Elon Musk is known for some pretty extraordinary stunts. He's picked fights on Twitter and even sparked an investigation by the SEC. He also egged on traders who piled into GameStop stock last month as it soared from $59 to more than $396 in just a week.
Of all the audacious things Elon Musk has done, however, this may top the list. That's saying a lot.
On Monday, in a filing with the SEC, Tesla disclosed that it had purchased $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin. The revelation that Tesla has put almost 8 percent of its cash (based on its most recent balance sheet) into bitcoin sent its price soaring, approaching $50,000 each. That came after Musk had been pushing cryptocurrencies on Twitter, which have driven the price up as much as 20 percent, even before the disclosure.
Look, Tesla makes very nice cars. Almost everyone I know who has ever owned one is very happy with their purchase. I don't have anything bad to say about the cars--or, for that matter, the company's mission. The thing is, this doesn't have anything to do with either. That's the problem.
Expensive and Volatile
To be fair, Tesla isn't the only company to buy bitcoin, but Tesla isn't Square, and it isn't Twitter. Arguably, it makes sense for Square, a financial services company, to own and accept bitcoin. I'm not so sure it makes any sense for Tesla, a company that requires capital to make investments in things like R&D and manufacturing.
Also, bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, meaning that it is arguably designed to be a form of payment. Why would anyone use bitcoin to buy anything right now? If I paid you in bitcoin for just about anything in the past few years, it would turn out to be the most expensive purchase I've ever made, at least in terms of the opportunity cost.
A Major Distraction
Tesla has a lot going on. It just introduced a controversial redesign of its flagship Model S. Does the company not have anything else to do with all of the cash it has been raising over the past few years? Surely, there are a few problems that it might have been able to solve with that $1.5 billion--like perhaps devoting a little of it to reconsidering the objectively bad steering wheel it showed off with that redesign.
Competition From Apple
One of the things that happen when companies get distracted is that they lose focus on the things that matter. When that happens, they open themselves up to vulnerability from competitors. In Tesla's case, that isn't just the traditional automakers.
Apple's efforts to build an electric vehicle have become increasingly public over the past few months. Even if it ends up being a few years before we see an actual product, it would be foolish to dismiss the iPhone maker as a competitor.
I agree with Scott Galloway, who said on Pivot, the podcast he co-hosts with Kara Swisher, that if Apple makes an electric car, the company with the most to lose is, without question, Tesla.
"The moment they get real about a car, I believe Tesla loses about a quarter of a trillion dollars to Apple," said Galloway. "Because Apple will be seen as credible. Nobody is worried about Tesla when General Motors announces a new Leaf."
Basically, it's a huge distraction. Is your mission to make electric vehicles and build sustainable energy technology that is accessible by anyone? Or are you a cryptocurrency holding company?
Bitcoin Isn't Sustainable
That's actually a reasonable question, and I'm not even talking about the economics of it. Two years ago, a report showed that bitcoin consumes roughly the same amount of power to mine as Switzerland uses to be, well, a country. Today, it consumes more than twice that amount, about 122 TWh, which is more than all but 29 countries.
That seems like an odd contradiction for a company whose website literally says that its mission is "to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy." Maybe this is all just another big, flashy stunt. That may be Musk's specialty, but big, flashy stunts aren't sustainable. That's bad news for a company built on being exactly that.