Posted on

G.M. Scales Down Nikola Deal

Nikola, a start-up electric truck company that had made a big splash on Wall Street, announced a broad alliance with General Motors in September that promised to give the company critical technology, financial support and credibility with investors.But the news was quickly overtaken by claims that Nikola had exaggerated its capabilities, and the firm’s founder resigned. Investors were left to wonder whether Nikola was indeed an automotive innovator and whether G.M. had made an embarrassing mistake in associating with the start-up.After weeks of talks, the two companies announced Monday that they would work together on a …

Read More

Posted on

While the Pandemic Wrecked Some Businesses, Others Did Fine. Even Great.

The pandemic has turbocharged profits at some big businesses, like Amazon, which reported a 70 percent increase in earnings in the first nine months of the year. But it has devastated others, like Delta Air Lines, which lost $5.4 billion in just the third quarter.

Perhaps most surprising: Some companies that had feared for their lives in the spring, among them some rental car businesses, restaurant chains and financial firms, are now doing fine — or even excelling.

Wall Street analysts expect earnings to rebound to a record high next year. And, over all, 80 percent of companies in the S&P 500 stock index that have reported third-quarter earnings so far have exceeded analysts’ expectations, said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Typically, just shy of two-thirds of companies beat analysts’ quarterly forecasts. “It’s amazing,” Mr. Silverblatt said.

As the pandemic forced people to stay home and do more things online, some successful companies were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the change. Now, these businesses are becoming even more dominant.

Consider Amazon. Its profits in the first nine months were up $5.8 billion from a year earlier. They allowed the company to spend 120 percent more during the period on things like warehouses, technology and other capital investments. That spending — $25.3 billion — could make it harder for all but Amazon’s biggest competitors to keep up with its growth.

Often in the past, companies that appeared strong during an expansion struggled in the next recession, delaying a full recovery. For example, banks grew with abandon before the 2008 financial crisis but later became a drag on the economy as they repaired their balance sheets.

Tech companies were strong before the pandemic downturn — and have powered through the rout, which could help the economy recover faster this time, said Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equity strategist at Credit Suisse Securities. “It’s really quite breathtaking,” he said.

When the pandemic hit, many executives understandably feared that their companies were facing an existential crisis or, at least, a very difficult recession. But a surprising number of such companies have excelled.

Mr. Cooper, a mortgage company, believed that it might face a financial squeeze in the spring when some homeowners were unable to make monthly payments. But a federal regulator provided relief to mortgage lenders, and then business was helped by a surge in refinancing. Mr. Cooper’s revenue in the first nine months of the year was up 40 percent, and its stock has climbed 341 percent from its low in April.

During recessions, consumers often decide to pull back and avoid large outlays. But this year, something different happened. Many Americans who did not lose jobs but were also not spending on travel and entertainment found themselves with more disposable income. The $1,200 stimulus payments from the government also helped.

This has been a boon for companies that initially feared a deep recession. General Motors and Ford Motor, for example, rushed to borrow billions of dollars early in the year, expecting that car sales would tumble and stay low for a while. The auto business did struggle and automakers had to close their factories for about two months, but sales started picking up this summer. For the third quarter, G.M., Ford and other automakers reported big profits.

Some large restaurant chains, after pressing for a federal bailout, have done much better than expected as drive-through customers, delivery and takeout orders bolstered sales. On Thursday, Papa John’s, whose stock is up 32 percent this year, reported surging sales, profits and cash flow and announced a new stock buyback program. Its chief executive, Rob Lynch, said the company had added “over eight million” customers this year.

Asked on a call with financial analysts Thursday if the company can hold on to such gains, Mr. Lynch said that many of the new customers were dining more frequently and that the average spending per order was larger than before the pandemic.

“So that gives us a lot of confidence that they have come in, they are enjoying their experience and they’re coming back,” Mr. Lynch said.

But there are winners and losers even within industries. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and other brands that are more reliant on in-restaurant dining, reported a 28 percent decline in sales in the three months through the end of August. Its stock price is down 6 percent this year.

