By Joe Saunders April 24, 2022 at 1:48pm
If there’s one thing the worlds of big business and social media have learned over the past three weeks, it’s that it’s a bad idea to sell Elon Musk short.
Selling Musk short and admitting it to him directly is evidently an even worse idea, especially when you’re asking him for money at the same time.
That’s true even if you’re one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft who now devotes his time to philanthropic endeavors, is likely getting a reminder of that after Musk delivered a social media smack down on Friday that pulled back the curtain on the kind of conversation 99.999 percent of the world will never be privy to.
Musk was responding to a Twitter follower who asked him to confirm whether a screengrab of a text conversation between Musk and Gates had actually taken place.
In it, Gates had apparently asked Musk to join him in discussing “philanthropy possibilities” — obviously meaning he wanted the SpaceX and Tesla CEO to kick in some of his billions to whatever cause or causes Gates happened to be pushing at the time (possibly some “climate change” angle, judging by the context).
@elonmusk is this real lol
— Whole Mars Catalog (@WholeMarsBlog) April 22, 2022
The account user that questioned Musk is “Whole Mars Catalog,” which CNBC reported Friday is run by a Musk associate. A Gates’ representative was not available to comment Friday, CNBC reported.
Do you think Elon Musk will end up owning Twitter?
Musk responded to Gates with a question that was a little more direct: “Do you still have a half billion dollar short position against Tesla?”
The reference is to “short selling” in which an investor borrows shares of stock he expects to decline in value and sells them to those willing to pay the market price. The short-seller is betting that when he has to return the shares, the stock will have dropped in value, so the price he pays for them is less than what he sold the borrowed shares for. The difference is the short-seller’s profit.
There’s nothing new about the practice, and, according to a December 2020 report on the transportation-news website electrek.co, Tesla has been one of the most shorted stocks on the NASDAQ exchange. (That doesn’t mean it’s smart. Short-sellers lost $38 billion on Tesla deals in 2020, electrek reported.)
So, there’s almost certainly nothing personal about Gates making the move involving Tesla stock. Still, betting against a stock in a company like Tesla, which is almost indistinguishable in the public eye from Elon Musk himself, is not exactly a vote of confidence in either Tesla or Musk.
In fact, doing it, then admitting it openly in the course of a conversation, would fit most about anyone’s definition of “disrespecting” Musk (to say nothing of doing it while asking for money).
And Musk clearly didn’t appreciate it, which might be why he not only turned down Gates’ “philanthropy possibilities,” he confirmed the whole story on Twitter.
“I heard from multiple people at TED that Gates still had half billion short against Tesla, which is why I asked him, so it’s not exactly top secret,” he wrote.
Yeah, but I didn’t leak it to NYT. They must have got it through friends of friends.
I heard from multiple people at TED that Gates still had half billion short against Tesla, which is why I asked him, so it’s not exactly top secret.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 23, 2022
It’s the kind of public smack down a guy like Gates can’t be used to. A billionaire — one who’s not named Donald Trump, anyway — doesn’t usually get attacked like that even after the kind of public embarrassments Gates has endured lately, including his well-publicized divorce from his wife of 27 years and the public airing of his relationship with the now-deceased notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The date of the Gates-Musk text messages wasn’t clear, but according to a February 2021 electrek.co report, Musk told friend and podcast host Joe Rogan at the time that Gates had a large short position against Tesla. Since even to billionaires like Musk and Gates, a “half billion dollar short position” probably qualifies as “large,” that could well be what he was talking about.
(Asked about shorting Tesla during a Bloomberg interview in February 2021, Gates didn’t explicitly confirm it, but said “I wish I’d been more on the long side,” and laughed, which sounds pretty close to an embarrassed confirmation.)
So, maybe Gates was “sorry” about short-selling Tesla in 2021. Lots of investors had to be in 2020, after all.
But he might have been sorrier when he admitted it to Musk and had the door firmly shut on whatever “philanthropy possibilities” he was hawking.
And, no doubt, he was sorry yet again when Musk delivered the social media smack down on Friday.
Whatever happens with Musk’s much-publicized bid to buy Twitter, whatever happens in the still-unsettled worlds of electric vehicles and private space travel, one thing should be clear to all:
Selling Elon Musk short is a bad idea.