FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
Elon Musk has just done the impossible. Despite setting unrealistic production targets and butting heads with Wall Street, Tesla topped $100 billion (76.3bn) for the first time this week to become the second most valuable car manufacturer in the world behind only Toyota.
Musks main venture put the woes of his SEC investigation and a high-profile court fight over calling a Thai cave rescuer a pedo aside and recovered from its biggest ever drop in vehicle sales to double its stock in six months and reach $569.56.
The last 12 months have been rocky. Tesla had set a target to deliver 360,000 to 400,000 vehicles in 2019 and after it missed its quota in the summer, it pledged to produce 105,000 vehicles in its final quarter to meet the low end of its full-year forecast.
Now, things appear to be turning around. This week, US president Donald Trump called Musk a genius and said that he had done a very good job during an interview at Davos.
"I was worried about [Musk] because he's one of our great geniuses and we have to protect our geniuses," Trump said. "And we have to protect Thomas Edison, we have to protect all of these people that came up with originally the lightbulb, and the wheel, and all of these things."
Trump isn't the only person concerned about the future of Elon Musk - but for a very different reason.
Aswath Damodaran, a professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University and an expert in market valuations, says that Tesla's rise in the last six months can largely be attributed to one single thing: Musk has been uncharacteristically quiet.
Damodaran compares Musk's behaviour to that of a teenager "[Tesla] has so much potential, but Elon Musk found ways to screw it up by throwing out distractions" and claims that he is the biggest danger to future growth.
"The biggest danger you face when momentum is driving price is that somebody does something, in this case that somebody's going to be Elon Musk, to screw up the momentum."
People generally either love or loathe Tesla, Damodaran explains. "Some people are convinced it's going to fall apart. Some people believe this is the second coming, that this is going to be the next trillion dollar company, that is going to wipe out the competition. The truth, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.
Unlike private companies, the value of any public company is meant to be easy to calculate; after all, its governed by share price. That share price is carefully monitored by market analysts, who evaluate the trajectory of stock prices in order to gauge a companys general health. They recommend a buy or sell based on earning histories, and price-to-earnings ratios, which signal whether a companys share price adequately reflects its earnings. All of this data aids analysts and investors in determining a companys long-term viability.
But the decision-making behind what a company is actually worth is more visceral than numbers. In the case of Tesla, market insiders claim Musk has the "Steve Jobs" factor, with the company riding a wave of goodwill as eco-conscious customers turn to electric vehicles. More importantly, Tesla has a massive cult-like customer following, and historically very little competition in the space.
That is what is moving the dial in Tesla's favour, market insiders say and that is likely to continue. Against the cult of Musk other car manufacturers like General Motors, Ford or VW who have baggage in the petrol and diesel space are finding it tough to compete.
This influence of brand reputation, earning forecasts and market appetite can easily overhype a company's valuation - and Tesla's $100bn mark-up might soon be a prime example of this.
Damodaran, who has a track-record of predicting when companies are overhyped, says that the best measures to use are whether a business valuation is "possible, plausible or probable". If the market size makes that growth possible, if the figures make it plausible and if the future forecasts make it probable then it will survive the hype.
So is Tesla really worth $100bn?
Probably not. The big catch has always been production targets, which are expected to grow to half a million in the coming months. That will involve a lot of time and investment. Unless that production number multiplies drastically, it will be difficult for the sales figures to back up what the market believes Tesla is worth.
That's why analysts at UBS have maintained a "sell" for Tesla shares despite a bullish outlook, estimating 800,000 cars sold and a ten per cent operating margin in 2022.
An analyst note from Exane BNP Paribas also downgraded the company to "neutral" from "outperform" over concerns that the shares were "overshooting".
But there is no one better than Musk to silence the critics. And if the launch of the new gigafactory in Germany is anything to go by, 2020 will be the year Tesla takes the fight for market share to the next level: straight to the heartland of the car giants.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED's business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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