In Tesla's May 3 earnings call, CEO Elon Musk responded to a question on Tesla's capital expenditures from a Bernstein analyst with the following:

"Excuse me. Next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool. Next?"

It wasn't quite the vulgar term former Enron CEO (and longtime federal inmate) Jeffrey Skilling used to describe Richard Grubman, a fund manager for Highfields Capital Management, on an earnings call in 2001, but still, attacking the analyst is a well-worn tactic of CEOs who don't like being asked about questionable business practices, or, in the case of Musk and Tesla, repeated missed production goals.  

It wasn't just Musk's response to this single question that caught the eye of the market. In avoiding answering important questions, Musk failed to assure investors that Tesla would (finally) meet production goals related to the Model 3. The result was an almost 5% drop in the company's share price during after-hours trading--even though the electric-car maker reported better-than-expected quarterly earnings.

There is good reason for investors and those who care about the important mission of creating affordable electric cars to be very skeptical of Musk, despite his tremendous popularity. If nothing else, running multiple companies at once is a really hard thing to do--especially when one of those businesses is a car manufacturer and another is a space program.

To the best of my recollection, NASA and General Motors have never shared a CEO.

Of course, Elon Musk has much more on his plate than just running space programs and car companies.

He is also building a cyborg dragon.

(Or at least tweeting about building a cyborg dragon.)

(Seriously.)

The cyborg dragons, cars in space, and internet on the moon may just be very effective public relations strategies in the face of a growing number of Tesla-watchers who are beginning to doubt the company line, if not outright shorting the stock.

But using insults to shut down analysts is far more serious than just distracting tweets. It's the corporate equivalent of shouting "Fake News!" at an investigative reporter who has just hit a nerve. When Jeffrey Skilling used an anatomically related slur to describe Richard Grubman, it encouraged journalists to look past the glowing PR of Enron and start asking real questions. It wasn't long before those questions led to the exposure of what would become the most notorious case of corporate fraud ever.

To date, there is no evidence that shows Tesla is Enron, or Elon Musk is Jeffrey Skilling.

However, that doesn't mean investors, regulators, and the media shouldn't take a closer look or ask important questions, especially when Elon Musk himself understands the importance of "Boring." It is, after all, the name of yet another one of his companies. Sometimes the boring stuff is the important stuff--like the question a Bernstein analyst asked about Tesla's capital expenditures before he was insulted and rudely dismissed by Elon Musk.  

In this case, the answer to the analyst's "boring" question may not have even been all that important.

What is important is that in coupling an insult with a refusal to answer the question, Elon Musk gave us a faint echo of Enron.

And any echo of Enron, no matter how faint, is worth paying attention to.

Published on: May 3, 2018
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