automaker, he believes it does not have any business exchanging hands at a lofty multiple of 20 or more.

“The magnitude of the valuation discrepancy is enormous,” Chanos judged, arguing other growth stocks like BYD and Nio, or luxury carmakers such as Porsche and Ferrari, were a better deal for investors at current prices.

“At some point that is going to close dramatically. Now, is it [worth] $40, $60? I don’t know,” he continued. “We’ll have to see, but I don’t think it’s $170.”

Tesla’s weakness in China is the real threat

That is especially true now that Chanos believes EV buyers actually enjoy a choice and no longer are limited to choosing between various versions of a Tesla, something indeed reflected by this month’s price cuts.

“His [automotive gross] margins, which peaked out in the high 20s, are now heading we think into the high teens, where they were before they opened China,” he said.

Investors had been concerned lower average selling prices would heavily dilute automotive gross margins, but finance chief Zach Kirkhorn insisted last Wednesday they should remain above 20.

Chanos is not convinced.

“Everybody forgets Tesla lost money through 2019 building cars in the United States. It wasn’t until they opened Shanghai and that ramped in a major way that their margins took off,” he said, “and China right now is their weakest market.”

In his estimation that translates to earnings dropping not only well below the $4.40 per share currently forecast by Wall Street, but also the $4 mark achieved in 2022: “We think the number has a two in front of it this year.”

But there is one bullish signal Tesla shareholders can take away from Chanos’s comments: His bearish investment conviction is far greater when it comes to other overvalued stocks like General Electric or New York City commercial real estate landlord SL Green.

Chanos described the weighting of his short position in Tesla as somewhere in the middle of his typical range of 0.5% to 5% of his portfolio nestled alongside 42 other names including Coinbase and AMC common stock.

Tesla, which disbanded its press department, rose nearly 3.3% at $172.16 per share in trading on Tuesday.

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