Tesla is Facing a Criminal Investigation. What Does it Mean?

About a month and a half ago, Musk tweeted much to the surprise of investors, and chagrin of short-sellers:  

Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2018

At the time, there was much speculation about what that could mean, for the company and its stock.

The stock ended trading up 11% that afternoon, rocketing from the low 340s to the 380s in a matter of hours.

But there was also speculation about what it could mean for the company, legally.

Following the tweet, from investors to regulators to Tesla fans, everyone was inquiring into the veracity of the claim that Musk and the company had the “funding secured” for a buyback of that size - a buyback that would have cost tens of billions. On CNBC, former SEC chair Harvey Pitt was quoted saying, “if you make a false statement in connection with the trading of securities, you run the risk of both having to pay for the damages you caused and also you run the risk of criminal prosecution.”

Days later, the New York Times reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had served Tesla with a subpoena. According to reporting from Bloomberg, this subpoena marked the beginning of a second ongoing civil investigation into the company. (The longer standing probe focuses on whether or not Tesla issued “misleading pronouncements on manufacturing goals and sales targets.”)

The Criminal Probe

Now Tesla is under additional, and perhaps more intense scrutiny, this time coming not from the SEC, but the Department of Justice, according to a report from Bloomberg published on September 18th.

In a statement to Bloomberg addressing the matter, a Tesla spokesperson said, “last month, following Elon’s announcement that he was taking the company private, Tesla received a voluntary request for documents from the DOJ and has been cooperative in responding to it. We have not received a subpoena, a request for testimony, or any other formal process. We respect the DOJ’s desire to get information about this and believe that the matter should be quickly resolved as they review the information they have received.”

So, there you have it. Tesla drew attention from the DOJ, understandably. The DOJ requested documents, they have them now, and soon we’ll all be able to put this behind us, says Tesla.

What It Means

However, it isn’t really clear what the nature of the investigation is. Sure, Musk’s going-private tweet certainly caught the DOJ’s attention, but the breadth and depth of the probe is pretty much unknown. We don’t even know what documents Tesla was invited to offer. It could be an inquiry into that one tweet, or it could be an inquiry into statements regarding the company’s health, or the resignation of Tesla’s CFO Dave Morton, some at Bloomberg have guessed.

It's also worth mentioning that this isn't the first time Tesla CEO Musk's tweets have put the company in a compromised position. Between the immense pressure of his job, described in a NYT interview, the potential of his other ventures, and his well-publicized preference to run his companies insulated from public scrutiny. (See also: What If Tesla Goes Private?)

But this is only one of three ongoing investigations into the company, from either the SEC or the DOJ. Tesla has recently transitioned from “production hell" to "delivery logistics hell,” according to a tweet from Musk (dude, stop tweeting). Earlier today, news broke that the Saudi Arabia's foreign wealth fund had invested up to $1billion in a Tesla competitor, Lucid. This news came after the fund bought a 3-5% stake in Tesla earlier this year. And Lucid isn't Tesla's only competitor in the electric vehicle market. Today, Audi released their electric SUV, and, though analysts have said the competition doesn't match up, it never encourages investors to be reminded of competition, or a market crowding.

For all these reasons, it's no surprise that the Tesla stock tumbled today, dropping dramatically before recovering some of the losses by the end of day.  

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