Once upon a time–way back on April 11, 2017–Tesla (TSLA) sported a market cap bigger than that of General Motors (GM). That’s no longer the case. As of today, November 1, the market puts Tesla’s value at $53.7 billion and that of General Motors at $61 billion.
But that resurgence for GM isn’t the biggest surprise in the contest for the future of the auto market between the old guard and the newcomer. GM’s Chevy Bolt, launched in late 2016, recorded its best sales month ever in October with sales of 2,781 units. With Tesla reporting very low sales of its Model 3 for the third quarter and GM reporting that sales of the Bolt were up 150 in October from an already strong September (making October the best month for the Bolt ever), it’s likely that in October GM’s Chevy Bolt, its entry in an electric car market that Tesla was supposed to own (eventually), sold more units than Tesla’s three models, the Model S, the Model X and the Model 3, combined. Through its first 11 months of sales in the United States, the Bolt has sold almost 18,000 units. In the last three months sales have climbed past 7,500 and the Bolt is now on track hit an annual sales rate of 30,000 units in its first year.
Now 30,000 units isn’t a lot of cars, even if Tesla would love to see that figure. Which puts the spotlight on the huge and important difference between General Motors and Tesla. While the latter company has put all its bets on the future of electric cars, General Motors continues to turn out the big cars and pickup trucks that Americans are buying now in the current age of low gas prices. For the third quarter, reported on October 24, General Motors beat analyst estimates largely on sales of its big SUVs, pickup trucks, and sales of its Equinox crossover. (The stock hit an all time high on the results.)
What the means is that while Tesla is burning through cash–another $1.4 billion in the third quarter–waiting for the future of electric cars to arrive, General Motors is recording earnings of $1.32 a share on revenue of $30.48 billion for the quarter. Granted General Motors’ revenue was down 16.6% year over year, it still made a significant profit on global sales of 2.2 million units largely because those big cars and trucks sell with a higher profit margin than smaller fuel efficient cars or than electric cars (especially when you include the costs, as Tesla must, for building new production lines and battery factories.)
The task ahead of General Motors isn’t easy–managing its legacy business while making the transition to a new world of electric cars, ride-sharing, and autonomous vehicles–but General Motors’ cash flow does take some of the risk out of that transition for investors. And all this does make me wonder if the real tough competition for General Motors isn’t going to come from startups like Tesla but from established automakers such as Volkswagen and Nissan and, of course, Chinese automakers with their huge, largely captive domestic market.