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Elon Musk: How Your Investment Made His Empire

Few people in the world don’t know who Elon Musk is, and that’s exactly the way the billionaire entrepreneur wants it. Musk’s cult of personality is largely responsible for powering his clean energy cars and fueling his SpaceX rockets.

His handlers court Hollywood. He’s appeared in Iron Man, dated actresses, and has his own rocket company. Musk has cornered cool, and his clean energy empire has been built on that image.

That clean energy empire is also political. Two dark blue states, California and New York, have contributed the lion share of subsidies to Musk’s empire. It’s an empire that consists of Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City, and Hyperloop.

Nevada has also chipped in, giving Musk $1.3 billion to build a ZEV battery factory just outside of Las Vegas.

All told, Musk’s entities are subsidized by federal and state taxpayers to the tune of about $5 billion.

At a Fremont factory last week, Musk drove the newest Tesla, a Model 3, onto a stage to kick off sales, and declared, “The whole point of this company was to make a really great, affordable electric car. And we finally have it.”

The first Model 3’s carry a $49,000 price tag and a 310-mile range. Make no mistake, the Model 3 HAS to be a home run for Tesla or the company could be in trouble.

Two dark blue states, California and New York, have contributed the lion share of subsidies to Musk's empire.

While electric vehicle (EV) ownership has risen in the past year, due in large part to China, it still represents just 0.2% of the light-duty vehicles on the road.

California’s politicians and business leaders recognize the EV challenge and have done everything to portray Tesla as the shining example of the Golden State’s efforts to build a new economy for the 21st century while dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

Tesla’s federal subsidy is about to run out. Once the group reaches 200,000 in ZEV production, it’s likely that few, if any, Model 3 purchasers will receive the $7,500 tax rebate. That sent up warning flags up for the environmental lobby in California.

The politicians in Sacramento responded, offering up taxpayer dollars with a new bill (AB 1184) to unlock $3 billion worth of incentives for an updated version of California’s current EV rebate. Much of that will likely go to Tesla.

The statewide subsidy would, in effect, supplant the federal subsidy loss. The bill’s sponsors, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Advanced Energy Economy and NextGen Climate America, Inc.

California is already leading electric vehicle adoption in the US, and by a wide margin, but they still need to speed things up if they want to achieve their goal of 1.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) by 2025, and 5 million by 2030. There are currently about 300,000 EVs on California roads today.

Last year, as the solar arm of Musk’s clean energy empire was faltering, Solar City merged with Tesla. Despite huge subsidies in New York and California, which included not paying property taxes for a decade on a factory in Buffalo, and receiving $500 million from the Treasury Department, Solar City needed big brother’s protection.

SolarCity's stock fell 60% last year as it struggled to boost demand for commercial solar panel installations.

The deal raised red flags.

Musk is the chairman and largest shareholder of both companies and SolarCity is run by two of Musk’s cousins.

Musk defended the merger writing, “That they are separate at all, despite similar origins and pursuit of the same overarching goal of sustainable energy, is largely an accident of history.”

SolarCity’s stock fell 60% last year as it struggled to boost demand for commercial solar panel installations. And burned through its cash, last June SolarCity had $146 million, down from $421 million a year earlier.

Musk urged Tesla employees to slash costs and “deliver every car we possibly can” in a desperate push for profitability.

Cash is king, and if your subsidies are about to run dry, you better find other ways to remain solvent, which is exactly what Musk and his board did Monday.

Tesla announced it will raise $1.5 billion in additional capital, by issuing debt.

The stock is up 65% in the year to date, so selling more stock makes sense, but it will test investors by minimizing share value.

As noted by an article in the Business Insider, “the critical issue for investors is the effect of adding another $1.5 billion to already increased debt levels since the acquisition of SolarCity in late 2016.”

After 2017, Tesla will have about $1 billion in cash on the balance sheet. With the debt offering, the carmaker will have tacked on an extra $4.5 billion in liabilities in less than a year.

With his Space X and Hyperloop programs, the government subsidies for those programs are continuing and won’t end anytime soon.

Elon Musk is a visionary, there’s no question about that, but many are saying it’s time for his companies to break away from their steady diet of government cheese and go lean.

Here’s a radical concept. It would be nice if our politicians would negotiate these subsidies with the best interests of taxpayers in mind. Currently, it’s not clear that the decisions being made are done with those intentions.

And if the time is right for Tesla to make it the old fashioned way, on their own, then so be it.