Elon Musk has achieved remarkable and unexpected things with Tesla TSLA in the 16 years since his electric-car maker debuted its first prototype. Add to that list the likelihood the billionaire entrepreneur is closing in on the last requirements to win a stock jackpot worth $600 million or more–in the middle of what’s shaping up to be the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
Six weeks ago, with U.S. stock indices and Tesla shares plunging as the scope of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the odds Musk would achieve the first tranche of his 12-part $55 billion compensation package looked slim. Yet Forbes now estimates the stock’s 100% rebound from a recent low-point on March 18 has Tesla on track to hit both six-month and 30-day market cap averages of $100 billion in early May. Once that happens, the company’s board would award Musk 1.69 million Tesla shares that, factoring in an exercise price of $350.02 share, would have a net value of at least $600 million. Tesla’s rebound far outpaced the 18% increase in the S&P 500 and GM’s 30% rise since March 18.
Musk’s compensation package runs through 2028 and was unveiled more than two years ago, well before the current health crisis. A review of it by The New York Times NYT in January 2018 called it the “boldest pay plan in corporate history.” Never one to think small, Musk told the paper: “I actually see the potential for Tesla to become a trillion-dollar company within a 10-year period.”
Certainly, the timing of the award is awkward. Tesla’s South African-born CEO and cofounder, with a net worth Forbes estimates at $40 billion as of April 27, would be getting the biggest payday of his life at a time of widespread economic turmoil and job loss across the U.S. and major developed economies. More than 26 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past six weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, which in turn appears likely to trigger a recession and a continued, unprecedented level of Federal spending. Tesla itself implemented across-the-board pay cuts for all employees and furloughed thousands of U.S. factory workers.
“This is like Marie Antoinette telling the peasants to eat cake if there is no bread. Still, Musk has never been troubled about appearances and may feel that he earned it,” says Columbia Law School Professor John Coffee.
The electric-car maker’s shares rose 10% to $798.75 in Nasdaq NDAQ trading Monday, boosting its market cap to $147 billion. The daily increase boosted Musk’s wealth by $2.6 billion, the biggest gain among billionaires tracked by Forbes.
Tesla’s average market capitalization is $95.5 billion, from Oct. 25, 2019, through April 24, based on data from S&P Global Capital IQ. The Palo Alto, California-based company’s 30-day average market cap is $104 billion. If the share price stays at its trailing 10-day average of $718.57 for eight more sessions, the six-month average market cap would be achieved by the trading close on May 6.
A Delaware judge ruled in September that Tesla’s board must defend Musk’s compensation package in a suit brought by a shareholder. Vice Chancellor Joseph Slights of the Delaware Court of Chancery rebuffed Tesla’s request to dismiss the lawsuit by shareholder Richard Tornetta, which says it unjustly enriched Musk.
Tesla reports first-quarter earnings on April 29, after the close of regular market trading. If it tops consensus expectations, which Barclays equity analyst Brian Johnson sees as a possibility, that could propel the stock even higher.
“While consensus has drifted down to a 32c loss for 1Q, no doubt due to lower than ingoing deliveries and the likely ramp costs in China, we would not rule out a non-GAAP profit for 1Q20, which (on top of the recent stock price rise) would add further fuel to the bull narrative that Tesla is set to dominate global automaking,” Johnson said in a recent report. He also noted that Musk would likely achieve the performance target in early May, increasing the odds of a new fundraising round by Tesla in the weeks ahead. Johnson estimates Tesla will report adjusted earnings per share of 61 cents for the quarter that ended on March 31.
Currently, Tesla’s main U.S. auto plant in Fremont, California, is idle owing to the coronavirus shutdown, though its new Gigafactory in Shanghai that opened in January is ramping up production of Model 3 sedans. The company, which briefly defied a local ordinance in Fremont to stop making cars last month, may call some workers back as early as April 29, Bloomberg reported. Tesla has told employees it wants to restart production at Fremont by May 4.
Much larger payouts to Musk will come in the form of 11 additional awards of 1.69 million Tesla shares, assuming he meets ever-larger targets for market cap, revenue and adjusted profit through 2028. If he falls short in a particular period, he gets nothing. To receive the maximum payout of 20.3 million shares, Tesla’s market cap must hit $650 billion, more than five times the current level. Annual revenue from Tesla’s electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels has to be $175 billion, with adjusted earnings of $14 billion.
Tesla said in its annual report on Feb. 13 that Musk fulfilled “two operational milestones,” with annual revenue of $24.6 billion in 2019 and annual adjusted pre-tax earnings of at least $1.5 billion. At that time, “no market capitalization milestones have been achieved,” the company said.
It’s not a problem that the market cap goals are likely to occur months after a fiscal year, Tesla said in a 2018 SEC filing. “A Market Capitalization Milestone and an Operational Milestone that are matched together can be achieved at different points in time and vesting will occur at the later of the achievement certification dates for such Market Capitalization Milestone and Operational Milestone.”