Tesla averts cash crunch as Musk mystique offsets late cars

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SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla Inc. put to rest — at least for now — a chorus of concern that it was going to need to raise more money soon, thanks in part to the salesmanship of its CEO.

The company’s cash balance barely budged last quarter even as it struggled mightily to make Model 3 sedans. Paying customers are supporting Tesla through its production struggle — they’ve put down more than $850 million in deposits for vehicles including the Semi truck and Roadster sports car Musk showed off in November.

Manufacturing setbacks had been limiting the amount of money coming in from customers taking delivery of Model 3s, the linchpin in Musk’s master plan to bring electric cars to the masses. While it’s going to take longer to potentially realize that vision, the chief executive officer of both Tesla and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has succeeded in captivating consumers in the meantime. His latest promotional stunt involved firing off a sports car into the sky atop the world’s most powerful rocket.

“If we can send a Roadster to the asteroid belt, we can probably solve Model 3 production,” Musk said on a conference call with analysts Wednesday, shortly after tweeting another photo of his Roadster hurtling through space.

Tesla said it remains on track to meet its goal to build 5,000 Model 3 sedans a week by the end of June, a target Musk has delayed several times. The company is putting off spending to double its production rate until reaching that milestone.

That approach paid dividends for a closely watched figure indicating how much money Tesla is using up: negative free cash flow. This was just $277 million in the fourth quarter — the lowest in more than a year — after two straight quarters of more than $1 billion.