The MartianMay 7, 2021
I often write about platforms (iOS, Amazon Marketplace, etc.) as they are a source of value creation and power. The platform of unprecedented wealth creation is the free market of capitalism. The global adoption of markets has corresponded with the greatest expansion of prosperity in human history. But similar to tech platforms, free markets are neither naturally occurring nor immune to collapse. The “free” market can fail.
Live from New York
This Saturday at 11:29 pm ET, we’ll witness the latest manifestation of market failure. A new king will seize the Iron Throne from Mark Zuckerberg, whose empire has been disarticulated. (He just doesn’t know it yet.) I wonder if Professor Tim Wu or Senator Amy Klobuchar visits the Night King in his dreams? Or maybe depressed teens, the GRU, or the ghosts of people dragged out of their cars in India and hanged because of falsehoods spread on WhatsApp. OK … that escalated quickly.
Anyway, the social network’s CEO has ceded the Iron Throne to the Launcher of Dragons, Borer of Tunnels, and Father of X Æ A-XII. The coronation will take place before a live studio audience, with Tesla long bots and adoring CNBC personalities shaming anybody who doesn’t surrender to the narrative. Elon Musk is now the most influential individual in the world — so influential, he can distort the modern world’s premier platform, our free market system.
Is Mr. Musk a net positive for society? 100% yes. It’s the word “net” that is the problem. We do basic math on a person/firm, issue a thumbs up/down, and decide (if thumbs up) to ignore the externalities. This is tantamount to deciding pesticides are a net good (they are), so we should disband the EPA.
Naked examples of Musk’s influence/externality: the tweeted endorsements of his favored assets. Bitcoin is a trillion-dollar cryptocurrency that could reshape the world economic order … and Musk can manipulate it with (many) fewer than 280 characters.
Researcher Lennart Ante found “significantly abnormal returns of up to 18.99%” after Musk tweeted about bitcoin. “I believe that cryptocurrency traders are looking for role models and validation,” Ante told us when we asked him about his research. But, “we are facing a moral dilemma” he pointed out, between free speech and the protection of investors. When Musk changed the bio of his Twitter account to “#bitcoin” on January 29, the cryptocurrency rose from $32,000 to more than $38,000. Is it free speech? Yes. Does that mean it won’t destabilize the markets and end badly?
I. Don’t. Know.
Mr. Musk can even move markets accidentally. When he tweeted “Use Signal,” referring to the encrypted messaging app, shares in Signal Advance, a Texas medical device maker, increased 5,100% in three trading days.
The musk of Musk’s influence gets stronger this week. He’s established an informal alliance with Dogecoin, a functioning cryptocurrency that’s also an extended practical joke. In the week leading up to Musk’s SNL appearance, and following his tweet claiming to be The Dogefather, Dogecoin briefly reached $85 billion in market cap, more than Moderna or Airbus. By midweek it had registered an astounding $45 billion in transaction volume in 24 hours. Click here for a detailed, scientific video rendering of what this level of trading actually looks like.
Reality Distortion Field
The theory of relativity dictates that massive objects distort the space-time continuum, and light and matter slide toward it. Musk has become a similar celestial force in our markets — but in this case, the graviton particles are genius, attention, id, and capital.
In a healthy market, resources flow where they’ll generate the best return: Workers move to cities with strong job markets, capital flows to companies with robust growth prospects. But in Musk’s case, the power of celebrity in a social media age, a rising class of retail investors with stimulus funds, and our idolatry of innovators have combined to create a vacuum that may cauterize other naturally forming celestial objects. I’m especially proud of the last sentence.
Show Me the Money
None of this is by accident. Despite being one of the wealthiest people in history (on paper), Musk constantly needs more cash. He recently acknowledged that SpaceX will need “to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow” just to launch its satellite internet service. The company has already raised more than $1 billion this year, and $7.5 billion over the course of its history, while continuing to burn billions in revenue. Musk’s other projects, including Neuralink and The Boring Company, have raised another half-billion dollars with little revenue so far.
Tesla posts an accounting profit, but in its most recent quarter, it was emissions credits (a regulatory program that rewards auto companies for making electric rather than gas vehicles) and — wait for it — $101 million in bitcoin trading profits that morphed earnings from a miss to a beat. What Tesla did not do last quarter was produce a single one of its two premium cars, the Model S or the Model X. Promised redesigns have apparently snarled production. On this topic, Musk has been uncharacteristically CEO-like (that is, discreet).
Cash burn isn’t the only challenge facing Musk’s companies. Tesla, his flagship business, now has a market cap that dwarfs that of any auto or airline companies. Tesla achieved that value, in part, because for a decade it operated without a serious competitor. There’s never been a car like the Tesla Model S, and if you want a high-performance, luxury EV, your choice is easy … and singular. Value creation via disruption is as much a function of the incumbents as the disruptor. Imagine a world in which the only phones were flip phones and the iPhone 12. That’s the auto industry since the Model S arrived in 2012.
