China Was Questioning Tesla About Quality Problems. Then Bitcoin Happened

How Tesla caught a lucky break.

AccessTimeIconFeb 9, 2021 at 10:18 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:09 p.m. UTC
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Tesla’s $1.5 billion bitcoin investment couldn’t have come at a better time for the electric car manufacturer. As it happened, about the time the company revealed its massive stake in the cryptocurrency on Feb. 8, Chinese officials had announced that five agencies were questioning Tesla about quality and safety issues.

Specifically, China’s State Administration for Market Regulation issued this short statement on Feb. 8 at 8:00 p.m. China Standard Time (12:00 UTC): 

“Recently, the General Administration of Market Supervision and the Central Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Transport and the Fire Rescue Bureau of the Ministry of Emergency Management have jointly held talks on the consumer-reported abnormal accelerations, battery fires, and over-the-air (OTA) upgrades. Tesla Motors (Beijing) Co., Ltd. and Tesla (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. are required to strictly abide by Chinese laws and regulations, strengthen internal management, implement the main responsibility of corporate quality and safety, effectively maintain social public safety and effectively protect consumers legal rights and interests.”

Two things make that announcement particularly notable.

First, Tesla is known for its good relationship with the Chinese government and is the first foreign automaker to operate a wholly owned plant in China. Second, it came minutes before Tesla filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) its annual 10-K report (at approximately 7:30 a.m. ET) saying it purchased about $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin (BTC) in January. 

Tesla shares closed Monday up 1.3%, in no small part because of the bitcoin purchase. The cryptocurrency itself broke new record highs that same day, gaining $4,254.48 alone during the hour Tesla's bitcoin position was reported. While publications like Bloomberg quickly noted the Chinese government's announcement, it was eclipsed by the big moves up in Tesla stock and bitcoin's price.

Tesla may indeed have caught a lucky break when it came to timing. However, some saw a connection between the bitcoin buy and the Chinese government's announcement. As Business Insider reported, investor Michael Burry – whose story was dramatized in “The Big Short” – said in a now deleted tweet that Tesla bought the bitcoin to distract investors from the news out of China. However, such a plot would have required impeccable timing given all that occurred in the previous weeks.

CoinDesk reached out to Tesla for comments but as of press time the company had not responded.

Timeline of events

The seed that blossomed into Tesla’s bitcoin purchase was planted weeks in advance. Here’s what we know so far:

  • Dec. 20, 2020 (08:21 UTC): Tesla’s Elon Musk started a series of tweets about bitcoin, which he described as “almost as BS as fiat money.” One of the responses, written by MicroStrategy’s CEO Michael Saylor, suggested Musk convert the Tesla balance sheet from U.S. dollars to bitcoin. “Are such large transactions even possible?” Musk asked in response to Saylor’s tweet.
  • Jan. 29, 2021 (08:22 UTC): Tesla’s Elon Musk tweeted that “in retrospect, it was inevitable,” after he added “#Bitcoin” to his Twitter bio, which resulted in a double-digit gain to the price of the oldest cryptocurrency.
  • Feb. 8, 2021 (12:00 UTC): The State Administration for Market Regulation in China announced in an official statement that Tesla officials had been summoned by several Chinese regulators “in recent days,” citing consumer complaints about Tesla’s quality issues.
  • Feb. 8, 2021 (12:27 UTC): Tesla’s annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was released. It included the news the company has put an aggregate of $1.5 billion into bitcoin under a new investment policy, and that the company may “acquire and hold digital assets from time to time or long term.” 

Earlier than usual SEC filing

The 10-K form filed by Tesla came earlier this year compared with previous years, according to data from SEC file-tracking website BamSEC. Between 2015 and 2020, Tesla’s 10-K form typically was filed at the end of February. In the U.S., companies have between 60-90 days to file their 10-K forms.

Despite what could have been negative news coming out of China, Tesla’s stock ($TSLA) soared after the market opened in the U.S. on Monday.

Tesla TSLA stock trading since Monday.
Tesla TSLA stock trading since Monday.

It should be noted that some on Chinese social media platforms, such as Weibo, crypto enthusiasts doubted whether Musk had previously “manipulated” bitcoin’s price.

Nonetheless, right after bitcoin’s price fell below $33,000 earlier on Jan. 29 – the price level Tesla was rumored to have bought at in early January – Musk tweeted his now-famous bitcoin line and added “#bitcoin” in his Twitter bio.

Bitcoin's price surged after Musk tweeted about bitcoin on Jan. 29.
Bitcoin's price surged after Musk tweeted about bitcoin on Jan. 29.

“This may indicate that the [world's] richest guy was allegedly pumping bitcoin and attempted to manipulate the market,” one Weibo user wrote in a post. “If it were true, his behavior was quite ‘low.’” “Low” in Chinese meme language means “disgrace.”

Screenshot of the weibo post questioning Musk's bitcoin tweet on Jan. 29.
Screenshot of the weibo post questioning Musk's bitcoin tweet on Jan. 29.

At the time of writing, bitcoin’s price was trading at $46,804.49, up 8.94% in the past 24 hours, according to CoinDesk BPI.


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