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Sep 10, 2020

Nikola declines as short seller accuses EV-maker of 'deception'

Notable Calls: Nikola, Gibson Energy and Exxon Mobil

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Nikola Corp. declined after Hindenburg Research published a report accusing the startup electric-vehicle maker of “deception” and lying about its technology.

The report -- by a firm that owns a short position in the company’s stock and may stand to gain from a decline in the share price -- alleges the maker of electric and hydrogen-fuel-cell heavy-duty vehicles made non-working products appear as fully functional. The report also alleges that Nikola staged misleading videos and told “dozens of lies” about its capabilities, partnerships or products, among other issues.

“Nikola has been vetted by some of the world’s most credible companies and investors,” the truck maker said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “We are on a path to success and will not waver based on a report filled with misleading information attempting to manipulate our stock.”

Trevor Milton, Nikola’s founder and executive chairman, also responded to the report via a tweet, calling it a “hit job” and “lies.” He promised in a subsequent tweet to provide a detailed report to address what he called “one sided false claims”

Nikola declined 11 per cent to close at US$37.57 after earlier trading as low as US$36.75. The shares have risen about 11 per cent since June 4, when the company went public through a reverse merger with a blank-check company. At one point, Nikola shares had ballooned to almost US$80 a share, giving it a market capitalization greater than Ford Motor Co. despite not generating any meaningful revenue.

In June, Bloomberg News reported that, according to people familiar with the matter, Milton had exaggerated the capabilities of its debut big rig during an unveiling event in December 2016. Hindenburg refers to that story in a portion of its report.

The short report followed news on Tuesday that General Motors Co. took a US$2 billion equity stake in Nikola. GM agreed to manufacture and supply key components for Nikola’s debut electric pickup, called the Badger. The Detroit giant also will provide fuel-cell and battery technology for Nikola’s semi trucks, which are due to be built at a factory under construction in Coolidge, Arizona.

GM didn’t put any cash into Nikola -- it will simply license technology to the company and manufacture its product. But allegations about Nikola could cast a pall over the deal and become a black eye for GM, whose shares fell as much as 4.7 per cent on Thursday.

In response to Hindenburg’s claims, GM expressed confidence in Nikola’s ability to create value. “We stand by the statements we made in announcing the relationship,” spokesman Jim Cain said in an email.

CNH Industrial NV’s Iveco unit held a 6.7 per cent stake in Nikola as of June 3 and has an agreement to build one of Nikola’s battery-electric semis at a facility in Germany. CNH shares fell as much as 3.2 per cent during European trading hours on Thursday. The company didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

The Hindenburg report also references the short seller’s conversation with a Robert Bosch GmbH employee who appeared to contradict claims by Milton that five units of the early battery-electric version of its semi truck already were coming off the production line in Germany. In a statement to Bloomberg News, a Bosch spokesperson said the German auto-parts maker was aware of the report and its employee’s comments were “taken out of context.” The spokesperson also confirmed that Bosch has been a supplier to Nikola for “several years,” adding that further questions on Nikola should be referred to Nikola.

In a regulatory filing earlier this year, Nikola said it had a number of agreements with Bosch entities since 2017 to “develop, build, test and support” various components for Nikola’s prototypes including a fuel-cell system, battery packs, steering pumps and motors.

Also earlier this year, Hindenburg Research called out companies including SCWorx Corp. and Predictive Technology Group for making claims tied to the coronavirus. Trading in both companies’ shares later was suspended temporarily by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.