Tesla’s Chinese rival NIO desperately needs a recharge

What a difference a year makes.
What a difference a year makes.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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China’s electric vehicle maker NIO landed on the New York Stock Exchange a year ago when investors were pouring billions of dollars into China’s electric car industry. But it’s since become obvious that China’s EV startups are money pits, not quick profit generators.

The carmaker today (Sept. 24) reported a larger-than-expected loss of 3.3 billion yuan ($462 million) for the three months ended June, more than 80% higher than in the same period a year earlier. The number, which was also worse than the $390 million loss it weathered in the first quarter of the year, came as it faced a recall of about a quarter of its flagship ES8 SUVs over fire concerns.

Bloomberg noted the company’s total losses have crossed $5 billion in its short five-year life—a milestone it took Tesla 15 years to pass. The company, which canceled its earnings call scheduled for today, has seen its stock drop more than 70% since it listed. (The company later announced it would hold an earnings call on Wednesday.)

While NIO doesn’t have a lot of room to streamline manufacturing costs—the EV maker will rely on its state-owned carmaker partner JAC Motors at least until 2021—it has already started cutting headcount, including shutting down its San Francisco office. The company will have 7,500 employees by the end of September, or 20% fewer than at the start of the year. It’s also selling the electric-car racing team that helped it make its name.

NIO has had a tough year since listing—from dropping its plans set up its own factory in home base Shanghai, to the recall it announced in June after three incidents of the ES8’s battery catching fire or emitting smoke. Because of the recalls, its vehicle margin, a gauge of how much the company makes on each car it sells, plummeted to negative 24%. Meanwhile, Tesla is gearing up to start delivering cars from its new Shanghai factory.

While NIO has had an impressive sales record compared with other Chinese EV startups, the 21,670 units it’s sold as of the end of August are far from enough to sustain a cash-burning business that saw Tesla—a firm NIO’s been often compared to—post heavy losses despite record sales of more than 95,000 deliveries in the second quarter.

The fourth quarter of 2018 is the only time the company achieved a positive vehicle margin of 3.7%, when it delivered close to 8,000 cars in an effort to win a bet with rival EV startup. This year those numbers slowed significantly. In the second quarter, NIO delivered 3,553 cars compared with close to 4,000 in the first quarter, even though it began delivering its cheaper compact sports utility vehicle model in June.

Given the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on marketing, such as the costly NIO Houses it’s set up in some of the most pricy areas of China’s largest cities, that could be another area ripe for cost-cutting.

Bringing in cash is even more challenging, given venture capitalists are no longer keen on pouring money into EV makers as China moves away from heavy subsidies to a credit-trading system to encourage more energy-efficient EVs. The company raised $650 million just months after listing through convertible bonds. This month, it issued another round of convertible bonds to raise $200 million—with Tencent buying half of them while co-founder William Li bought the rest. That could be read as Li’s continuing confidence in the business—or a worrying sign that no one else is subscribing.

Beijing has also offered a helping hand—a state-owned fund signed up to put $1.45 billion into a joint venture set up by NIO and the fund.

It’s far from clear these steps will be enough to get NIO through the winter of China’s auto industry. After years of high-speed growth, EV sales, which at first seemed to be bucking the trend of China’s overall auto sales, are declining by double digits. Many EV companies won’t survive to see another spring.

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