Tesla and BYD’s cutthroat EV price war is driving Volvo spinoff Polestar to the precipice—and it may need a lifeline

Financially ailing carmaker Polestar is on the ropes, and analysts at investment bank Bernstein argue the only thing that may still save it is if parents Volvo and Zhejiang Geely of China, which together own nearly 88% of the stock, agree to take the company private just two years after shares began trading.

“We would like to see the concept and brand survive, but think it would make more sense for Polestar to eventually fold back into the Volvo Cars-Geely ecosystem,” Bernstein wrote, according to a research note cited by Bloomberg.

The company did not immediately provide a comment to Fortune.

Despite Polestar’s modern Swedish design and premium positioning—matched with a low-cost manufacturing base in China—the EV brand has been unable to scale to volume fast enough with its two pricey models, an upscale mid-size sedan and full-size SUV (a new crossover coupe sandwiched in between the two, the Polestar 4, just recently launched).

In November, the company revealed it needed to plug a $1.3 billion funding gap until 2025 when it expects it will no longer burn through cash.

More recently, Polestar reshuffled two key C-suite positions and posted disappointing Q4 volumes amid a ruinous price war unleashed by Tesla.

Swedish bank SEB subsequently assigned zero value to the 48% stake in Polestar held by Volvo, itself controlled by Geely.

“The end of ’23 was a particularly tough situation where the competition has gone to discounts at a level which we just simply said no to,” CEO Thomas Ingenlath told Reuters in an interview last week.

In a rapidly expanding global EV market, Polestar eked out just 6% growth in 2023 after 80% in the previous year.

The 54,600 vehicles—built in China’s Chengdu and Taizhou and sold to customers worldwide—fell well short of the initial 80,000 it had aimed for at the start of last year. It even missed the company’s revised minimum target of 60,000.

By comparison, Warren Buffett-backed BYD has gone on to eclipse Tesla as industry leader thanks to its range of affordable Chinese-built mass-market EVs that can better compete with Elon Musk’s rock-bottom prices.

Another SPAC listing that went on to flop

Taking Polestar private would mark a full turn from the strategy Wall Street favored during the zero interest rate days when it urged legacy carmakers to spin off and float their loss-making EV brands like Polestar. 

They argued listing these startups on the stock market could raise much-needed capital for the subsidiary while providing price transparency for investors in the parent.

If all went well, both would benefit as many analysts argued that wholly-owned EV brands were not treated fairly by the market, leaving their true value unlocked. 

Polestar complied, announcing in September 2021 plans to go public via a reverse merger with Gores Guggenheim, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

Back then interest rates were still at rock bottom, inflation was deemed transitory and the market rewarded growth above profits. 

Polestar offered the alluring chance to invest on the ground floor in a pure-play premium EV brand unencumbered by the baggage of stranded legacy assets like combustion engine car models.

Ingenlath even took a unique approach of licensing production of Polestar vehicles to third parties like Geely and now Renault, rather than weigh its balance sheet down with costly manufacturing plants. 

Yet Polestar proved imminently unkind to investors with the stock marking its all-time high of around $13 a share on the first day trading in late June 2022.

Ever since it has been on a steady decline, losing 84% of its value to last change hands at $2.10 per share, giving it a market cap of just $4.4 billion.

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