03.21.20

Why SpaceX desperately needs a government bailout…

Posted in Broadband, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Services, SpaceX at 12:36 pm by timfarrar

Over the last couple of months its been interesting to watch the maneuvering by SpaceX as it sought to raise its next funding round, in large part from a range of new investors with little or no knowledge of the satellite sector. My understanding is that the original ambition was to raise well over $1B, to be announced in conjunction with Elon Musk’s appearance at Satellite 2020, and attempt to flatten the competition as OneWeb struggled to complete its own planned $1B round.

SpaceX staffed up in anticipation of this new funding, doubling the staff in Boca Chica in February, which has increased the company’s burn rate even further. According to data disclosed at the time of the November 2018 debt funding round, SpaceX generated $270M of adjusted EBITDA in the 12 months to September 2018, but only by counting hundreds of millions of dollars of customer deposits, such as that paid by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for his trip around the moon. As a result it seems clear that SpaceX was otherwise burning cash even in 2018, when its revenues were projected to be $2.5B+. And in 2019, revenues roughly halved as the number of launches fell from 21 to 13 (of which 2 were unpaid Starlink launches). So before the staffing ramp up in early 2020, SpaceX had already been burning over $100M per month in cash, and so far in 2020 four of the six launches have been unpaid Starlink launches, resulting in even less revenue now coming in the door.

In early 2020, a key objective was to raise enough money to last until the end of the year, when SpaceX anticipated that it would receive considerable funding from the DoD (we heard rumors that up to $1B was being sought) and planned to obtain billions more from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction (which was expected to start in October and will offer up to $16B of funding over 10 years to service providers that commit to offer voice and broadband services to fixed locations in eligible unserved high-cost census blocks). Importantly, bidders are not required to actually provide service to any specific number of customers at all in order to receive the funding, but instead are expected to use the funding to subsidize their buildout and make it available. While this is a rational approach for a terrestrial network that can only make a return on the investment to the extent that it is then able to win customers within the coverage footprint that has been built out, it makes no sense whatsoever for a satellite system that covers all customers immediately but can then reallocate its capacity anywhere within the country or even the rest of the world.

SpaceX downplayed expectations in February as rumors began to spread about its funding round, telling CNBC on February 21 that it was raising $250M to buy back employees’ shares (an obvious attempt to boost its hiring efforts), while hoping to maintain the element of shock and awe, just as happened in May last year when it launched 60 satellites, a far higher number than anyone had expected. As markets began to teeter, SpaceX had to be content with telling CNBC on March 9 that the company had “authorized” $500M in new shares, but when the Form D was filed on March 13 it became clear that investors had contributed far less than expected, with only $221M contributed to date and the round listed as just $250M. That’s no more than two months of cash burn at SpaceX’s current rate of spend.

Elon Musk’s appearance at Satellite 2020 didn’t go well, and was notable mainly for his comments that “zero LEO constellations haven’t gone bankrupt” and that he “just wanted to be in the not bankrupt category”. His obsession with the problems in closing the SpaceX funding round was also very evident from the fact that he was still tweeting about the market correction when he should have already been on stage.

So it’s hardly surprising that we now see reports that the Commercial Spaceflight Federation is asking for a bailout for SpaceX and other member companies and that Musk has adopted a high risk approach of criticizing the coronavirus as exaggerated and insisting that SpaceX remain open and working at full speed. But what articles suggesting that Tesla has the cash to weather the storm miss is that Musk’s most critical near term cash problem is now at SpaceX not at Tesla.

It’s hard to imagine the company changing course and abandoning either Starship or Starlink, which means the enormous cash burn will continue. However, the recent equity valuation of $36B is now completely untenable (especially if OneWeb collapses, as has been rumored this week), although a several hundred million dollar secured loan might still be a feasible option to tide the company over for several months. Nevertheless, unless Musk is proved right about the coronavirus and the markets improve quickly enough that new funding becomes available to SpaceX relatively soon, or alternatively the US government offers to bail him out (either publicly or with off the books money from the DoD), SpaceX is currently heading on autopilot towards a concrete wall of bankruptcy.