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Tesla is an uninvestable stock for me, not just because of its high valuation but also because it fails our fairly basic quality test, which I shamelessly borrowed from Warren Buffett: Would I still buy this stock if right after the purchase the stock market were to close for ten years? If you are a big Tesla car and stock fan, before you start throwing rocks at me, pause and wait till you finish this article – the rocks and I will still be there.
Think about the next ten years. But before you start mentally drawing upward-sloping lines from the current environment into the next decade and drooling over the rosy vision of Tesla’s future that Elon Musk has painted – produce half a million model 3s and bunches of semis and roadsters, and then send a roadster to Mars (I kid you not; that is in his 2018 plan – I’d like you to think about another version of the next ten years: higher (maybe much higher) interest rates, a recession in the U.S. and around the globe, and a less promiscuous bond market where Tesla would have pay a substantial premium to U.S. Treasuries (as would any other company that loses over a billion dollars a year in a highly cyclical industry). And now answer this question: Would Tesla survive this change in economic weather if it happened next year or even three years out? And the answer is … a weak “maybe” at best, and “unlikely” at worst.
The counterargument I’d get: Yes, but we are not going into a recession. Actually, we are. I (and nobody else, for that matter) just don’t know when. After nine years of appreciating stock markets and tepid economic growth, we tend to forget that recessions are a regular economic fact of life, usually arriving every four to five years (so we are overdue for one). Most Millennials have yet to experience adulthood (have a job and a family) through a recession. They have also never had to borrow at high interest rates – but that is liable to happen, too.
Recessions are usually caused by expansions. Recessions are like the hangover that comes after the wild college party (economic expansion). It’s hard to have a good, fun college party with lots of booze and then not experience a hangover. (I am not speaking from recent personal experience but rather am trying to communicate in language to which Millennials can relate). During the expansion party, companies may build up too much inventory or erect too many factories, and consumers may overconsume.
If you own high-quality companies, ones that meet Buffett’s “ten-year stock market closed rule” (as we do), you don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about when the recession will hit (we don’t). However, if you own Tesla you’d better have a very clear, shiny crystal ball that will reveal lots of detail about the direction of interest rates and the global economy.