Nikola issues more detailed denial of short-seller’s claims

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Nikola Corp. issued a lengthier denial of a report last week that claimed the electric truck maker had deceived investors, accusing a short seller of mischaracterizations and distortions.

Hindenburg Research, a short seller whose report sent Nikola shares tumbling last week, made false and misleading statements that were designed to manipulate the market, Nikola said Monday. The Phoenix-based company’s shares pared a decline of as much as 16 percent in pre-market trading.

Nikola said Hindenburg took a comment made by an employee of Robert Bosch, a supplier and investor in the company, out of context and underestimated its capabilities to produce hydrogen for its fuel cell-powered trucks. The Phoenix-based company also said it terminated a former chief financial officer and that his departure was unrelated to the company refunding reservation deposits for its first truck prototype, as Hindenburg suggested.

Shares of Nikola were up 7.6 percent to $34.56 in late morning trading in New York.

Some of the responses to claims made by Hindenburg, which stands to gain from Nikola shares falling, are more counterarguments than rebuttals. For example, the short seller took the company to task for claiming to have been working on its own inverters, by releasing a video recently that showed it had been using another company’s component with a piece of tape covering the product-description label.

Nikola confirmed it does use third-party components in prototype vehicles, but they may be swapped out for its own parts in production versions. The company said it has been working on its own inverters.

Hindenburg’s founder, Nathan Anderson, said Monday that Nikola’s response did not adequately address the issues it had raised. “In the few areas where the company did respond, it largely confirmed our findings or simply raised new unanswered questions. We will be issuing a detailed response,” he said in an email.

All about execution

Some analysts downplayed the short-seller report, calling Nikola’s strategy of outsourcing key technology a strength instead of a weakness.

“Speed, flexibility and unencumbered readiness to change course quickly with evolving circumstance in a fast-developing market are fundamental and desirable attributes of a disruptor,” Paul Coster, a JPMorgan analyst with an “overweight” rating on the stock, said in a research note Monday. Whatever Nikola has said in the past, “it’s all about execution looking ahead to 2023,” Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securtities with a “neutral” rating on Nikola, said in a note to clients.

In one of its critiques, Hindenburg panned the Nikola One, the company’s first semi truck, calling it “not a real truck” because it lacked key components. That corroborated a Bloomberg story from June about the company exaggerating its capabilities, despite Chairman and company founder Trevor Milton’s statement in 2016 the truck was “not a pusher” and “fully functions and works.”

Nikola said it ultimately decided against investing the resources required to allow the truck to “drive on its own propulsion,” although it had been designed to driven under its own power. “The Nikola One was an incredibly successful proof of concept,” it said.

The startup challenged the short-seller’s portrayal of a 2018 promotional video of an early Nikola prototype as misleading. Hindenburg said the truck was “simply filmed rolling down a big hill,” but Nikola said Monday it never claimed the truck was driving under its own propulsion — though it had described the vehicle as “in motion” in social media posts and other communications.

Nikola did not address an allegation about a non-binding order placed in 2016 by US Xpress Enterprises Inc. for its fuel-cell powered semis. Hindenburg said US Xpress had only $1.3 million cash on hand as of its most recent quarterly report and expectations it could pay for the trucks was “unrealistic.” The short seller cited a Cowen & Co. research note that linked the US Xpress order to Nikola’s statement to investors in April that a single U.S. fleet owner accounted for more than a third of the company’s FCEV semi-truck reservations. Nikola has said its total reservations are worth the equivalent of approximately $10 billion in sales.

Representatives for Nikola and US Xpress had no immediate comment on the status of the order.

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