Behind the myth of Elon Musk: Has the onetime Silicon Valley visionary lost his magic?

Musk is the CEO of three companies — Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity — all of which would fail without government money

Published October 29, 2016 2:45PM (EDT)

Elon Musk   (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Elon Musk (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

These would seem to be heady times for Elon Musk. Recently, he announced that SpaceX, his space exploration and tourism company, has developed plans to colonize Mars and save humanity. A little more down to earth, the billionaire mogul reported this week that Tesla, his boutique electric car manufacturer, had turned a modest profit in the third quarter. On Friday, at a press event staged in a neighborhood of solar houses, he revealed that SolarCity, a solar roof company where he serves as chairman, has devised new less bulky solar panels. Were these announcements relevant pieces of news released to inform the consumer or were they merely diversions meant to distract from the serious problems brewing at Musk’s three enterprises?

Early in his career, Musk, now 45,  made so much money that Silicon Valley viewed him as a visionary. He sold his first startup, Zip2, to Compaq for $305 million, earning him $22 million; he then helped found PayPal, which sold to eBay for $1.5 billion, netting him $180 million. But with the three companies he now runs he has proven to be, as a businessman at least, ineffective at best, cynical at worst. All three companies are beset by debt and cash flow issues. Yet each time it appears as if his house of cards may collapse, Musk makes a move — often a splashy announcement of a new product — to change the conversation from his impending financial doom.

Normally, Musk enjoys glowing media coverage — even after his rockets and "auto-pilot" navigation cause lethal crashes — but this month he was called out by Robert E. Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, the largest privately-held coal producer in America, who claimed on CNBC that Tesla is a “fraud” because the company “has gotten $2 billion from the taxpayer” and “has not made a penny yet in cash flow.” The charge got Musk’s attention. “Real fraud going on is denial of climate science,” Musk responded on Twitter. “As for ‘subsidies,’ Tesla gets pennies on the dollar vs coal. How about we both go to zero?”

Currently, Musk has a net worth estimated at $13.2 billion, making him the 87th-richest person in the world, but along the way his companies have received, according to a report published last year in The Los Angeles Times, $4.9 billion in government subsidies. So what would happen if Tesla did “go to zero” on subsidies? It could be catastrophic, actually, because ever since 2004, when Musk invested $6.35 million in Tesla and became its CEO, the company has relied heavily on government support.

First of all, any customer who buys an electric car receives a $7,500 tax credit on his or her federal income tax — an incentive that gives Tesla a distinct competitive edge over manufacturers that make traditional vehicles. In addition, some states supplement the federal tax credit with tax breaks of their own. Nevada went much further than that. When Tesla started searching for a site on which to build a battery factory, Nevada offered $1.3 billion in cash and tax breaks if Tesla located it in Reno. The federal government will subsidize the batteries produced there by awarding tax breaks to consumers who buy them.

The government has also given Tesla loans. In 2010, the Department of Energy provided a $465 million loan, which Tesla repaid three years later. Yet despite all of this assistance, Tesla is still plagued by problems — missed deadlines, underperformance on production quotas, and blown budgets. It has also produced relatively few cars.

Through 2015, Tesla sold 106,000 vehicles since it started delivering cars in 2008. Granted the company was in a startup phase for much of that time, and is projected to produce 80,000 cars in 2016, but it seems unlikely it will hit its goal of selling 500,000 cars a year by 2018. Because of the tepid production schedule, Tesla has been losing money. In 2015, the annual loss was $889 million. The company’s total debt has climbed from $401 million in June 2012 to $3 billion in June 2016. The announcement of a third-quarter profit for 2016 — a modest $22 million — was only the second time in the company’s history it turned a quarterly profit; it did not result from increased productivity but from Tesla selling $139 million worth of pollution tax credits to other car manufacturers. Because of its questionable financial health, Goldman Sachs recently downgraded Tesla’s stock from buy to neutral.

SolarCity has also benefitted from the government. As of mid-2015, the Department of Treasury had awarded SolarCity $497 million in grants. In addition, because SolarCity chooses to lease a solar roof to the customer instead of sell it to him, the company, as the roof’s owner, receives 30 percent of the cost of installation in incentives from the federal government. Finally, New York State has invested $750 million in cash and tax breaks to build a solar panel factory for SolarCity in Buffalo, set to be finished next summer.

SolarCity’s agreement with New York allows the company to lease the factory from the state for 20 years at a rate of $1 a year — truly a sweetheart deal. But two weeks ago, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night, Musk announced he was entering into non-binding negotiations with Panasonic. His plan appears to be to allow Panasonic to take possession of the factory when it is completed and SolarCity would acquire solar panels from Panasonic.

Why would Musk give up such an advantageous lease deal? Because even with ample government largesse, it has not been enough. Like Tesla, SolarCity is losing money. Over the past three years, SolarCity’s debt has risen to $3.25 billion, in part because of its business plan: borrow money to install solar panels for a customer who leases them with little or no up-front cost. During those three years, SolarCity’s sales tripled, but the company still posted losses in three out of 12 quarters.

When lending sources dried up earlier this year, Musk considered selling SolarCity, but 15 different investors refused to buy a portion of the company. As of June, cash-on-hand had shrunk from $489 million in 2015 to $146 million. With money dwindling and no potential buyer, Musk announced that Tesla would purchase SolarCity. On July 31, in what some observers described as a bailout, Tesla and SolarCity agreed to a merger that now must be approved by shareholders of both companies on Nov. 17.

Because SpaceX is privately held, it is not possible to evaluate the company’s profit-and-loss status. However, last year’s report in The Los Angeles Times noted that the U.S. Air Force and NASA have awarded SpaceX over $5.5 billion in government contracts. Without those contracts, it's fair to say, SpaceX would not be in business.

The ugly truth is that, for all Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial moxie and innovative thinking, his companies are not money-making enterprises. This is not the first time Musk has hit hard times. In 2008, his burgeoning empire nearly collapsed as he spent his fortune on developing the Roadster at Tesla and trying to mount a successful rocket launch at SpaceX. He was so broke he had to borrow money from friends to pay his bills. He was saved in December of that year — right before financial ruin — when NASA awarded SpaceX its first contract, worth $1.6 billion.

The question now is clear. Can Musk survive his present financial perils or, despite considerable government help that has allowed him to become a very wealthy man, will his empire finally succumb to the sheer weight of its massive debt? Stay tuned for that announcement, splashy or otherwise.




By Paul Alexander

Paul Alexander is the author of numerous books, among them "Boulevard of Broken Dreams: The Life, Times, and Legend of James Dean." His new portrait of Dean, "Being James Dean," has just been released by Rosetta Books.

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Elon Musk Government Subsidies Solarcity Spacex Tesla