Tesla is coming to the end of its first year selling China-made cars with a commanding position in the world’s biggest EV market, but Elon Musk shouldn’t rest on his laurels.
While Tesla regularly topped monthly premium EV sales tallies this year, helped by the sedans churned out from its multibillion-dollar plant opened to much fanfare in Shanghai last December, 2020 was also marked by rivals catching up. In 2021, the breadth of the competitive attack that Tesla faces will be greater than ever.
Whether Tesla can defend its lead in China will be key to its wider growth and earnings trajectory. While still in its infancy, China’s EV market dwarfs that of other countries and the government is intent on further expansion amid commitments to reduce fossil-fuel use. Tesla's fate in China will also show whether it can grow into a truly global automaker, an ambition investors are banking on after pushing the company’s shares up almost 700 percent this year.
A trio of local champions Nio, Xpeng and Li Auto, has emerged as the front line against the California-based company. All traded in the U.S., and enjoying backing from government entities or internet giants, the three startups are quickly winning fans, with sales of their electric SUVs, sedans and crossovers also rising in 2020 and their shares surging on Tesla’s coattails.
"Since June, you’ve seen a steady rise in sales by Nio, Xpeng, and Li," said Bill Russo, CEO of advisory firm Automobility in Shanghai. "Can you stay competitive with these fast-moving, internet-backed, very deep-pocketed companies?"
China is Tesla’s largest market after the U.S., with sales in Asia’s biggest economy topping 120,000 units this year, according to local registration data. And Tesla keeps ramping up production in Shanghai, prompting analysts to forecast that China will account for a bigger slice of its sales and earnings in the years ahead.
The Model 3 sedans Tesla sells in China have higher profit margins than its vehicles in the U.S. and Europe, and China could make up more than 40 percent of Tesla's sales by early 2022, Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives said in a Dec. 21 research note. That compares with about 20 percent now.
"China could see eye-popping demand into 2021 and 2022 across the board with Tesla's flagship giga 3 footprint a major competitive advantage," he said, referring to the Shanghai plant.