Last week could not have been much worse for Tesla with news of a Moody’s downgrade, the revelation that the prior week’s fatal Model X crash in California occurred while the car was in Autopilot mode and the recall of every Model S built before April 2016 due to a potentially faulty bolt in the steering system.  That torrent of bad news led to an 12% decline in TSLA shares for the week, but the real issue here is not newsflow. It is the fact that Tesla is staring at mountain of debt maturities over the next 20 months, just at the time when it needs available cash to fund operations.

Tesla’s bonds have fallen so quickly and there is so much speculation around Tesla’s creditworthiness that I did the one thing any good analyst would do to maintain clarity during time of duress.  I built a spreadsheet. The figures below show the main components of Tesla’s long-term debt, including maturities and conversion prices for those notes that include a conversion feature.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Tesla “story” from a fixed-income perspective only worked as long as TSLA shares were rising.  Tesla issued $660 million of convertible notes in 2013 with a 1.25% coupon and a five-year tenor.  I don’t even include them in my spreadsheet because as of year-end 2017 all but about $6 million of those notes had been converted into TSLA stock.  Why? Because the conversion feature is $124.52 per share.

 That convert was an epic win for both TSLA and its buyers, but the next major TSLA convert to expire (in March 2019) has conversion price of $359.87.  That’s not looking so good these days, and while that note’s ridiculously low coupon of 0.25% shields the near-term effect, based on my estimates the $920 million amount outstanding on that convert would be too much for Tesla to handle at maturity.  Unless TSLA shares rebound that note will have to be settled in cash, and that will be an epic fail for Musk and co.

The combination of $3.5 billion negative cash flow in 2017 and $1.8 billion in debt coming due before November 2019 is a terrible one for equity holders.  My pleas, in Forbes columns Monday, Tuesday and Thursday last week for Elon Musk to address those upcoming maturities with an equity offering have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

 The problem with Tesla is that those debt maturities come on top of the capital needed to grow the core auto business.  The Model 3 rollout has been so fraught with delay that it is easy to forget that running an automotive business requires significant capital expenditures.  This is true for any automaker, not just one that is trying to disrupt a century-old industry.

Ford and GM spend between 5 and 6% of sales on capital expenditures, so that’s an idea of what “maintenance capex” for Tesla could be.  On a 2018 revenue rate of $12 billion, that puts Tesla’s maintenance capex at at least $600 million.   Plus, Tesla booked interest expense of $146 million for the fourth quarter of 2017, and at an annualized rate of just under $600 million, that figure is indeed material.  On TSLA’s fourth quarter conference call Musk guided for an overall capex of for Tesla for 2018 of “slightly higher” than last year’s $3.4 billion . Financial analysts will tell you that the difference between overall capital expenditures and maintenance capital expenditures are “growth capital expenditures.  So, it would seem, Musk is planning growthcapex of about $3 billion in 2018.


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