Two of the world’s richest men, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are competitors in space. Now they are competitors on planet Earth, training their money rockets on another bit of tech – electric vehicles. The results so far have defied gravity. Billionaire tech-bro capitalism is scoring another eye-popping victory.
Mr. Musk is co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla , the leading EV company – market value US$1.1-trillion – and founder of SpaceX, the launch company that is putting satellites into orbit and wants to make Mars Planet B.
Mr. Bezos is synonymous with Amazon – market value US$1.9-trillion – where he is founder, executive chairman and 10.3-per-cent shareholder. He is also the founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin. His EV connection is Rivian Automotive , which is 20 per cent owned by Amazon. It was Mr. Bezos’s idea to buy into the company, whose specialty is battery-powered SUVs and trucks.
There is no doubt that the Bezos connection helped to make Rivian’s initial public offering on Nov. 10 the most spectacular stock market event of the year and the biggest IPO since 2014. The company raised US$12-billion by pricing 153 million shares at US$78 a pop.
But that’s not the story. The story is that the shares took off, reaching US$179 by Nov. 16 as mad enthusiasm overwhelmed any sense of real value. Rivian loses a fortune and has sold fewer than 200 vehicles. Yet even at Friday’s price of US$132, it is worth US$113-billion – considerably more than Ford , which pumps out millions of cars every year, and profitably so (Ford owns 12 per cent of Rivian).
What are we to make of such lofty valuations?
The message is that if you use a firehose to blast enough money at any company, and the right people are holding that firehose – the aforementioned billionaire tech bros in this case – you can work miracles. Speculative companies become well-financed companies. Keep throwing more money at them through private and public offerings and well-financed companies become real companies, as Tesla has proved, sparing apparent losers from almost certain doom. Tesla, which launched its first car in 2008, became profitable only recently. A few years ago, when Tesla was struggling to push the Model 3 sedan into production, the company was close to bankruptcy.
American investors seem to have little interest in companies that are not already galloping ahead on the stock market, already inflated by rock-bottom interest rates, central-bank money printing and quantitative easing. They keep piling into tech stocks for fear of losing out; if you are not invested, you only have your own distinctly un-American timidity to blame. In that sense, is Tesla or Rivian any different than Bitcoin?
And if the company you are buying is backed by a household name such as tech gurus Musk, Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page, all the better. It is this mob of billionaires who essentially plan the tech economy. What they back goes up; what they don’t back often struggles.
No one knows this more than British inventor and billionaire entrepreneur James Dyson, who made his fortune on clever and sleek battery-powered household appliances, bagless vacuum cleaners, commercial hand-dryers and other products.
In 2017, Mr. Dyson announced plans to get into the EV game, a project that he said would cost £2-billion ($3.4-billion). He bought a battery company and planned to build an enormous battery factory. Patents were filed and hundreds of employees were hired to invent the car, which was to be made in Singapore.
A dazzling prototype was produced: a seven-seat SUV with a claimed range of almost 1,000 kilometres, far greater than that of EVs already on the market. In late 2019, he rolled the whole project into the ditch, saying it was “not commercially viable,” and retreated to his appliances.
He offered no other explanation. I suspect that, without the mighty American, tech-adoring investing public – or any of the American tech billionaires – behind his EVs, he realized he could never raise the billions required to create another Tesla even if it was apparent, by then, that EVs were the future and that his own version would be a tech marvel. That Mr. Dyson was virtually unknown in the United States didn’t help; he is very much a British phenomenon. He needed to be part of the U.S. tech in-crowd to ensure on-demand money from investors.
Billionaires in effect anoint companies. Warren Buffett has made billions by backing BYD, the Chinese maker of EVs and hybrids that joined his portfolio in 2008. Since then, he and his partner, Charlie Munger, have been BYD cheerleaders – a PR coup for the company that has merrily exploited the connection to the “Oracle of Omaha,” as Mr. Buffett is known.
Mr. Bezos, through Amazon, has in effect anointed Rivian. The company’s valuation is wildly optimistic, ludicrous even, but that does not seem to matter. Investors are loving the toys-for-boys competition between him and Mr. Musk in space and on Earth. Rivian’s success is far from assured, but the blockbuster IPO suggests it will have no trouble financing itself as long as Mr. Bezos stays put.
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