Tesla Inc. late Wednesday surprised Wall Street by posting a first-quarter profit amid the broad economic destruction wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tesla TSLA, +4.08% Chief Executive Elon Musk kept the surprises going on a post-results call with analysts, veering off script to condemn the ongoing restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus.
Echoing his similar criticism on Twitter, Musk called the orders an “infringement of people’s rights” and likened them to fascism.
Tesla’s sole U.S. vehicle-producing factory in Fremont, Calif., has been shuttered since late March as the San Francisco Bay Area was among the first U.S. regions to issue mandatory shutdowns.
“It’s outrage” that will cause “great harm” not just to Tesla but other companies and suppliers, Musk said in the call.
Earlier Wednesday, Tesla said it earned $16 million, or 9 cents a share, in the quarter, versus a GAAP loss of $4.10 a share in the year-ago period.
Adjusted for one-time items, the company said it earned $227 million, or $1.24 a share, contrasting with an adjusted loss of $2.90 a year ago.
Sales rose to $5.99 billion from $4.54 billion a year ago. The stock rose more than 9% following the report.
Analysts polled by FactSet had expected the electric-car maker to report an adjusted loss of 28 cents a share on sales of $6.1 billion.
First-quarter 2020 “was the first time in our history that we achieved a positive GAAP net income in the seasonally weak first quarter. Despite global operational challenges, we were able to achieve our best first quarter for both production and deliveries,” Tesla said in its letter to investors.
The results were “quite impressive, given the difficulties incurred towards the end of the quarter with COVID-19 issues,” Argus Research analyst Bill Selesky said.
“Going forward, the most challenging quarter of the year will be the second quarter, given the dislocation caused by the coronavirus,” he said. “My biggest worry is that demand for Tesla’s vehicles may take a pause,” as people grapple with unemployment concerns and less discretionary income and put off buying an electric car.
“As gasoline prices remain weak, consumers may just want to keep driving what they have (and repair what they have) until the economic climate comes back to a better place,” Selesky said.
First-quarter profit may have been small but that Tesla “managed to be profitable for a third quarter in a row is an impressive feat, especially given the challenges of the coronavirus crisis and the company’s expansion of its product lineup,” Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said.
“(Chief Executive) Elon Musk is leaning heavily on the Model Y to carve the company’s path forward so it’s an encouraging sign that the vehicle’s launch is not only going much better than expected, but it’s been a process free of the major drama surrounding its Model 3 predecessor,” she said.
In the letter to investors, Tesla said its gross margins remained strong, with the Model Y, the compact SUV that is next on Tesla’s lineup, already profitable. The 24-page letter did not mention the pandemic at all — it referred to the coronavirus only tangentially, using words such as “challenges” and “uncertainty.”
The first mention to the virus during the call came after a question about Tesla’s annual growth targets in the long run. It was difficult to predict what the broader situation will be, Musk said, saying that COVID-19 came “out of nowhere.”
In the absence of some “massive force majeure” issues, Tesla is likely to grow at a 40% clip annually, he said.
In the letter, Tesla said it has the “capacity installed” to deliver more than half a million vehicles in 2020 “despite announced production interruptions.”
Tesla also reiterated that the company had enough liquidity despite the shutdowns. On the analyst call, Chief Financial Officer Zach Kirkhorn said that the company remained “comfortable” with its liquidity levels and it was still receiving many online orders for its vehicles.
Still, he said, the Fremont plant shutdown will have an unavoidable impact in the near term, and Tesla will need to figure out how quickly it will be able to resume production.
Tesla did not provide guidance, but said it “will achieve industry-leading operating margins and profitability with capacity expansion and localization plans underway.”
Going into the results, Tesla shares had seen shares spike, including a 10% rally on Monday and 10 straight sessions of gains recently.
Wall Street seemed focused on hopes that the car maker would be able to weather the coronavirus challenges better than peers, and that it had given itself a crucial liquidity cushion with its $2.3 billion capital raise in February.
Investors had also zeroed in on Tesla’s still-healthy first-quarter vehicle deliveries announced earlier this month, alongside news that production of the Model Y started in January and that the first few vehicles were delivered ahead of schedule, which Tesla reiterated on Wednesday.
In an update in March, Tesla said it had $6.3 billion in cash at the end of the year, before the capital raise. It told Wall Street it believed it had enough liquidity to “successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty.” It had credit lines worth about $3 billion at the end of the year.
Musk, no stranger to controversy, stirred a fresh one on Twitter on Tuesday night, voicing his opposition to the ongoing shelter-in-place orders in effect in most U.S. states.
Bay Area authorities this week extended their regional stay-at-home order through the end of May, quashing hopes Tesla was readying the reopening of the California factory.
Tesla shares are up nearly 230% in the past 12 months, contrasting with a flat line for S&P 500 index SPX, +2.65% and losses of more than 7% for the S&P 500 in the same period. That outperformance holds in the last three months, with Tesla shares up 36% versus losses of 10% and 14% for the S&P and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +2.20% , respectively.