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August 8, 2018 9:45 AM, EDT

Elon Musk Considers Taking Tesla Private

Tesla private Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg News

Elon Musk said he’s considering taking Tesla Inc. private in a radical step that would ease pressure on the money-losing automaker.

The announcement, made initially via Twitter, stunned investors and sent Tesla’s stock price soaring Aug. 7 as much as 13%. It followed the news that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had built a less than 5% stake in Tesla worth about $2 billion.

And yet it also left many questions unanswered, namely how Musk — who owns almost 20% of the company — would be able to come up with the $66 billion necessary to complete the transaction. At $420 a share, Tesla would have an enterprise value of about $82 billion including debt. To take it private, the billionaire would have to pull off the largest leveraged buyout in history, surpassing Texas electric utility TXU’s in 2007.

“The reason for doing this is all about creating the environment for Tesla to operate best,” Musk, 47, wrote in an e-mail to employees. He said wild swings in the stock price are a distraction to workers and that being public “puts enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term.”

Tesla stock was halted for more than an hour and a half but resumed trading and surged later in the day Aug. 7. The rally falling well short of $420 is a sign of market skepticism that Musk’s plan is feasible. The CEO said shareholders would have the final say if he decides to follow through on going private, and that he would stay in his job.

“The market doesn’t believe him,” said David Kudla, CEO of Mainstay Capital Management, which is betting against Tesla. “His credibility has come into question over a number of things. If this were real, you’d expect the stock to go closer to $420 a share than it has.”

The Public Investment Fund, or PIF, acquired shares in Tesla over the past few months as part of its wider investment strategy, according to a person familiar with the transaction. Representatives for the Saudi fund weren’t immediately available for comment on the investment, which the Financial Times first reported earlier Aug. 7. A Tesla spokesman declined to comment.

Musk has a long history of bristling at the amount of scrutiny Tesla endures from investors and media.

In an interview with Bloomberg News in January 2015, he spoke of the benefits of running his closely held rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and his frustrations with having taken Tesla public in June 2010.

“There’s a lot of noise that surrounds a public company, and people are constantly commenting on the share price and value,” Musk said in 2015. “Being public definitely increases the management overhead for any given enterprise.”

Taking Tesla private makes a lot of sense, said Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures.

“Elon Musk does not want to run public companies,” Munster said. “His missions are big and make it difficult to accommodate investors quarterly expectations. Our guess is there is a 1 in 3 chance he can actually pull this off.”

Tesla doesn’t meet the typical profile of a company that can raise tens of billions of dollars of debt. It has lost money on an operating basis every year since it went public, and it’s been burning through billions of dollars as it’s ironed out production issues with its Model 3 sedan.

The buyout is highly unlikely, Bloomberg analyst Joel Levington said. “Funding $50 billion-plus for a negative free cash flow business would be difficult, if not extraordinary.”