What was the biggest business story of 2020?
As the year came to a close, it appeared to be the recurring rivalry between two of the world’s most famous tech companies: Tesla and Apple.
Their CEOs couldn’t be more different from one other. Tesla’s Elon Musk is a mercurial visionary, a company founder prone to being unpredictable but who has developed a fanatical following, particularly among the young.
Apple’s Tim Cook is the buttoned-down managerial type, a southern gentleman from Alabama who has grown his company magnificently since its charismatic genius, Steve Jobs, passed away almost a decade ago.
“During the darkest days of the Model 3 program, I reached out to Tim Cook to discuss the possibility of Apple acquiring Tesla (for 1/10 of our current value),” Musk tweeted a few days before Christmas. “He refused to take the meeting.”
Tesla was flying high throughout 2020. This was largely on the belief that its all-electric architecture was more reliable, safer, better environmentally, and offered lower operating costs than its competitors.
Investors’ confidence was reflected in the stock price, which rose more than 600 percent since the start of the year.
As a result, Musk was worth US$141.7 billion as of December 22, according to Forbes magazine.
That made him the second-wealthiest person in the world after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, even though Amazon’s revenues exceeded Tesla’s by more than 11 times in 2019.
But on December 21, Reuters reported that the world’s most valuable company, Apple, was “targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that would include its own breakthrough battery technology”, according to unnamed sources.
Although surprising, it wasn’t unexpected. As far back as 2008, Apple cofounder Jobs talked about the company creating its own car.
News of the iCar drove Tesla’s share price down by 6.5 percent that day, whereas Apple’s share price rose. The trend continued on the following day, with Apple’s stock increasing in value as Tesla’s fell again.
That might explain Musk’s putdown of Cook over Twitter.
Both companies go to Austin
The Apple share price occurred even though Barron’s published a damning story headlined “Apple iCar Is a Terrible Idea. Here’s Why.”
The two technology companies have sometimes seemed to be operating in tandem. In November 2019, Apple broke ground on a new campus in the emerging high-tech mecca of Austin, Texas.
Eight months later, Musk announced that Tesla’s new cybertruck factory would be built in Austin. In December, Musk revealed to the Wall Street Journal that he had moved to Austin from the Los Angeles area.
Then there were the duelling stock-market manouevres last summer.
On July 30, Apple stunned the investment world when it announced a 4:1 stock split, which sent the share price shooting upward.
That was followed by Musk declaring a 5:1 share split at Tesla. He timed the shares to begin trading on a stock-split-adjusted basis on August 31—the same day this was occurring with Apple stock.
Meanwhile, Musk has sometimes disparaged Apple’s efforts to explore the feasibility of developing its own car.
“They have hired people we’ve fired,” Musk once told the German newspaper Handelsblatt. “We always jokingly call Apple the ‘Tesla Graveyard’. If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple.”
Tesla shares outperform Apple's
Cook, true to form, has not fired any insults back at the South African–born Musk, who attended Queen’s University in Ontario before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania.
On August 1, 2018, Verge editor Dieter Bohn and GVA Research CEO David Garrity discussed on CNBC which of the two CEOs was more likely to deliver value to shareholders.
It’s amusing to look back on this almost two and a half years later.
Bohn described Cook as “the guy” who will deliver steady growth, year after year. Garrity also sided with Cook as the better bet.
“Certainly, Elon’s got the passion and the vision of a founder,” Garrity said, “but I would say for my money, if I was an investor, I would put money for stable long-term returns behind Cook first. Obviously if I was a venture capitalist, I might be more interested in looking at what Musk has to say.”
Between then and until the close of trading on December 22, Tesla shares increased in value by 964 percent.
Apple shares, on the other hand, rose by only 162 percent over the same period.
Although Apple delivered a spectacular return by Wall Street’s standards, Tesla still managed to outperform its larger rival by about six times.
There’s a lesson in all of this for short sellers thinking that Tesla has had its day: it can be very perilous to bet against Elon Musk.