Tesla Motors

Explaining Tesla's stunning stock price

November 21, 2013: 2:42 PM ET

Some say investors are bidding up the stock because they're sure it's only a matter of time before electric vehicles catch on, like smartphones. Others hold that the tiny car company will be gobbled up by a big automaker.

By Doron Levin

Tesla Model S

FORTUNE -- Theories abound as to how Tesla Motors could be worth a stunning, incredible, improbable $14.9 billion.

I have my own.

Tesla (TSLA) lost $400 million in its latest quarter, has sold a grand total of 15,000 Model S sedans, and is facing a federal investigation after three vehicle fires raised questions about its only model's safety.

Stock price often is measured as a multiple of earnings per share. Since Tesla posted no earnings, at least in its latest quarter, it doesn't have a P/E or price to earnings ratio.

Some say investors are bidding up Tesla because they're sure it's only a matter of time before electric vehicles catch on, like smartphones. Others are theorizing that a big carmaker is planning to buy tiny Tesla to avail itself of electric-vehicle technology and governmental clean-air credits that all automakers need to offset their relatively inefficient models.

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Similar to what Chris Anderson argues in Fortune, I believe the aura left by the late Steve Jobs has much to do with Tesla's value. Jobs was a Silicon Valley wunderkind who took Apple (AAPL), the company he co-founded, public in 1980 at about $4 a share, on a split-adjusted basis. Apple stock currently sells for about $515 a share and briefly has traded at nearly $700 a share.

Lots of investors are still muttering about the money they "could have made" if they'd only bought Apple shares and hung on.

Jobs was famously irascible, like another shining star of the business world, Tesla founder and chief executive officer, Elon Musk. Lots and lots of people, me among them, urged Jobs to license Apple's operating system broadly, as Microsoft had done with its MS-DOS system. Had he done so, Apple clones would have proliferated, just like PCs.

Jobs balked, while Microsoft's (MSFT) system became an industry standard. Jobs was eventually forced out of his company, only to return in triumph. Jobs' vision was the right one for Apple. The payoff: Today, Apple is worth $463 billion, compared to Microsoft's $309 billion.

Musk is as combative today as Jobs was then, challenging skeptics who say the market for electric vehicles is limited, who question Tesla's approach to battery technology or who point to the federal safety investigation. The Feds are investigating the three fires in Tesla Model S cars that are reported to have hit debris in the road.

Musk has responded in Tweets and elsewhere that lots of cars catch on fire after road accidents. True, but so far no reports of fires to Nissan Leaf electric vehicles, in accidents or otherwise. Nissan reported global sales of 83,000 Leafs as of September.

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In many ways, Musk has stepped into the tech sector as a replacement for Steve Jobs. Musk is a brilliant, driven, iconoclast who doesn't suffer fools (read: those who don't agree with him) gladly. Investors who doubted Jobs and missed the spectacular run-up of Apple stock may see Tesla as a way to offset their missed opportunity.

By buying Tesla shares now, investors could cash in handsomely down the road, when the share values soar due to a rise in electric vehicle sales -- or perhaps when a major automaker decides to acquire the entire company.

I was wrong about Jobs; his vision for computing was valid. I don't know about Musk: Electric cars have been a tough sell.

What I do know is that the upside for Tesla shares at their current price looks quite limited.

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