Tesla Reports a Rare Profit in the Third Quarter

By Neal E. Boudette

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Tesla produced more than 53,000 Model 3 cars from July to September, nearly twice as many as in the previous three months.CreditCreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

Tesla on Wednesday reported a $312 million profit for third quarter, thanks to a surge in production and sales of its Model 3 sedan.

The company also ended the period with $3 billion in cash compared with $2.2 billion at the end of the previous quarter.

The report is a key milestone for the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, who had vowed the Model 3 would carry the company to profitability in both the third and fourth quarters of this year. The earnings help stabilize Tesla’s finances and end a streak of quarters in which the automaker used up close to $1 billion in cash.

The company generated $881 million in free cash flow — cash produced through operations less capital expenditures. “The cash flow number is impressive,” said David Whiston, an auto analyst at Morningstar. “That’s a lot of cash for a company their size.”

But the company still must prove it can produce profits consistently. Its third-quarter earnings were helped by cost-cutting, deferring spending on future models, and rushing to sell as many cars as possible. The surge in sales could cause demand to soften in the fourth quarter.

In the 15 years since it was founded, Tesla has never reported an annual profit. In previous quarters, the company’s costs increased as it made more cars. To finance its operations, the electric vehicle and solar energy company has had to sell stock, take out loans and ask customers to make $1,000 refundable deposits for cars that they might not get for months or years.

To become consistently profitable, the company needs the Model 3, which currently sells for $46,000 to $64,000 before federal and state tax incentives, to be a commercial success.

Tesla produced more than 53,000 Model 3 cars from July to September, nearly twice as many as in the previous three months. Deliveries of the Model 3 totaled more than 55,000, about three times as many as in the previous quarter.

“As long as they keep producing more cars than the previous quarter, there’s a good chance they can keep profits going,” Mr. Whiston said.

In its report, Tesla said that of the 455,000 Model 3 reservations it reported having in August 2017, fewer than 20 percent had been canceled.

Tesla remains under financial pressure, and faces several major challenges. It has to make bond payments of $230 million in November and $920 million in March. It can use stock for the second payment but only if its share price is above $360.

As of Sept. 30, Tesla owed its suppliers $3.6 billion, up from $3 billion at the end of the second quarter. The company’s debt totaled more than $10 billion.

Tesla shares closed at $288.50 on Wednesday before its earnings were released, down more than 20 percent from early August. The stock was up 13 percent in after-market trading on Wednesday afternoon.

Tesla next year is supposed to start making a more affordable version of the Model 3 priced at $35,000, and Mr. Musk has said that Tesla would lose money on that model if the company produced it now. The cheaper Model 3 is important because the $7,500 federal tax credit available to buyers of Tesla cars will be cut by half on Jan. 1 and phased out entirely over the course of 2019, making its cars more expensive.

The company is still struggling to to deliver cars to customers, which Mr. Musk has described as “delivery logistics hell.” The quality of the Model 3 has also come under question as many customers have complained about receiving cars with scratched paint, cracked windows and other defects.

Consumer Reports on Wednesday lowered Tesla’s reliability ranking by six places, to 27th out of 29 automakers. The magazine said its members complained about the suspension in the company’s full-size Model S sedan.

The earnings report comes after several turbulent months for Tesla and Mr. Musk. Last month the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Mr. Musk, accusing him of securities fraud for saying on Twitter that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share. The plan turned out to be a lot less fleshed out than he had suggested.

To settle the case, Mr. Musk agreed to step down as chairman, while retaining the chief executive title. The S.E.C. is continuing to look into the company’s past claims about its production goals, and the Justice Department has also been looking into Mr. Musk’s go-private tweet.

Correction: 

An earlier version of this article misstated Tesla’s cash at the end of the second quarter. It was $2.2 billion, not $2.4 billion.