Nikola threatens Hindenburg with litigation; short-seller ‘welcomes it’


Nikola Corp., the startup EV maker that this week announced a multibillion-dollar joint venture with General Motors, said on Friday it could take legal action against short-seller Hindenburg Research, which accused the company of being a “fraud” in a scathing report on Thursday.

The company also said it intended to bring the actions of the activist short-seller, together with evidence and documentation, to the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Nikola said it retained corporate litigator Kirkland & Ellis, a national law firm that also represents General Motors. In fact, Kirkland & Ellis represented GM in its recent racketeering lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that was later dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit.

“Yesterday, an activist short-seller whose motivation is to manipulate the market and profit from a manufactured decline in our stock price published a so-called “report” replete with misleading information and salacious accusations directed at our founder and executive chairman,” Nikola said in a statement. “To be clear, this was not a research report and it is not accurate. This was a hit job for short sale profit driven by greed.”

Nikola shares fell 11 percent on Thursday after Hindenburg Research published its report. The shares fell another 14.4 percent down to close at $32.13 on Friday in New York.

Hindenburg founder Nathan Anderson said in a statement on Friday that his firm would welcome a lawsuit by Nikola.

“The company answered none of the 53 questions we raised in our report after promising a full rebuttal,” he said. “We are pleased that Nikola is engaging with the SEC and we are not surprised that Trevor Milton (Nikola’s founder and executive chairman) is not commenting further on advice of counsel.”

Milton said in a tweet Friday he wouldn’t make any further comments “on the advice of counsel” other than to say that “Nikola approached the SEC, not the other way around.” He earlier said he would provide a “detail report” to address the allegations.

Hindenburg’s report — by a firm that owns a short position in the company’s stock and may stand to gain from a decline in the share price — alleges the maker of electric and hydrogen-fuel-cell heavy-duty vehicles made non-working products appear as fully functional. The report also alleges that Nikola staged misleading videos and told “dozens of lies” about its capabilities, partnerships or products, among other issues.

“Nikola has been vetted by some of the world’s most credible companies and investors,” the truck maker said in a Thursday statement to Bloomberg News. “We are on a path to success and will not waver based on a report filled with misleading information attempting to manipulate our stock.”

Milton initially responded to the report via a tweet, calling it a “hit job” and “lies.” He promised in a subsequent tweet to provide a detailed report to address what he called “one sided false claims.”

Hindenburg’s report garnered support from other short sellers such as Muddy Waters and Citron Research.

“Congrats to Hindenburg for exposing what appears to be a total fraud with $NKLA,” Citron tweeted, adding that the short seller will cover half of all legal expenses for Hindenburg.

At one point, Nikola shares had ballooned to almost $80 a share, giving it a market capitalization greater than Ford Motor Co. despite not generating any meaningful revenue.

In June, Bloomberg News reported that, according to people familiar with the matter, Milton had exaggerated the capabilities of its debut big rig during an unveiling event in December 2016. Hindenburg refers to that story in a portion of its report.

The short report followed news on Tuesday that GM took a $2 billion equity stake in Nikola. GM agreed to manufacture and supply key components for Nikola’s debut electric pickup, called the Badger. GM also will provide fuel-cell and battery technology for Nikola’s semi trucks, which are due to be built at a factory under construction in Coolidge, Ariz.

GM didn’t put any cash into Nikola — it will simply license technology to the company and manufacture its product. But allegations about Nikola could cast a pall over the deal and become a black eye for GM, whose shares fell as much as 4.7 percent on Thursday.

In response to Hindenburg’s claims, GM expressed confidence in Nikola’s ability to create value. “We stand by the statements we made in announcing the relationship,” spokesman Jim Cain said in an email.

Reuters, Bloomberg and Automotive News contributed to this report.

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