Musk mulls taking Tesla private, valuing company at $82 billion

Elon Musk said he’s considering taking Tesla private in a radical step that would ease pressure on the money-losing automaker.

The announcement, made initially via Twitter, stunned investors and sent Tesla’s stock price soaring as much as 13%. It followed the news that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had built a less than 5% stake in Tesla worth about $2bn.

And yet it also left many questions unanswered, namely how Musk - who owns almost 20% of the company - would be able to come up with the $66bn necessary to complete the transaction. At $420 a share, Tesla would have an enterprise value of about $82bn including debt. To take it private, the billionaire would have to pull off the largest leveraged buyout in history, surpassing Texas electric utility TXU’s in 2007.

Best environment

“The reason for doing this is all about creating the environment for Tesla to operate best,” Musk, 47, wrote in an email to employees. He said wild swings in the stock price are a “major distraction” to workers and that being public “puts enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term.”

Tesla stock was halted for more than an hour and a half and resumed trading up 11% to $380.60 as of 15:49 in New York. The rally falling well short of $420 is a sign of market skepticism that Musk’s plan is feasible. The CEO said shareholders would have the final say if he decides to follow through on going private, and that he would stay in his job.

“The market doesn’t believe him,” said David Kudla, the CEO of Mainstay Capital Management, which is betting against Tesla. “His credibility has come into question over a number of things. If this were real, you’d expect the stock to go closer to $420 a share than it has.”

The Public Investment Fund, or PIF, acquired shares in Tesla over the last few months as part of its wider investment strategy, according to a person familiar with the transaction. Representatives for the Saudi fund weren’t immediately available for comment on the investment, which the Financial Times first reported earlier Tuesday. A Tesla spokesman declined to comment.

‘Lot of noise’

Musk has a long history of bristling at the amount of scrutiny Tesla endures from investors and media.

In an interview with Bloomberg News in January 2015, he spoke of the benefits of running his closely held rocket company Space Exploration Technologies and his frustrations with having taken Tesla public in June 2010.

“There’s a lot of noise that surrounds a public company and people are constantly commenting on the share price and value,” Musk said in 2015. “Being public definitely increases the management overhead for any given enterprise.”

Dueling views

Taking Tesla private “makes a ton of sense,” said Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures.

“Elon Musk does not want to run public companies,” Munster said. “His missions are big and make it difficult to accommodate investors quarterly expectations. Our guess is there is a 1 in 3 chance he can actually pull this off.”

Tesla doesn’t meet the typical profile of a company that can raise tens of billions of dollars of debt. It has lost money on an operating basis every year since it went public and it’s been burning through billions of dollars as it’s ironed out production issues with its Model 3 sedan.

The buyout is “highly unlikely,” said Joel Levington, analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Funding $50bn plus for a negative free cash flow business would be difficult, if not extraordinary.”

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