Tesla asks suppliers for refunds to help profit

UPDATED: 7/23/18 11:42 am ET - adds supplier confirmation

Tesla Inc. asked some suppliers to return a portion of its payments to them in an attempt by the electric-car maker to turn a profit, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a memo sent to a supplier last week.

It's not clear how many suppliers were asked to hand back money, with some saying they weren't aware of the request, the newspaper said. Panasonic Corp., Magna International Inc., Continental AG and Robert Bosch GmbH are among Tesla's suppliers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Tesla, whose eroding cash position has alarmed investors, requested a "meaningful" amount of payments made since 2016 to be returned, according to the letter. The note stated all suppliers had been asked to help the Californian company become profitable.

An executive with a major supplier requesting anonymity on Monday confirmed for Automotive News Tesla’s request for concessions. The supplier rejected the request.

“We have been ready for 5,000 cars a week for 12 months and lost a lot of money,” the supplier told Automotive News.

The company’s shares dropped as much as 5.9 per cent on Monday following the report. As of late morning, Tesla shares were still down four per cent to US$301.19. 

The request indicates more struggles for Tesla in its quest to reverse losses. While CEO Elon Musk proclaimed a "real" carmaker after hitting a weekly goal of producing more than 5,000 mass-market Model 3s, there are doubts the volumes can be sustained. Some of the increased output, pivotal for boosting revenue and earnings, came from a makeshift tent.

Tesla declined to comment on the specific memo, but confirmed it's seeking price reductions from suppliers for projects, some of which go back to 2016, according to the report. The company called such requests a standard part of procurement negotiations to improve its competitive advantage, especially as it increases Model 3 production, the Journal said.

It's not clear how many suppliers were asked to hand back money, with some saying they weren't aware of the request, the newspaper said. Panasonic Corp., Magna International Inc., Continental AG and Robert Bosch GmbH are among Tesla's suppliers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

It's not so unusual for carmakers to ask suppliers for discounts retroactively, and some Japanese automakers have done it before, said Tatsuo Yoshida, an analyst at Sawakami Asset Management Inc. in Tokyo, who worked at Nissan Motor Co. between 1983 and 1999.

Tesla probably has some leverage to gain suppliers' support, given that the type of parts it uses is probably a bit different from other automakers and it may even be the only customer in some cases, said Koji Endo, an auto analyst at SBI Securities Co. in Tokyo. "If Tesla goes bankrupt, those suppliers lose everything."

Tesla's Australia and Asia media office, as well as a spokesman and spokeswoman in the U.S., didn't reply to emails seeking comment on the Journal report.

"Only costs that actually apply to Q3 & beyond will be counted," Musk said in a tweet late Sunday. "It would not be correct to apply historical cost savings to current quarter."

Musk was responding to a post by Electrek that cited the Journal article and he didn't elaborate.

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