Darden is in a painful waiting game. For its results to recover, it needs big states to relax indoor dining restrictions.

“We need to get California back,” Gene Lee, Darden’s chief executive, said on a call with analysts. Olive Garden has 100 restaurants in the state, he said.

Even as much of the travel industry struggles, some companies have found a way to survive.

Hertz sought bankruptcy protection in May. And its biggest competitor, the Avis Budget Group, ran up large losses — $639 million in the first six months of the year. But Avis turned a modest $45 million profit in the third quarter.

The company’s comeback was made possible by cost cutting and a decision to sell 75,000 vehicles in the United States to take advantage of strong demand for used cars. (Nationally, spending on used light trucks, including sport utility vehicles, was up nearly 19 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier.)

Of course, that strategy might not keep working. Demand for rental cars is still low, and many Avis Budget locations are at airports, which are seeing precious little traffic. Other companies that have more urban and suburban locations, like Enterprise, are better positioned because they don’t depend as much on air travelers.

Image
Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

Passenger airlines are among the biggest losers of the pandemic, and they have few options to improve their prospects. Delta, United Airlines and American Airlines worked quickly to cut costs and got $50 billion in the March federal stimulus package.

After suffering from a dizzying collapse in business in the spring, airlines pinned their hopes on the typically busy summer season, which brought some relief despite a surge in virus cases in July. But that did little to ease the pain. In the third quarter, American lost $2.4 billion and United lost $1.8 billion. For all three, revenue fell more than 70 percent from the same three months last year.

With coronavirus cases at record highs and domestic air travel still down 60 percent from last year, there’s little hope that the typically slower winter season will bring a meaningful rebound. The industry is hoping Congress will authorize another round of aid to help it pay thousands of workers.

Investors, who are more likely to buy stocks if they believe companies will make more money, are signaling that they expect a broad profits recovery among the largest U.S. companies. The S&P 500 has soared nearly 57 percent from its March low and is up 8.6 percent for the year.

Those gains might seem odd given that the combined profits of the companies in that index are on track to decline 25 percent this year from a record showing in 2019. But a big chunk of that rally can be attributed to a handful of large technology stocks. Investors are also counting on the Federal Reserve to keep its benchmark interest rate low for years to come and to keep pumping money into the financial system.

Of course, many struggling businesses, including lots of restaurants, stores and services companies are not traded on the stock market. That means a surge in stock prices can give a misleadingly optimistic view of where the economy is headed.

“The economy is not as good as the market is,” said Mr. Golub of Credit Suisse.

Posted on

How Green Is That Electric Car? And When It Hits 100 M.P.H.?

They only look like conspicuous polluters.

A new breed of electric performance cars, including Porsche’s Taycan and the Tesla Model S P100D, shows how environmentally minded fans of horsepower might square their circles.

A supercar with a carbon footprint that seems closer to a jet engine’s than to a Prius’s may feel irresponsible in the face of climate change. But what about electric vehicles that can keep pace with or even outperform the likes of Lamborghini?

The Tesla Model S can sprint to 60 miles per hour in slightly more than two seconds, making it one of the quickest machines on the market. Is it notably cleaner than a comparably fast gasoline-fueled car like the BMW M5, which is powered by a fuel-hungry 617-horsepower twin-turbo V8?

The numbers say yes. The Tesla is convincingly the green choice, but there’s more to the story.

Even small, less powerful electric vehicles haven’t always been cleaner than the most efficient gas-powered autos. A 2012 article in The New York Times summarized a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists that found the environmental benefits of subcompact, modestly powered electric cars like the Nissan Leaf depended on where they were charged.

At the time, many states still relied heavily on coal-fired plants for electricity, and the investigators found that in some areas, electrics were no cleaner than efficient gasoline-powered cars when factoring in the emissions resulting from electricity generation.

E.V. technology has advanced considerably since then, and electricity generation in America has shifted, as well.

