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May 25, 2021, 9:55 a.m. EDT

Should you buy Nio stock? The company may be light on profits, but it’s heavy on momentum

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By Jeff Reeves

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The rapid expansion of vehicle sales naturally has resulted in soaring revenue. However, the Chinese EV upstart continues to operate at a loss.

Gross margins have admittedly improved, but profit forecasts for fiscal 2022 are still negative for Nio. And more importantly, when you look at peers including legacy automakers, it doesn’t appear realistic that Nio could see outsized improvement from its current gross margins that are in-line with the rest of the industry. That means as it continues to invest heavily in future growth, investors may have to make their peace with the fact that the company is trading current profit potential for that vision.

Free cash flow

Free cash flow is another area where Nio has a bit of  work to do, particularly if it wants to win over investors who care about this metric, which measures how much money is on hand at a company after it pays the bills for regular operations. Based on the last 12 months, free cash flow has firmed up but is still barely out of the red.

However, as a smaller company that is scaling up rapidly, it is reasonable to expect this kind of gap between Nio and its more mature peers as it comes into its own. By contrast, established firms like GM and Toyota that saw serious cash flow concerns over the last year don’t have the same excuse. Rather, these automakers seem to be burdened by structural challenges — including the specific costs associated with scaling up EV operations to evolve and meet the challenges and opportunities of a modern auto marketplace.

Stock valuation and performance

As you’ve no doubt determined on your own, there are really two different ways to value momentum stocks such as Nio. One involves a reliance on traditional metrics like sales and profitability, while the other is a more aspirational look at where the company could be headed in the future.

From a traditional perspective, Nio is worrisome because it has no profits to speak of. It’s also not exactly a hot stock lately, as shares have drawn back in recent months and are negative for the year so far. However, the shares have gains of more than 900% in the last 12 months.

In fact, for those who call Nio “the next Tesla,” it’s not an entirely unreasonable comparison — and considering Tesla’s three-year and five-year returns despite only recently moving into profitability, that could be music to investors’ ears.

Wall Street’s opinion

The million-dollar question is whether Nio can keep up both its growth trends and its long-term appeal to investors who aren’t concerned with near-term numbers. Based on its most recent numbers, that trend could still be intact — but it is far from certain.

Analysts aren’t exactly bearish on Nio, with 63% of Wall Street experts rating the stock a buy and the implied 12-month upside on shares a juicy 59% based on consensus price targets.

However, it’s interesting to see that legacy automakers as a group are generally thought of better, with more “buy” ratings even if the upside isn’t as dramatic. Excluding Ford Motor Co. /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +3.64% , both GM and Toyota have better support among the analyst community.

The question for Nio investors is pretty simple: Do you want to bank on the less dynamic but more established automakers, or do you want to take on more risk in this Chinese upstart in pursuit of bigger potential gains?

With reporting by Philip van Doorn .

/zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite
US : U.S.: NYSE
$ 14.37
+0.51 +3.64%
Volume: 61.41M
July 29, 2021 11:23a
P/E Ratio
14.35
Dividend Yield
0.00%
Market Cap
$55.32 billion
Rev. per Employee
$683,570
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