Hype machine going into overdrive about electric vehicles could be a car crash waiting to happen
The EV market is fertile ground for trading scams, write Olivia Rudgard and Laurence Dodds in San Francisco and James Cook
It was the kind of truck the Terminator might drive – at least when he needed extra cash. Sleek, silent and faintly sinister, the Skynet-esque lorry, filmed speeding through an American desert in 2018, seemed proof of its maker’s technological prowess. “Behold,” boasted the electric vehicle (EV) company Nikola: “The 1,000 HP, zero-emission Nikola One semi-truck in motion.”
This was technically true: the lorry was moving. But as the Arizona start-up admitted last week, it was moving because it had been towed up a hill and then left to roll.
“Nikola never stated its truck was driving under its own propulsion in the video,” a spokesman defiantly declared. “As Nikola pivoted to the next generation of trucks, it ultimately decided not to invest additional resources into completing the process to make the Nikola One drive on its own propulsion.”
Shares slid, Nikola’s chairman and founder Trevor Milton stepped down yesterday, and the gaiety of nations increased. But the implications were bigger than one firm. This news – part of a bombshell report by the short-selling investment firm Hindenburg Research, whose conclusions Nikola dismissed as “false and misleading” – came just days after General Motors agreed to invest $2bn (£1.6bn) into Nikola.
Throw a briefcase full of cash in Silicon Valley today and you’ll hit an EV company, many racing towards an early public float. There is Rivian, Nio, Fisker, Workhorse, Lordstown Motors, XPeng, and of course Tesla, whose breathtaking stock rally this year has dragged many imitators behind it.
But as Tesla, the original EV pioneer, prepares for its latest “battery day” today, when it will hold its annual meeting and show off new ideas, whispers of a bubble are only increasing. Tesla’s own history of failed predictions hardly helps matters.
“It looks awful,” says Reilly Brennan of the San Francisco venture capitalist firm Trucks VC, referring to Nikola’s ordeal. “This is the warning shot of how eventually things are going to roll out over the coming decades. And it could very well be that some of these companies are overvalued.”
He points in particular to neophyte EV makers who are using unconventional corporate structures to float in a rush. Both Fisker and Lordstown plan to become public companies via special purpose acquisition vehicles, or Spacs – ersatz shell firms created purely to raise money through an initial public offering (IPO) and then buy the original firm outright.
“You have a lot of companies that have come out, who previously could not have done an IPO in a traditional sort of year, and have used Spacs to come around, come through a different door and raise more capital,” says Brennan.
“The future of the car business is increasingly electric [and] zero emission. [But] my concern is that a lot of these companies are coming out and raising money from the public markets. It’s clear it’s a little bit early for them to be doing so.”
In part, Brennan attributes the problem to the sheer expense of developing new EVs. He says that bringing new models to production requires such prodigious amounts of cash – at least “10 figures” – that Silicon Valley investors are often tapped dry.
Next up are sovereign wealth funds and international investors; and after that, public markets. But Brennan believes that “many” EV makers are “undercapitalised” even after that – such as Canoo, which is “not only building a whole new vehicle, but building it from a clean sheet of paper”.
A prime example of this problem is Faraday Future, an ambitious electric car business whose Chinese billionaire chief executive filed for bankruptcy in 2019. His lawyers said in court that his personal bankruptcy scuppered a meeting with a sovereign wealth fund, which had seemed poised to bankroll the business.
Other businesses in the sector have been accused of going beyond generating hype and instead engaged in outright lying. The Chinese government launched a fraud investigation in 2016 after it alleged that many of the country’s electric vehicle manufacturers had been producing electric cars and selling them to companies they also own in order to obtain government subsidies.
But despite high-profile scepticism, many sophisticated and armchair investors remain more excited than ever.
Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, says surging valuations for electric carmakers naturally lead to scepticism. But unlike the dotcom boom, “these companies are betting on a market that is here and is on a trajectory to see massive growth”, he says. “You’re talking about a very investable trend, rather than a trend that’s just built on hype,” Ives believes.
This trend has hooked in thousands of armchair investors, with many initially discovering the field through Tesla. “It’s an emotional stock,” says Vincent Deluard, director of global macroeconomics at StoneX Group, referring to Tesla. “You have hardcore believers and profound haters at the same time.”
Most of the action, he says, is concentrated on options – suggesting the presence of individual day traders using low-fee or no-fee services such as Robinhood. The so-called “Robinhood investors” are often blamed for 2020’s wild market rally, as well as the surge in stocks for many companies. Reddit’s WallStreetBets community in particular has been known to worship Elon Musk. Robinhood itself has been accused of using addictive techniques from smartphone games to keep its users trading.
According to Deluard, day traders often prefer options to straight shares because they are the most efficient way of piling up leverage on already-hot stocks. Yet as they do so, the brokerdealers they buy from are forced to hedge their own positions, often by snapping up competing stocks rather than betting against themselves directly. The result is a dangerous “feedback loop” of volatility that could amplify any big correction.
Worse, early-stage companies with strong futuristic missions are more likely to have their shares locked up with owners or long-term bulls, creating a “stampede” for others to get in.
The final impact of this stampede is yet to be seen. So far, no large Western electric vehicle manufacturer has been revealed to be an investment scam.
But sceptics warn that as hype continues to grow in the land of electric cars it’s only getting more likely that unscrupulous fraudsters may seek to mislead the public. And the people who may stand to lose the most are the armchair investors caught up in the hype machine of electric vehicles.
‘Nikola never stated its truck was driving under its own propulsion in the video’
‘Tesla is an emotional stock. You have hardcore believers and profound haters’