In short, the cash being counted isn’t really cash from operations. “What they’re really saying is that they hope to get the full amount from the guarantees,” says Ciesielski. If the used car market suffers from a dearth of buyers or a glut of green vehicles, Tesla will be forced to cover the shortfall when the banks sell vehicles for less than the guarantee price, or shed the inventory it’s obliged to repurchase from the banks at a loss. In either case, it will be returning a lot of the cash that it wants investors to believe is a sure thing. “Cash flow” that’s subject to a large contingent liability, to major uncertainty, shouldn’t be classified as cash-in-hand generated from running the business.
Tesla has attracted a legion of true believers who love the vision and don’t fret much over the numbers. Non-zealots should follow the conservative reporting that the official rules require, and ignore the pro-forma stuff. That’s the best way to track Elon Musk’s progress in molding an epic vision into the greatest green profit-maker the world has ever seen.