Why Elon Musk won’t be the second richest man in the world for long

Simon English
·3-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

THIS week Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla who is often described as a maverick, became the second richest person on the planet (ours, not his).

The latest surge in the shares of the car maker took his fortune to almost $130 billion, nearly £100 billion.

That puts him above Bill Gates and second only to Jeff Bezos, though we are sure none of them look at it in such a tawdry manner (they totally do).

Tesla shares have risen six-fold this year. At the time of writing they are at $563, valuing the business at $533 billion.

So congratulations.

But a point of view: he won’t stay second richest in the world, perhaps not even for very long.

Here is why: Tesla shares are absurdly overvalued. The price rests on a belief system, a matter of religious devotion, both to the man and to cars which in truth are not much more than iPhones on wheels.

If you ask Google how many cars Tesla has sold, the answer varies but seems to come out at about a million since it was founded in 2003.

Normally, you would check this with the press office, but Tesla dissolved its PR department last month in the latest sign of its maverick genius.

If you divide one million by the market value of $533 billion, that puts the value of each car sold at $533,000. Racy.

Tesla has nearly always lost money, though it has had quarterly profits lately that don’t begin to justify the valuation.

The reason for the share surge is, of course, a bet on the future. Investors have noticed that electric cars are quite the fashion.

Traditional car companies are moving away from petrol engines, prompted by changing consumer tastes, ever more urgent calls for action on climate change, and ensuing government rulings.

Tesla has won so far because it was ahead of the curve, it has had the luxury electrical car market almost to itself until now.

Mercedes, BMW, VW and others are now getting their act together and can go to school on Tesla’s mistakes and lessons.

The German, Japanese and indeed the big American auto firms have been around a while for good reason. They are really good at making cars.

As a car driver one problem with Tesla cars, aside from their price is this: they look boring.

From a practical point of view, Tesla does not have enough European presence.

Which means they are likely to run into all sorts of problems with transporting their wares and with tariffs.

Moreover, if you have an accident in a BMW, the dealership up the road can get you the replacement parts you need very quickly. It might take Tesla months.

One thing Tesla has benefitted from is massive flows into ESG funds – those that invest in companies that have good environmental, social and corporate governance credentials.

That favouritism will unwind once Mercedes and the rest are no longer making petrol vehicles.

So congrats to Elon Musk. Enjoy that $130 billion. Spend it while you can.