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05.15.13

Tesla Motors will repay government loan nine years early

The electric sports car maker is using a debt offering to repay a $465 million government loan – nine years before it is due.

Tesla Motors, the electric sports car start-up, and its founder, Elon Musk, are on something of a roll.

The company just turned its first (small) quarterly profit, and the stock has been soaring. On Wednesday, the company moved to cash in on the momentum – by issuing some $830 million in stock and debt. The company announced it would sell 2.7 million shares of common stock, plus $450 million of debt, in the former of senior notes.

There are a few interesting things going on here.

Typically in stock sales of hot Silicon Valley companies, insiders cash out. But Musk said he would increase his investment in the company, by purchasing $100 million of the company’s stock out of his own pocket.

The second interesting angle is the use of the funds. One of the raps on the company is that it took a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy to get going. That laid it – and the government – open to ridicule. In the wake of high-profile green tech flops like Solyndra, did it really make sense for the government to be lending money to a highly speculative firm whose main product was an electric sports car that only plutocrats could afford?

Tesla withdrew the loan in 2012, and was given ten years to pay it back in small installments. In March, the company made an arrangement to accelerate the repayment date to 2017 – five years ahead of schedule.

Still, so long as government funds sat on its balance sheet, Tesla would always face questions and scrutiny – regardless of how high its stock soared. So with the market embracing the company’s business model, Tesla has moved to replace public money with private money. It claims it will use a large chunk of the $830 million it raised to take out the U.S. taxpayers.

The bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who approved the loan will breathe a sigh of relief. After all, their loan to Fisker, another electric sports car maker, didn’t turn out so well.  And Tesla will feel that it is standing on its own two feet. The company’s success is by no means assured. But if it fails, the taxpayers won’t be left holding the bag.