China touts electric-car maker Nio as the next Tesla

Shares in electric-car manufacturer Nio have rocketed over the past year. But can it keep motoring and live up to the hype? Matthew Partridge reports

Chinese electric-vehicle (EV) company Nio, listed in New York, has become “one of the most popularly traded stocks in Britain” because many see it as “the next Tesla” says The Times. The stock has risen 28-fold from $2.11 in March to about $60 today. Nio’s market value eclipses that of both General Motors and Ford. Nio is also endorsed by many “admired and successful technology investors” who argue that it is “probably the clear leader” among Chinese electric-car companies.

Nio’s surge marks a sharp change in fortune from last year, when it “appeared to be teetering on the edge of insolvency”, says Alison Tudor-Ackroyd in the South China Morning Post. Not only had Covid-19 “crimped” sales, but the company was also reeling from the Chinese government’s cuts in subsidies as well as the prospect of stronger competition from Tesla in its home market. However, Beijing then reversed course, with a state-controlled company making an emergency injection of cash into the company, enabling Nio to boost production. It recently unveiled a new model that claims to “go as far as 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) on a single charge”.

A rich valuation

Nio’s shares could go even higher, says Trefis Team on Forbes. Sales are “poised to double to about $5bn in 2021”. Nio will benefit from the fact that China “has set a target that 25% of car sales by 2025 must be new-energy vehicles”. It is also developing a modular battery system that will allow users to swap batteries quickly, making it easier to travel long distances, and promising an improved self-driving system. Still, its valuation looks “rich” and it is not clear that it has done enough to build “a sustainable competitive advantage”.

The frenzy surrounding Nio is certainly helping it “suck up capital”, with the company announcing last week that it is issuing $1.3bn in convertible bonds, says Anjani Trivedi on Bloomberg. Still, investors need to be cautious, as the “fandom” that these shares have been enjoying is unlikely to last if they can’t deliver tangible results. Note that Nio “hasn’t been profitable since inception”. It recently admitted that “it may have to scale back operations if it can’t move into the black”. The big challenge is “less about getting people revved up for electric cars” and “more in making good, affordable vehicles – at scale”.

The Chinese EV sector looks due for a shakeout, says Christian Shepherd and Thomas Hale in the Financial Times. Around $60bn in government subsidies for EVs between 2009 and 2017 prompted “hundreds of new companies” to spring up in China. But many pocketed these sweeteners “without ever manufacturing a car”. New models by firms such as Nio and Xpeng have “invigorated” the market, but the Chinese government is so anxious about fraud and waste that Beijing is ordering local governments “to investigate land use, investment and progress of EV projects initiated since 2015”.  

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