Or that was the auto industry. Because the Germans are coming. And the Swedes. And the Japanese. On May 2, we got a glimpse into a post-Tesla future when the New York Times ran an article titled: “Mercedes EQS Electric Sedan: The S Stands for Stunning.” The innovation gap is closing. And it’s not just car companies coming for Tesla’s fat margins. The industry’s shape-shift from a $100 billion low-margin manufacturing business to an $800 billion high(er)-margin software business has attracted some enormous sharks. The first overnight $100 billion-plus transfer of shareholder value will occur in 2022, when Tim Cook stands onstage in front of an automobile bearing an Apple logo.
What is the shark repellant for these circling great whites? Musk must keep capital and talent flowing into these enterprises while distracting us from anything regarding fundamental analysis (P/E ratios) or sobriety (it’s a car company). The embrace of crypto serves both needs: It’s consistent with his techno-utopian vibe, and it directs the conversation away from the Mercedes EQS or Apple car while providing a shock absorber for earnings misses. The SNL appearance, Dogecoin tweets, Elvish-letter-named kids, tickling of our senses with 420 references and suggestive emojis: It’s David Copperfield, plus 60 IQ points. To be fair, landing two rockets on barges concurrently is genius and inspires awe. But does it warrant consensual hallucination?
Pumping bitcoin might buttress Tesla’s earnings, but it blows open a bigger hole in Tesla’s narrative. The narrative police demand we link Tesla’s valuation to solving the climate crisis, to reducing carbon emissions by replacing gasoline cars with electric ones. And it does that. According to the EPA, the average 22 mpg gasoline car spews out 4.6 tons of carbon every year. Powered by the U.S. grid, an EV is the equivalent of a 68 mpg car, generating about 1.6 tons of carbon per year. (In other words, each Tesla on the road saves three tons of carbon every year.)
But bitcoin mining generates a lot of carbon, too: Current estimates put it at around 53 million tons of carbon production per year. (Yes, miners use a lot of renewable sources and may catalyze greater renewables investment — but does that compensate for incremental electricity demand rivaling that of Argentina??) Here’s some back-of-the-envelope math that’s definitely going to raise the army of the undead (i.e., TSLA longs and bitcoin bots):
In the short term, bitcoin’s carbon emissions are a function of its price — the higher the price, the more miners are willing to spend on electricity to mine. Assuming a linear relationship (a convenient if aggressive assumption), for every $1 that Musk’s pump has increased the price of bitcoin for one year, miners expel another 1,000 tons of carbon. That wipes out the annual carbon savings of 300-plus Teslas. If Musk’s bitcoin evangelism increases the price by $4,500, that effectively eliminates the ongoing carbon savings of every Tesla on the road today.
The deeper problem? Our elevation of Musk as a capitalist idol has distorted the flow of capital and talent. Healthy markets don’t take cues from the tweets of one man.
Man in the Mirror
As SNL’s Lorne Michaels likes to say, “Here’s the thing.” Musk is going to keep tweeting, appearing on SNL, and ensuring he has a bigger rocket than other masters of the universe … because it works. While we’re watching the fireworks, he’s building cars and rocket ships. Is he the best person to build those things? Is the most efficient amount of capital flowing to his factories, versus those in Ingolstadt or Toyota or Detroit? A healthy market is supposed to answer that. It’s the allocation platform. It’s also hard to deny that Elon has inspired an extraordinary flow of capital into EVs and innovation in transportation.
But our idolatry of innovators and the algorithmic media ecosystem have distorted the allocation platform. In the spectacle economy, it’s about the show, the now, the short-term hit. We’re the richest country in the history of humanity, and we can’t garner the political will to fix our bridges, let alone reach for the stars.
This all raises the question: What do we expect? You only have to drive a Tesla around the block to know that Musk is not a grifter. He is a genius (see above: rocket ships landing on a pad floating in the ocean). Maybe a world-saving, visionary genius should deploy any weapon at his disposal to garner the resources, fend off the challengers, and most importantly, buy the time to achieve his vision. Maybe.
We say we want straight shooters. We say we want wealth to be fairly distributed. But 53 million of us follow Musk’s Twitter feed, and tens of millions of us are going to watch him on Saturday night, and the Elon show will go on.
If there is a glitch in the matrix, it’s us. One in five U.S. households with children is food insecure, and we have a man telling his 53 million acolytes to purchase a digital currency so he can sell it at a profit to pad the earnings of a company that’s worth more than automakers producing 60 times the vehicles. And why wouldn’t he? When you tell an innovator he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you. Once we idolized astronauts and civil rights leaders who inspired hope and empathy. Now we worship tech innovators that create billions and move financial markets. We get the heroes we deserve.
Live from New York, it’s …
Life is so rich,
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