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Elon Musk's chaos theory is paying off for Tesla — for now

Data: FactSet; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Tesla is enjoying arguably the best stretch of its 17-year history — despite a shambling economy, CEO Elon Musk's latest PR grenades, manufacturing quality concerns, and circling would-be competitors.

Why it matters: Beyond being a fascinating corporate drama, Tesla's success affects the pace of electric vehicle adoption, especially in the U.S., where it dominates what's still a rather niche market.


Catch up quick: Tesla surprisingly announced that it eked out a fourth consecutive quarterly profit Wednesday despite disruptions from the pandemic.

  • That marks Tesla's longest stretch in the black, which paves the way to join the S&P 500.
  • Its stock, already in the stratosphere, is up almost another 4% in pre-market trading.
  • Musk announced a deal to make Austin, Texas, home to Tesla's second U.S. factory to produce an array of models.
  • Oh, and a new J.D. Power survey shows that Tesla owners have a strong emotional bond to their cars.

The big picture: "The results validate the unconventional efforts that Musk made to shore up earnings in the midst of the health crisis that’s expected to leave other U.S. automakers posting losses," Bloomberg reports, referring to Musk's bitter, highly public fight with county officials in California to reopen Tesla's factory despite public health concerns.

What they're saying: "Right now in the [electric vehicle] market, it’s Tesla’s world and everyone else is paying rent, a dynamic shown front and center this quarter," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note, per Reuters.

  • A New York Times piece ahead of the earnings released points out that new electric vehicles hitting the market are not really breaking through yet.
  • "Over the last year or so, several automakers, including Audi, Jaguar and Porsche, have added heralded new models intended to cut into Tesla’s electric dominance. But they have barely made a dent, at least in the United States," the paper reports.

Yes, but: Axios' Joann Muller's coverage of Tesla's earnings announcement shows why Tesla's profits are a nuanced metric.

  • About 8% of its revenues came from selling regulatory credits to other automakers, up almost 300% from the same period a year ago.
  • The higher income from emissions credits, along with savings on employee salaries during the factory shutdown, helped Tesla turn a net profit for the quarter.
  • But overall revenues fell.

The bottom line: Things could still go south for the volatile Tesla, but for now, for Musk and his company, chaos is not a pit — it's a ladder.

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