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Are Electric Vehicle Stocks Overhyped?

Motley Fool - Fri Jan 14, 7:05AM CST

The excitement around electric vehicle stocks is palpable. From Rivian(NASDAQ: RIVN) at a $76 billion market cap with no revenue to Tesla(NASDAQ: TSLA) breaching a $1.1 trillion market cap when it was valued under $100 billion less than three years ago, many investors are bullish on the opportunity in electric vehicles.

And why wouldn't they be? The industry is growing quickly, up 26% year over year from 2020, and is going after a gigantic market opportunity in the worldwide car market. But just because these stocks are in a large, growing industry doesn't mean they will be great investments over the next decade. Just ask Cisco Systems investors who bought stock in 1999 and 2000.

Are electric vehicle stocks overhyped? Yes. Let me explain why.

An electric vehicle in front of solar panels and windmills.

Image source: Getty Images.

Growth is strong, and the market opportunity is massive

To start out, let's give some context around the global opportunity in electric vehicles and the overall automotive industry. In 2021, it is estimated that 6.4 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold around the world, of which 4 million of these were all-electric and 2.4 million plug-in hybrids. That total number is up 26% from 2020.

In 2022, analysts are actually expecting this growth to accelerate due to the number of models being available in the U.S. jumping from 62 to 100. If that is the case, global annual sales for electric vehicles should hit 10 million in the near future. For reference, 66 million total cars are estimated to have been sold around the world in 2021.

Those are all high-level numbers, but what about the financial opportunity? Assuming an average selling price of $25,000, 10 million EV sales would equate to $250 billion in annual sales. At 50 million EVs, which assumes they take over the majority of the auto market, that equates to $1.25 trillion in sales. Clearly, the opportunity is massive from a revenue standpoint.

Margins will be low

While the revenue opportunity for EVs is large, these manufacturing businesses also have low margins. For example, let's look at Toyota (NYSE: TM), the largest automaker in the world, with an estimated 8.5% market share in 2019. Over the last 12 months, the company has brought in $281 billion in revenue. On that revenue, only $31 billion turned into operating income, or an 11% operating margin.

Tesla, the biggest pure-play EV maker, is seeing just shy of 10% operating margins on $47 billion in revenue. Given the reduction in manufacturing complications of a battery pack versus an internal combustion engine, EV makers may achieve better operating margins than 11% at scale. But they still require bending metal to succeed, so the likelihood they will be much higher than 11% on average over the long term seems unlikely.

What's more, automotive businesses require tons of capital expenditures relative to their sales just to stay afloat. For example, Toyota spent almost $35 billion on capital investments over the last 12 months. Given its profit margins, that makes it very difficult for the company to return excess cash to shareholders -- which is the only driver of shareholder value in the long run. This is why Toyota's stock historically trades at a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio at or around 10. And EV stocks will have a similar fate due to this capital intensity.

Expectations are too high

Let's move back to our revenue example. If annual EV sales reach $1.25 trillion and we assign a generous 15% operating margin across the industry, there will be $180 billion in annual operating income once EV sales hit 50 million a year. Remember, sales are currently at only 6.4 million, including plug-in hybrids, so this is a long way off. On that $180 billion in operating income, if you give it a 21% corporate tax rate, that is $142.2 billion in annual net income across the industry.

Put an average P/E of 10 (remember, this is typical for automotive companies because of the capital intensity) on the stocks, and you have $1.42 trillion in combined market value once EVs reach maturity. Looking at the five pure-play EV stocks right now, which are Tesla, Rivian, Lucid Motors (NASDAQ: LCID), Nio (NYSE: NIO), and Xpeng (NYSE: XPEV), their combined market caps are currently $1.34 trillion, or pretty darn close to what the whole industry will be worth at maturity with optimistic margin and growth assumptions.

And this doesn't include the legacy automakers like Toyota, Ford Motor Company, GM, and Volkswagen, which are all making major investments into EVs. Assuming none of these legacy manufacturers will at least capture some of the $1.42 trillion market value is naive, in my opinion.

Given all these numbers, it is clear that the electric vehicle market is overhyped. If you are invested in one of these companies, or even a legacy automaker, you need to be confident in that specific company's ability to win market share and beat all these competitors. If that doesn't happen, it is likely your investment will go very poorly over the next decade.

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Brett Schafer has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Cisco Systems, NIO Inc., Tesla, and Volkswagen AG. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.