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The electrical automobile frenzy helps even afflicted corporations carry giant cash

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The conventional path to taking a company public is pretty simple: demonstrate some early success, then sell shares for capital that can be used to expand. This year, electric vehicle startups have gone public in droves on those terms, with multibillion-dollar valuations doled out to innovators like QuantumScape, a battery developer, and Hyliion, which makes electrified powertrains for freight trucks.

EVs are so hot right now that startups don’t need to be particularly promising or novel to nab funding. Raising money before turning a profit is no longer particularly notable, but when it comes to EVs, years of outright failure are apparently just fine by some investors.

The latest example came early this month when EV startup Faraday Future announced that it is negotiating to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company or SPAC. The company aims to raise $850 million to fund its first commercial electric car. SPACs, also known as “blank check companies,” are a quick path to public fundraising that has seen a massive surge in popularity this year, particularly in the EV realm, largely because the method is faster than a conventional initial public offering.

But that speed—which entails somewhat less financial transparency and public scrutiny than a traditional IPO—may not serve investors well. After all, Faraday has already burned through $2 billion without producing a vehicle, thanks to a variety of financial and operational problems.

But Faraday wouldn’t be alone: Two other EV companies with checkered histories, Fisker and Karma Automotive, have secured or are pursuing major new funding. It’s a remarkable indicator of the promise investors see in EVs—or, maybe, of a market craze that has lost touch with reality.

Faraday’s failure

If and when Faraday Future hits public markets, it will bear a huge legacy of mismanagement and alleged deceptive behavior by its founder, Jia Yueting.

Jia started Faraday Future in 2014 using funds from his massive China-based conglomerate, LeEco. But as early as 2016, Faraday was wracked by problems including unpaid bills, canceled factories, and an opaque relationship with LeEco’s EV effort that reportedly drew resources away from Faraday’s own work.

Some of those problems stemmed from problems at Jia’s other company; LeEco was at the time relying on huge debt, much of it drawn from China’s “shadow banking” sector, to fund aggressive expansion. That bet went very badly: LeEco has since gone through massive layoffs and shed many of its subsidiaries.

Most shocking of all, it soon became clear that Jia was personally on the hook for a staggering $3.6 billion worth of liabilities stemming from LeEco’s collapse. That led Jia to declare personal bankruptcy, but his creditors accused him of using a variety of deceptions to hide assets and escape his debts.

Fisker’s bad Karma

Fisker hasn’t dealt with anything like the chaos at Faraday, but it is tarnished by arguably avoidable failure. The company in July announced plans to go public via a SPAC and raise around $1 billion at a $2.9 billion valuation. But Fisker is the second electric vehicle startup from founder Henrik Fisker—and the first, Fisker Automotive, was a flop.

Fisker Automotive was founded in 2007 and collapsed by 2013 after the failure of its first model, the luxury gasoline-electric hybrid Fisker Karma. Though widely praised for its design, the vehicle suffered from inconsistent production quality, supply chain problems, and technical issues. Only about 2,000 were ever produced.

The remains of Fisker Automotive were sold to a Chinese auto-parts maker and spun out as Karma Automotive. Karma Automotive has since produced a rebranded version of the Fisker Karma, now known as the Karma Revero, though in small quantities; only about 1,000 Karma Reveros were reportedly sold in 2019. But Karma Automotive, too, recently announced plans to go public, aiming to raise $300 million in an IPO.

What changed?

So what has changed to help investors look past these companies’ troubled roots?

“Even with all of the internal and external forces we’ve encountered, we are still moving forward,” said John Schilling, a spokesperson for Faraday Future, of the company’s prospects. The $2 billion invested so far, he says, positions Faraday well for the future: “We have our own technology…robust manufacturing capabilities, and can begin production quickly.”

But the most significant change at Faraday is that Jia Yueting no longer owns shares in the company. Jia’s power had been cited as a significant deterrent to new investors, given his track record, but he gave up his ownership stake as part of his personal bankruptcy. He does still have a significant role at Faraday, though, as its “chief product and user-eco officer.”

Despite the failure of the Karma, Fisker’s baggage isn’t nearly so heavy. The Karma was a real trailblazer, hitting the market before the Tesla Model S. And a Fisker spokesperson emphasized that “the company we’re building today draws on all of the lessons learned from the past.”

Among other things, that has meant shifting focus from a high-end sports sedan to a mid-market all-electric SUV, expected to go on sale in 2022. Fisker recently signed up contract builder Magna Steyr, which also produces EVs for the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, to produce the car. And unlike Faraday, Fisker says it already has enough funding to produce its debut vehicle, describing its fundraising as “another way to de-risk.”

In September, Karma Automotive announced a major transition of its own. It plans to roll out a new slate of fully electric vehicles, including a pickup and SUV, starting in 2021. It has also added some notable talent, including chief operating officer Kevin Pavlov, formerly of Magna.

Broader market changes have also made EVs generally more appealing to investors. In September, California declared that all cars sold in the state must be zero-emission—primarily meaning electric—by 2035, which can be expected to expand the EV market substantially. And continued declines in the cost of batteries could soon make EVs price-competitive with gas-burning cars and trigger a rapid, market-wide shift to EVs.

But really, Fisker’s and Faraday’s ability to raise money hinges on one word: Tesla. Elon Musk’s company has seen a staggering stock run-up over the past 12 months, as the idea of an EV-dominated future catches on. Fisker, Faraday Future, and Karma Automotive all acknowledge that the active investment market influenced their decision to pursue a public offering right now. As long as the EV growth story holds up, investors will likely be happy to hand over money to other EV makers, even if their halos are slightly tarnished.

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