Tesla bought $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin, the company said in a regulatory filing on Monday, effectively putting nearly all of the money it earned on clean car credits towards the world’s filthiest asset.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the firm’s SEC filing. As of January 2021, the Silicon Valley-based company updated its investment policy to allow it more flexibility in diversifying its returns on cash. Those changes allow Tesla to buy bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which it immediately did.

“Thereafter, we invested an aggregate $1.50 billion in bitcoin under this policy and may acquire and hold digital assets from time to time or long-term. Moreover, we expect to begin accepting bitcoin as a form of payment for our products in the near future, subject to applicable laws and initially on a limited basis, which we may or may not liquidate upon receipt.”

The filing does not say how Tesla bought the bitcoin or how they are custodying it. It also does not tell us how many bitcoin it purchased or for what average price. We only know Tesla bought bitcoin sometime between Jan. 1 and early February, when the price was between $30,000 to $41,000. 

Tesla says its customers will be able to buy its vehicles with bitcoin. However, “liquidate upon receipt” means that if you purchase a Tesla with bitcoins, the company is likely to sell those bitcoins for cash immediately, something that is usually done by sending the funds through a payment processor first.

This is what most large merchants do when they say they are accepting bitcoin. They convert it to cash, so they don’t have to deal with bitcoin’s wild volatility. So if you buy a Tesla with bitcoin in the future, it will likely be the same as selling your bitcoin for fiat and then handing the cash over to Tesla.

Clean car credits for bitcoin

Tesla earns tradable credits under various regulations related to zero-emission vehicles, greenhouse gas, fuel economy, renewable energy, and clean fuel. It then turns around and sells those credits to other automakers when they can’t comply with auto emissions and fuel economy standards.

In 2020, Tesla reported making $1.58 billion in selling these tradable credits it received. And here is the important bit: without those tradeable credits, the company would not have been profitable. Tesla would have lost money. So what does it do with that money? It turns around and buys bitcoin.

Bitcoin is an environmental disaster. The bitcoin network currently burns around 116.87 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, according to the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance. To give you an idea of how devastating that is to our climate, that is as much energy as a small country or seven nuclear power plants.

Keep in mind, bitcoin’s energy consumption increases right alongside the price of bitcoin. As bitcoin goes up in price, more people want to mine the virtual currency for profit, leading to greater energy consumption as they pile more money into power-hungry ASIC rigs.

Bitcoin is not only filthy for its energy waste but also because it is the currency of choice in underground economies. Ransomware would probably not exist if it were not for bitcoin.

And bitcoin fits the very definition of a Ponzi scheme. It has no intrinsic value—any money new investors put into the system immediately goes out via bitcoin miners selling their 900 newly minted bitcoin per day. Tesla’s massive influx of cash will fund the bitcoin miners for about a month and a half, at most.

Elon Musk shilling crypto

Two years ago, Musk and Tesla paid a combined $40 million penalty to the SEC after Musk’s cryptic tweets about taking Tesla private led to stock fluctuations. The regulator charged him with securities fraud. As part of the settlement, Musk agreed to step down as chairman of the company, although he continued to hold the title of CEO.

Apparently, Musk has learned nothing from that experience. Last month, presumably around the time Tesla was buying up hoards of bitcoin unbeknownst to the general public, Musk caused the price of bitcoin to go up 20% when he changed his Twitter bio to include the word “bitcoin.”

Soon after changing the bio, Musk said in a tweet: “In retrospect, it was inevitable.” In retrospect, that tweet looks like an early hint that Tesla was funneling money into the digital asset.

Will Musk get into trouble for his bitcoin tweets?

It is unlikely, Columbia University Law Professor John Coffee, Jr., told the Wall Street Journal, especially given that a federal judge rebuked the SEC when it sought to hold Musk in contempt in 2019. “I don’t think the commission would dare push it that far,” he said.

The latest Tesla news caused bitcoin to spike 18% this morning, sending the price to over $44,000, and setting a new all-time high.

Updates Feb. 8: Bitcoin topped $44,000 on Monday, even higher than the $43,000 I mentioned earlier. I added that in the SEC settlement Musk agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla. And I added the Coffee quote from WSJ.

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