If Saudi Arabia ultimately does provide the multibillion-dollar financing needed to take Elon Musk's Tesla car company private, it would represent the boldest move yet in the kingdom's campaign to build a post-oil future.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth fund that manages about $230 billion, is the main source of funding under Musk's buyout plan, the billionaire businessman said in a blog post-Monday.
"Obviously, the Saudi sovereign fund has more than enough capital needed to execute on such a transaction," Musk wrote. "I left the July 31st meeting with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed, and that it was just a matter of getting the process moving."
The Saudi fund, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says will become the world's largest, already owns a small stake in Uber and has contributed $65 billion to private equity funds managed by Blackstone and SoftBank.
But a broader Saudi effort to replace a dependence on fossil fuels and government spending with a productive, market-centered economy is grinding forward slowly. The economic overhaul comes as the Saudi leadership swings between liberalising reforms such as allowing women to drive to crackdowns on internal dissent that have sparked a sudden split with Canada.
As oil prices fell roughly by half from their US$105 (NZ$159) highs in 2014, the kingdom developed an ambitious plan that included selling shares in the state-owned oil company in the largest stock offering ever; replacing the legions of foreign laborers with Saudi citizens; attracting foreign investment to fuel future growth; and creating a US$500 billion megacity on the Red Sea called Neom.
"This is a huge task," said Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University. "Oil is so central to the Saudi economy that a significant reduction in its role is not something that's going to happen in a year or two or three. This is really a case of decades."
Saudi Arabia has tried before to wean itself from an economy based on its good fortune in being located atop an estimated 260 billion barrels of oil, the world's largest proven reserves. When oil prices sank in the late 1990s to about $12 a barrel, Saudi officials drew up plans to diversify the economy by promoting tourism.
But oil prices recovered, removing the pressure for change, and progress languished.
The current bid is aimed at developing new job-creating domestic industries and investing the kingdom's oil proceeds in ventures such as Tesla that offer potential high returns.
"This Tesla transaction is about diversifying their sources of revenue," said Garbis Iradian, chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute of International Finance.
The Saudi economy this year is expected to grow a paltry 1.9 per cent, after contracting slightly last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
"Two years in, the economy has been very sluggish," said Karen Young, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "The economy is very dependent upon government spending."
Few companies have captured the public interest in the future of electric cars quite like Tesla. The Silicon Valley automaker's high-powered electric motors, long-range batteries and national network of car-refuelling Superchargers helped revolutionize the American auto industry, bringing brought an aura of cool to an electric-car market that had long been outmatched by more traditional gas-guzzling cars.
Tesla builds three models in a single California factory, making it a small side player in the nation's auto market. But Tesla's popularity - and Musk's grandiosity - have helped cement the company as America's most valuable automaker, even though it has yet to turn an annual profit.
The Saudi fund, Musk wrote in his Monday letter, had repeatedly approached the company about a take-private deal since early 2017.
Saudi fund leaders met Musk late last month, he said, after the fund had accumulated just under 5 percent of Tesla stock, a stake worth roughly $3 billion. The fund leaders pushed then to take the company private, Musk said, adding that he left the meeting "with no question that a deal with the Saudi sovereign fund could be closed."
Musk defended his tweets last week - including the phrase "funding secured" - on Monday by saying the fund "obviously" had "more than enough capital" to seal the deal. But Musk added that he is still discussing plans with a number of outside investors because he would like for the company to have a diverse shareholder base.
Musk said the Saudi fund would shoulder the costs of buying out shareholders and taking Tesla private, which he estimated at more than US$20 billion.
Musk estimated that investors now holding two-thirds of the company's shares would want to roll their holdings into a privately owned Tesla, lowering the amount of money it would cost to buy them out. But neither Musk nor the company specified how they arrived at that figure, and Musk's $420 target - about 18 per cent higher than the current share price - might prove hard for investors to pass up.
It's possible that the deal could cost far more than Musk expects. Buying out more than 145 million outstanding shares now owned by public investors, at $420 a share, would cost about $60 billion. The company also has about $10 billion in outstanding debt.
Gene Munster, a managing partner at Loup Ventures, said he believed there was a "greater than 50 per cent chance Tesla is private in a year."
But the lone public voice behind the Saudi fund's interest in Tesla, so far, has been Musk's. The Saudi fund has not commented on whether it discussed the plan with Musk or even if it has interest. Two people familiar with the Saudi fund's finances told the Wall Street Journal that they doubted the potential deal and that the fund was already struggling to cover its current investments.
The $60 billion company's stock rose less than 1 per cent Monday, to $356.41.
Musk, the company's top shareholder with a 20 per cent stake, said he has talked with some of the company's largest shareholders to feel out whether they had the "ability and desire" to stay investors in a private Tesla. Tesla's top shareholders include the asset-management giants Baillie Gifford, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price.
Tesla's board said last week it was discussing Musk's proposal, and provided no details as to funding or investors. Musk said he has explained to the board why going private "could be in Tesla's long-term interest."
Investigators in the Securities and Exchange Commission's San Francisco office asked Tesla last week for proof of the secured funding and for more details about Musk's tweets, according to a person briefed on the inquiry. The agency declined to comment.
Musk has encouraged investors to hold onto their shares, which would lower the cost to buy them out, but it's unclear exactly how smaller shareholders will fare in a private Tesla, and the company has offered few details.
Musk said current investors could hold shares in a special-purpose vehicle similar to one used by his rocket company SpaceX, in which employees and outside investors can privately buy or sell shares only during a few company-controlled periods a few times a year.
SEC rules require private companies with more than 300 shareholders to still file regular reports, one of the public-disclosure demands that likely pushed Musk to go private in the first place.
Prince Mohammed, the 32-year-old who leads the fund, has shown interest in flashy technological deals, including announcing a US$1 billion investment last year in Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's work in private spaceflight.
The crown prince and the Saudi delegation visited Silicon Valley this spring after a multiweek US tour on which he met with Branson, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.
- Washington Post