Riding a sales surge amid a global pandemic, Tesla Inc. on Wednesday reported that it posted its first annual net profit in 2020. In a year that saw its stock soar to make it the world's most valuable automaker, Tesla earned $721 million, capped by a $270 million profit in the fourth quarter. It was the company's sixth straight quarterly net profit after years of mostly losses.
A year earlier, Tesla lost $862 million. Data provider FactSet says 2020 ended a string of annual red ink that began in 2006.
Once again the company needed regulatory credits purchased by other automakers in order to make a profit. Without $1.58 billion in credits for the year, Tesla would have lost money. Other automakers buy the credits when they can't meet emissions and fuel economy standards.
Tesla said that excluding special items, it made $2.24 per share for the year, falling short of Wall Street expectations of $2.45. Full-year revenue was $31.54 billion, beating estimates of $31.1 billion. From October through December, the company made an adjusted 80 cents per share, below Wall Street estimates of $1.02. Fourth-quarter revenue was $10.74 billion, surpassing estimates of $10.47 billion.
The per-share earnings misses sent shares of the Palo Alto, California-based company down 5.5 percent in extended trading after the earnings announcement. Still, the stock is trading at about about 10 times its value at the start of 2020, closing Wednesday at $864.16.
Tesla said in its investor letter that over a "multi-year horizon," it expects 50 percent growth in annual vehicle deliveries. Some years, like 2021, may see faster growth, it said. Tesla also said its operating profit margin will keep growing as factory capacity expands.
Nearly 1,000 owners are testing the company's "full self-driving" systems on public roads, Musk said on a conference call with analysts. He said he drives the system itself and it's common for him not to intervene. He expects the system to drive more reliably than humans this year.
Despite the name, Tesla has warned that "full self-driving" is still a driver assist system and cannot drive itself. Critics say the system doesn't have the proper sensors to drive autonomously. Musk had predicted a fleet of self-driving Tesla robotaxis by the end of last year. He says he's confident the company can reach fully autonomous driving under all conditions this year.
Tesla also said it is updating its older vehicles, the Model S sedan and X SUV with new motors, batteries and interiors. A "plaid" high-performance version of the Model S will be able to go from zero to 60 mph (97 kilometers per hour) in under 2 seconds, making it the world's fastest car, Musk said.
Tesla's vehicle sales rose 36 percent last year, but the company fell just short of its annual goal to deliver 500,000 vehicles. The company delivered 499,500 vehicles for the year.
The sales jump came even though Tesla was forced to close its only U.S. assembly plant for almost two months as the novel coronavirus surged in the spring. The factory in Fremont, California, reopened in May with Musk defying orders from local health authorities.
Musk had promised 500,000 deliveries before the pandemic hit, but aided by sales from a new factory in China, the company almost hit the number. The meteoric stock price rise generated big payoffs for Musk, making him one of the world's richest people.
Critics say Tesla's sales and profits are puny compared with established automakers such as Toyota and General Motors, and its huge valuation is not justified by financial fundamentals.
Tesla faces challenges this year from traditional automakers, which are rolling out more electric vehicles. Edmunds.com Executive Director of Insights Jessica Caldwell says the number of electric vehicles on sale in the U.S. will rise from 17 to 29 this year. Many will be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, giving them an advantage over Tesla, which has used up its allocation.
"Although there has yet to be a true 'Tesla killer' in the EV arena, a bigger pool of contenders eligible for federal tax credits could have the power to sway some Tesla shoppers," Caldwell wrote in an email.
In response to a question, Musk said he expects to be Tesla's CEO for "several years," without giving specifics. He said no one should be CEO forever and he would like more free time instead of working day and night. But he said there are many projects that he would like to see through.