SEC vs Tesla

The Securities and Exchange Commission appears to be keeping a close eye on Tesla Inc.’s accounting after a very public battle with its chief executive.

The SEC has previously had run-ins with Tesla TSLA, +0.72% Chief Executive Elon Musk, but those fights have largely focused on Musk’s extracurricular activities, namely tweets that may disclose material information. After Musk suggested on Twitter Inc.’s TWTR, +0.68% service last year that he was considering taking the company private at $420 a share, SEC accusations of stock manipulation were settled with a $40 million fine — split between Musk and Tesla — and an agreement that Musk would step down as chairman and Tesla would appoint new independent directors to the board. That settlement was later amended with more specific language about what Musk is allowed to tweet after the SEC felt Musk ran afoul of the agreement with a tweet about expected production at the electric-car company.

The recent correspondence has less to do with Musk, instead largely falling on the shoulders of Tesla’s new Chief Financial Officer, Zachary Kirkhorn, and Tesla’s legal department. Filings uploaded Wednesday to the SEC’s online database show the regulator questioning Tesla’s annual report, issued in February, and a quarterly report issued in July.

In its original letter to Kirkhorn on Sept. 17, SEC staff sought further explanation for Tesla’s changing financial situation, as well as revenue Tesla said it received for third-party sales from acquired companies and its warranty-reserve policy, as disclosed in its 2018 annual report. The regulator also asked for more explanation of how Tesla was accounting for leased automobiles in 2019, after new accounting rules were put in place regarding automobile leases.

In his response to the SEC, Kirkhorn detailed Tesla’s ramped-up production of the Model 3 in 2018 as largely the cause of the change in Tesla’s accounts, focusing on SEC questions about a large increase in the cost of its automobile revenue. Kirkhorn also explained that some companies that Tesla acquired were still selling goods to third parties due to contracts signed before Tesla purchased the companies.

Kirkhorn’s response to questions about warranty reserves and lease accounting largely defended Tesla’s approach as being within accounting guidelines. Little substantial appeared to be disclosed beyond what already appeared in Tesla’s SEC filings that spurred the questions. On Oct. 28, the SEC closed its review.

In a Sept. 17 letter to legal staff, the SEC requested that Tesla provide unredacted copies of certain information so the SEC could determine if the information deserved to be withheld from SEC filings. In a Sept. 25 follow-up, the regulator agreed that information in six exhibits included with regulatory filings from 2017 and 2018 could be redacted until September 2020.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the correspondence. Tesla’s shares gained 0.7% to $331.29 in the regular session Wednesday, then fell 0.4% in after-hours trading.