The seemingly limitless capacity of men to be utterly consumed by the foolish worship of idols can cost billions of dollars. Often a huckster with a veneer of unshakable confidence comes along and the social cost of his fraud becomes a burden to civilization at large. So powerful is the allure of personality cults to investors that many of those that many of the same funds that have lost fortunes to them will instantly jump into bed with another.
In 2012 a Brazilian business magnate named Eike Batista had his net worth measured at 32 billion dollars. He was named the world’s 8th richest man. Investors poured billions into his companies. He was an actual golden child, having ascended to wealth and influence on a stroke of luck by being in the gold mining industry during a historic rise in the value of gold. He leveraged that position to break into many new industries that were perhaps more difficult than simply taking existing gold mines and seeing their margins rise.
Not content with being just a gold magnate, he decided he would raise large amounts of public money and get in the business of iron mining, solar energy, coal mining and power generation, offshore oil drilling, and international logistics and shipping. He had no unique special knowledge to lead him into these industries— just the charm to convince institutional investors and his home government to grant him gigantic infusions of cash.
One by one Batista’s businesses fell. Batista’s oil wells only pumped 1/50th of the barrels he predicted they would and OGX, the company that owned them, filed for bankruptcy. The power generation company he founded, MPX, lost 400 million dollars a year until it filed for bankruptcy in 2014. OSX, his offshore drilling equipment manufacturer, was contingent upon the success of OGX and also went bankrupt. MMX, his iron mining venture, fell completely flat after losing billions in investments. LLX, his attempt at a global shipping and logistics enterprise, found few customers.
All his stock tickers ended in X, “to symbolize the multiplication of wealth”. He is now potentially the single greatest destroyer of wealth that ever lived. The fallout of Batista’s collapse was massive. Its brush tainted not only the economy of Brazil but all emerging markets. For the next two or more decades one man’s incompetence is going to make it far more difficult for ventures in tens of countries to find investment. Many of the institutional investors which put their faith in Batista’s schemes were pension funds left holding double-digit stakes in enterprises whose liabilities were a multiple of their assets.
There were a bunch of warning signs. The biggest red flag is taking on a multitude of projects each of which would need a full-time commitment from any man, no matter how brilliant and resilient. It speaks of a personality in the throes of mania, jumping into the founding of one business after another with disregard for their ability to push them into the black. The second is a man’s transition from great success borne chiefly of luck, charm, and market conditions in simpler industries to far more complicated industries requiring long-term capital influx from both public and private sources.
There’s no businessman that exhibits these characteristics today more than Elon Musk. He made his initial success in an unrepeatable environment of the dotcom boom. Making web applications is ridiculously simple compared to any one of Elon’s new ambitions: automobiles, space travel, solar energy, and public transit. Any single one of these would be a massive undertaking, requiring the full focus of any CEO. To take them on all at once reeks of foolish pride and mania. There’s something innately childish about trying to be the king of cars, space, and trains all at once as well. It’s like he’s picking everything preteen boys might decorate their room with.
The financials and market realities make it obvious that Tesla is doomed to fail. Elon Musk has failed to capture the potential centers of profit in the new transit economy. Uber has captured the user experience of personal transit, and Google is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in overcoming the legal and technical hurdles of autonomous vehicles. These are the parties best suited to profiting in a burgeoning new economy of technology-enhanced transit. Tesla leveraged itself to the hilt on batteries in a prediction of rising gas costs forcing a switch to electric vehicles, but fracking and shale oil drove crude prices from $146 from their peak in June of 2008 to pretty consistently under $50 these days. Oil might drop even further.
Tesla’s level of leverage leaves anything other than a significant market share in the car market as a fatal outcome. It has no room for competitors, which is why I believe that Musk got so defensive in a German newspaper when confronted with rumors of Apple’s self-driving car project and began to so aggressively attack them: “Important engineers? They have hired people we’ve fired. We always jokingly call Apple the Tesla Graveyard. If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple. I’m not kidding.”
J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s CTO, said that employees can “get afraid” of Musk. A former Musk employee said to of him, “Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection. Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”
How many of these new Apple employees are arriving from Tesla with a strong desire to give as big of a fuck you to Musk as possible after being fired for failing to meet increasingly unreasonable product requirements and deadlines demanded by a foolhardy sociopath? Tesla’s entire future is bound in the hope that Google takes only the low end of next generation vehicles. If Apple creates a luxury electric car, that alone is likely to destroy any hope of success. His current level of leverage leaves no room for the smallest of setbacks, or him scaling up operations in a crowded market with significantly capitalized competitors.
Tesla’s engineers may be the best in the world, but they’re all dedicated to a task that doesn’t have an ounce of basic financial sense. It’s like the Herman Hesse classic ‘The Glass Bead Game‘, where the most brilliant scientists, linguists, and engineers of the age are all dedicated to an extremely complicated board game instead of confronting problems that are actually critical to the advancement of society. Hesse wrote it as a critique of the academic establishment, but it also perfectly applies to the many capital bonfires that warm Silicon Valley. Elon once wrecked a McLaren F1 and got out of the car laughing because it wasn’t insured. Take this as an omen for the future of his automobile business if you have any bit of wisdom in you.
Something that all of his companies rely upon is continued gub’mint cheese. Without the largesse of the state, his entire empire would have already collapsed. His enterprises have collected $4.9 billion in free handouts, and the government is the customer on a third of SpaceX’s launches and probably well over half its revenue. For someone that is the hero of so many Reddit libertarians he sure is awfully dependent upon handouts from the state. Not a single one of his ventures are possible without constant goodwill and cash from politicians.
His latest Hyperloop project reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Marge narrowly saves Springfield from being cheated out of all its money in a monorail-building scam. I can look at the balance sheets of Musk’s ventures now and know that most of his billions are like Batista’s. Today there is prideful, arrogant mockery of Apple, whose profit margins he can never attain. This kind of hubris will always be punished. Don’t find yourself getting punished with it. Many of Batista’s investors now count themselves as Musk’s. If you have any sense at all, dump your Tesla shares before it is too late.