The latest report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a February article by David Reichmuth, its senior vehicles engineer, is much more optimistic than the one eight years ago. After analyzing all emissions — including those from fossil fuel production, along with conventional vehicle tailpipe emissions and power plant emissions — the group found that electric vehicles were responsible for about 10 percent less overall emissions in 2018 than they were just two years earlier. Emissions generated during vehicle and battery production or in the mining of lithium for E.V. batteries were not part of the calculation.

In this study, the average electric vehicle in the United States was found to be responsible for emission levels equivalent to those generated by a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon. In areas where a lot of coal is still burned to make electricity, the electric vehicle m.p.g. equivalency number can fall to as low as 49 miles to a gallon, but those areas are few and less densely populated than regions with clean power.

OK, but what about electric supercars like the Model S and Taycan? Since they produce mammoth horsepower, doesn’t it follow that their emission levels are high as well?

“A very powerful electric performance automobile is less efficient than a hyper-efficient E.V. but still far cleaner than a comparably powerful car that burns gasoline,” Mr. Reichmuth said in a telephone interview. He added that a Model S driven in California, which has some of the nation’s cleanest electrical power, is about equivalent to a gasoline vehicle that achieves 120 m.p.g. In other words, in an area with relatively clean electric plants, this extremely powerful machine can be cleaner than even the most efficient gas car.

The numbers Mr. Reichmuth cited assume that the Model S is driven responsibly. With the throttle held wide open, a Model S will gobble up the watt-hours. While Tesla doesn’t provide data for aggressive driving, some Tesla owners have explored the extremes. One estimate on Tesla’s web forums claims that at full throttle the car will use about 869 watt-hours of electricity per mile and have a range of about 88 miles on a full charge. In simple terms, that means driving 30 miles at full throttle would require about the same amount of electrical energy that an average American home uses in one day.

Driving at wide-open throttle at length would quickly heat the Tesla’s battery, triggering electronic safeguards that would slow the vehicle. So the Tesla isn’t going to take on gasoline rivals in an endurance race. But its fun-to-drive factor is very high, and in short sprints, it is nearly unbeatable. In one 2016 drag race captured on YouTube, a Model S takes on a 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat, and emerges the victor.

The Taycan, according to Car and Driver magazine, is rated even quicker, but the magazine editors recorded identical 70 MPGe power consumption with both cars on a 300-mile trip at 75 miles an hour. (MPGe is an acronym for miles per gallon equivalent, and it’s the government’s way of quantifying the efficiency of electric vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency, officially, pegs the Tesla at 97 MPGe combined city and highway driving, and the Porsche at 68 MPGe combined.)

The discrepancy in the Tesla and Porsche E.P.A. ratings is likely due to the structure of the test and appears to indicate that the Tesla has an efficiency advantage over the Porsche in stop-and-go city driving. No gasoline-powered high-performance car can be driven anywhere near as economically as the Tesla or Porsche electric.

A comparison of E.P.A. ratings suggests that the least economical gasoline-powered cars emit more than twice the emissions of the most economical gas car. For example, the Mitsubishi Mirage G4, with its three-cylinder engine, is E.P.A. rated at 35 m.p.g. combined, while a Ford Shelby GT 500 Mustang earns a 14 m.p.g. combined rating.

The spread between the electric extremes is much narrower. The Hyundai Ioniq Electric, one of the most efficient electric vehicles, is E.P.A. rated at 122 MPGe, yet the Tesla Model S Performance car earns a 98 MPGe rating.

Choosing a high-performance E.V. over a mild-mannered electric comes with much less of an efficiency penalty.

The way E.V.s are charged adds to their worth. When asked if electric cars were overtaxing the electrical grid, Mr. Reichmuth said, “A high-performance E.V. is not like an appliance with a cord that draws electricity in real time.”

He added, “Oftentimes, they are plugged in at night. So a high-performance model is going to be plugged in longer, but it doesn’t take more power at any one time.”

Consider, too, that charging stations are turning to renewable power sources like solar, in combination with a battery storage system. Tesla has promised that its Supercharger high-speed charger network will eventually be powered exclusively by renewable energy.

It’s all good news for performance enthusiasts. Now you can go fast and go green. You may have to play to an artificial soundtrack, but play you can.