A risky bet by Elon Musk on lithium
When Tesla in mid-January announced that it slashed its prices across its various car models by 20% on average it was a big shock to the car industry as an abrupt price change causes big disruptions in the secondary market. Our initial thought was that a 20% price cut on average is a desperate move considering a gross margin of 25%. It would effectively erode the majority of Tesla’s profits.
The price cuts also led to angry customers that had just bought a new Tesla. Initially we thought that the price cut was to increase demand that had seen a negative impact from higher and more volatile electricity prices in many key markets. Tesla had also raised prices several times in the previous year increasing the price point. When Tesla announced its Q4 deliveries it was clear that inventory was building as deliveries were lower than production which is a bad signal of demand, but it also locks up capital on the balance sheet. While demand considerations were a key decision variable for Tesla something else was happening.
During several speeches in the late part of 2022, Elon Musk expressed his frustration with lithium carbonate prices saying lithium refinery margins were making it a ‘gold mine’ and urged entrepreneurs to enter the industry. Around mid-November the 99.5% lithium carbonate price out of China topped out at CNY 598,000 per tonne and by the time of Tesla’s price cuts the price on lithium carbonate had fallen 20%. This is when Elon Musk and the management made their big bet aggressively cutting prices. It has since worked out for Tesla with lithium carbonate price down 34% from the peak in November offsetting most of Tesla’s hit to its gross margin. However, in the case that lithium carbonate prices should rebound it will eat into Tesla’s gross margin.
One of the reasons why lithium carbonate prices are falling is of course extra supply coming into the market but also CATL’s, China’s largest battery maker, decision to dump prices as it is lowering its margin in its mining division to lower prices on its batteries and fuel demand even more.