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Can it Get Any Weider at Tesla?

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The storyline at Tesla (TSLA - Free Report) took an even stranger turn on Thursday as CEO Elon Musk appeared on a video podcast with comedian Joe Rogan for a lengthy one-on-one interview in which he appears to smoke marijuana and drink whiskey with the host. In an apparently unrelated event, it was released in an 8-K report to the SEC on Friday that Chief Accounting Officer Dave Morton had tendered his resignation earlier this week after less than a month on the job.

Additionally, Tesla’s Chief Human Relations Officer, Gaby Toledano, who had been on a personal leave of absence earlier since August, announced that she would not be returning.

Strange days, indeed.

Tesla shares sold off sharply in early trading, at one point losing $27/share – or over 9% - to a low of $254.02 before rebounding somewhat to $262/share at midday. Tesla has now fallen 30% from a high of $380/share just a month ago - after Musk’s infamous “funding secured” tweet about taking the company private.

It’s difficult to tell which of these developments investors are more focused on as they sell Tesla shares, but it’s clear that the combination of factors is being considered a crisis at the electric car maker.

Let’s take them one at a time.

(Spoiler alert: there are more questions than answers at this point, but we might as well be well informed about some of the possibilities.)

Executive Departures

This is certainly not the first headline about executive departures at Tesla recently. In 2017, CFO Jason Wheeler departed the firm and was replaced by returning CFO Deepak Ahuja. The company’s Chief of Engineering, Doug Field resigned in July, just as production of the Model 3 was being aggressively ramped up and Morton’s CFO predecessor, Eric Branderiz, left Tesla in March of 2018.

Tesla is a notoriously demanding place to work, with Musk himself working up to 120 hours a week lately and reportedly imploring employees from the C-suites all the way down to the factory floor to work longer and harder as the company pursues increased production of the Model 3 – and sustainable profitability.

In Friday’s SEC filing, Morton echoed the sentiments of many other departing executives, expressing continued confidence in the future of the company as well as its broader mission to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Since I joined Tesla on August 6th, the level of public attention placed on the company as well as the pace within the company, have exceeded my expectations.” Morton said, “As a result, this caused me to reconsider my future. I want to be clear that I believe strongly in Tesla, its mission, and its future prospects, and I have no disagreements with Tesla’s leadership or its financial reporting.”

This is an unprecedented frequency of executive departures at a company the size of Tesla, especially one that is facing such a critical juncture in its existence.

This is one of those unanswered questions that is unique to Tesla. Have these changes occurred because Tesla is charging so fast in pursuit of its ambitious goals that many otherwise talented executives simply can’t keep up, or is this a case of personnel with an inside view of operations at the company sensing danger and jumping ship?

It’s possible we won’t have clear answers to that question until Tesla reports quarterly results on November 7th.

The “Potcast”

On Thursday night, a podcast of the “Joe Rogan Experience” was posted featuring a wide ranging interview of Musk by Rogan that lasted more than two hours on subjects including the difficulty of running a car company, Musk’s other projects including SpaceX and the Boring Company, Artificial Intelligence, the feasibility of electric airplanes, flame-throwers, and Musk’s vision of his own place in human history. They even sipped whiskey as they chatted.

Then came the marijuana part.

At just over two hours into the interview, Rogan, a vocal supporter of the legalization and use of marijuana produced what he called a “blunt” – a mix of marijuana and tobacco in a small cigar wrapper. Rogan lit the blunt and smoked some of it himself before commenting to Musk, “You probably can’t… because of the stockholders, huh?” Musk expressed some confusion about what Rogan was actually even holding before asking if it was legal (the show was filmed in California where consumption of cannabis is in fact legal) and then appeared to smoke some of it himself.

Musk took one puff, handed it back and the discussion continued. Though his consumption appeared to be very limited, most viewers were shocked to see the CEO of a public company consuming narcotics in a public forum. It’s completely uncharted territory.

What Was He Thinking?

Here’s another one of those questions that we won’t know the answer to for a while, and it’s a big one: Did Musk act this way because he’s literally coming unglued and no longer conforms to social norms, especially as they apply to the visible head of a public company? Or is Musk now so confident in Tesla’s likelihood of success in the near-term with production of the Model 3 that he feels that he can do anything he wants without harming the long-term prospects of the company?

It’s definitely another chapter in the storied history of Musk doing something at least partly because he’s been told he can’t.

Last month, we posited the question, “Is Elon Musk Crazy, or Crazy Like a Fox?” and unfortunately we’re no closer to understanding the answer now than we were then. Judging by the market reaction to these attest developments, investors seem to be leaning toward the former.

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