Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 8 February 2021

 

Tesla Buys $1.5 Billion in Bitcoin: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Elon Musk’s bitcoin purchase for Tesla is another warning for investors in the wake of GameStop mania

Social media posts by Tesla boss Elon Musk already have helped drive bitcoin’s price to a record. PHOTO: ALY SONG/REUTERS
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GameStop mania was a wake-up call, but now the capital markets have truly reached ludicrous mode.

Electric-car maker Tesla TSLA 1.31% said in a securities filing Monday that it has purchased $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin and that it expects to begin accepting payment in the cryptocurrency for its products in the future. Tesla shares and bitcoin both traded higher after the announcement. This follows social media posts by the auto maker’s influential bossElon Musk, that already had helped drive bitcoin’s price to a record. All told, the rally spurred by the announcement on Monday added more than $100 billion to bitcoin’s market value, while Tesla shares also rose yet again.

The investment is more than symbolic for the company, being equivalent to Tesla’s research-and-development tab for 2020. And while uniting two of the most popular investment themes under one roof is undoubtedly a winner today, the decision introduces even more risk to owning what is already one of the most speculative stocks of the current bull market.

As Tesla itself said in the filing, prices for digital assets such as bitcoin have been volatile in the past. Cryptocurrencies are a fairly recent development and their long-term adoption by consumers, investors and businesses is highly uncertain. That adds to the speculative fervor already gripping Tesla’s stock price in a feedback loop. Indeed, the manager of the most popular active fund recently, Cathie Wood of ARK Invest, has made big bets on both Tesla and a trust that owns bitcoin, fueling a record pace of inflows.

At a market value of about $800 billion, Tesla trades at about 6.5 times the combined value of Ford and General Motors, despite controlling a small fraction of the global auto market. And Tesla lately has been losing market share in Western Europe to competitors including Volkswagen, which has begun to compete aggressively in the electric category. The news of Tesla’s bitcoin investment eclipsed a negative headline for the company Monday about quality issues identified in the important Chinese market.

Long-term adoption of cryptocurrencies by consumers, investors and businesses is highly uncertain. PHOTO: ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS

While digital assets are relatively new, a tour of financial history suggests similar speculative use of an industrial company’s funds aren’t—and they have ended badly. About a century ago, General Motors required a bailout due to the stock speculation activities of founder William Durant. In the 1980s, widespread corporate speculation on Japanese land prices helped drive a stock bubble that eventually collapsed.

Those cautionary tales aren’t likely to concern investors who are enjoying a giant stock-market party. But Tesla’s monetary experiment, coupled with the individual-investor-driven stock-market madness of recent weeks, should have investors concerned that the consequences of staying at the party too late will be worse than leaving early.

Dogecoin: Elon Musk, Snoop Dogg Tweets Fuel Crypto Price Rally
After tweets from Tesla CEO Elon Musk and rapper Snoop Dogg, the cryptocurrency Dogecoin, which started as a joke, topped $10 billion in market value. WSJ looks at why online investors are pouring money into the meme-inspired virtual currency. Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Aflo/Zuma Press

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