Is CEO Elon Musk testing the limits of his hype-based powers?
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has had an interesting year so far.
In January he overtook Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for the first time in the horse race for hoarding wealth. Then he got himself mixed up in the r/wallstreetbet Gamestop insanity, boosting the movement with his "Gamestonk!!" tweet, and has remained a part of the similarly strange speculation around the meme "currency" known as Dogecoin.
Bought some Dogecoin for lil X, so he can be a toddler hodler— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1612969691.0
Then in early February Musk announced that he was taking a (short-lived) break from Twitter following a major recall of Tesla vehicles and the explosive landing of SpaceX's SN9 rocket — the second test to end in flames in a matter of weeks. But now there are once again some positive headlines for Musk to bask in, as Tesla has turned some impressive profits in February — not from its car sales, but from a major investment in bitcoin.
Just two weeks after Tesla filed paperwork on its January purchase of $1.5 billion in bitcoin — as well as their decision to accept the cryptocurrency as payment — the price of bitcoin has risen by more than 50%, reaching an all-time high of more than $58,000 on Sunday. It has since waned from that peak, but the highly volatile digital currency is still valued well above the price at which the car company bought in.
Depending on when in January the car maker made their purchase, they might have nearly doubled their money. One analyst noted that, if Tesla had sold their bitcoin at the peak price, they would have realized around a billion dollars in profit — more than they netted in the entirety of 2021 from the sale of elctric vehicles and solar energy equipment. With that said, why would a company that ostensibly exists to make cars be investing in cryptocurrency in the first place?
Responsible Investment or Shady Business?
According to their filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, they made the purchase in pursuit of "more flexibility to further diversify and maximize returns on our cash." But is that really what investors gave them that cash for?
If Tesla shareholders wanted to invest in bitcoin, they might have done so directly. And if they wanted someone to be using their money to make prudent investments, they could have given it to an investment firm. Surely they invested in Tesla because they believed in the company itself and in the future of the solar energy and electric vehicle industries.
So why mess with something like bitcoin, which is so far outside their supposed field? One answer is in the increasing financialization of the economy at large.
Noam Chomsky - Financialization of the Economywww.youtube.com
The value of publicly traded companies is increasingly divorced from any product they make or any service they provide to customers. Instead, their stock becomes their true product, and they boost the value of that product by buying it back from investors, leveraging their assets to receive loans, and pumping as much money as they can into profitable investments.
While those profitable investments can include expenditures for new equipment, factories, and employees, there is a limit. There are only so many people looking to buy electric vehicles and solar roofs. If the value of Tesla stock has risen so much that investing that money in manufacturing would outpace the market, then they owe it to their investors to find somewhere else to turn a profit.
This opens the question of whether they should still be considered a car company, or if they're now just an investment firm with heavy ties to the solar sector. But apart from that, there's still the question of why they chose bitcoin above other investments —especially when Musk has staked his claim on a more environmentally friendly future, and bitcoin mining wastes as much energy a large country.
Considering the currency's general upward trend — despite dramatic shifts — part of the reasoning might have to do with providing some cushion now that they're accepting bitcoin as payment. If a bitcoin millionaire buys a fleet of Teslas when the currency is at a peak, Tesla could end up losing a lot of that value by the time the cars are delivered. But if that's folded into a larger bitcoin investment that can (probably...maybe) be expected to continue increasing in value in the long term, it's not a big deal.
That would make a certain amount of sense. But if we were being less charitable, we could look at Elon Musk's personal history of using his social media to influence investment and the price of cryptocurrency, in particular.
In 2018 Musk was sued by the SEC, who alleged fraud over a series of false tweets in which Musk said he had secured funding to take Tesla private at a price of $420 per share. At the time, Tesla was valued at closer to $350 per share, and Musk later acknowledged that he chose the figure of $420 as a "funny" reference to cannabis.
Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1533660493.0
That dumb joke led to a 14% jump in Tesla stock, amounting to hundreds of millions in value for Musk. But even that doesn't compare to what Elon Musk has been able to do with the value of cryptocurrency and meme stocks.
Over and over his tweets have sent their values soaring. And Tesla and SpaceX, there is no concrete output of cryptocurrency. There are no cars that can be recalled and no rockets that can blow up.
While Tesla and other companies can put some distance between their profits and their actual productive output — relying more on investments, stock value, and hype — there are still real-world products at the core of the operation. When sales are down or one part among thousands is revealed as faulty, the company can take a major hit. That's not an issue with bitcoin.
While some cryptocurrencies have a value tied to a recognized asset, bitcoins only value lies in its perceived worth. And, unlike the dollar and other fiat currencies, it's not even tied toward a government's ability to collect taxes.
@PeterSchiff An email saying you have gold is not the same as having gold. You might as well have crypto. Money is… https://t.co/Ci7r8Q38Qc— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1613801271.0
When more people want to buy it, the price goes up, when fewer are willing, the price drops, and there are no quarterly earnings or product reviews attached to it. Short of an undiscovered fault in the blockchain technology at bitcoin's core, the price is purely subject to hype. And that is an area where Elon Musk thrives.
With more than 47 million followers on Twitter — in the top 25 of individual users on the platform — musks often inane, memeified thoughts are guaranteed a wide audience. And when he sends some of that attention toward a meme stock like Gamestock, or toward a cryptocurrency like dogecoin, he can be sure that the value will see a spike.
Lately, however, he has been casting doubt on dogecoin and shifting his attention toward bitcoin. Perhaps he wants to see how far he can push the power of his hype.
Rather than using that power to manipulate Tesla's stock — which got him in trouble before — he could be using his considerable corporate control (with minimal personal liability) to shift his company's value into an area where he has more freedom to comment, speculate, and drive interest under the cover of "humor." That would certainly explain some of his bizarre, s***posting of late.
Heard a rumor some crypto coin was pegging the dollar 🤣🤣— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1613854376.0
If so, the experiment has already paid off. Along with recent developments like the addition of bitcoin to Apple Pay, Tesla's bitcoin announcements on February 8th — along with a lot of dumb tweets — have contributed to the currency's steep rise.
Of course the alternative is that the richest man in the world is genuinely about as smart as the average redditor...which is as upsetting as it is plausible. Tough call.
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