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Elon Musk defends tweets in San Francisco securities fraud trial

Alex Spiro, attorney for Elon Musk, center, leaves court in San Francisco, California, U.S., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Benjamin Fanjoy | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk appeared in a federal court in San Francisco on Friday to defend tweets he posted to his tens of millions of followers in August 201[ads1]8.

The tweets said he had “secured financing” to take his electric car company private for $420 a share and that “investor support” for such a deal was “confirmed.”

Tesla’s stock trading halted only after the tweets, after which shares were highly volatile for several weeks. Musk later said he had been in discussions with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and felt confident the financing would come through at his proposed price. An agreement never materialized.

The SEC charged Musk and Tesla with civil securities fraud after the tweets. Musk and Tesla each paid $20 million in fines to the agency, and entered into a revised settlement agreement that required Musk to temporarily relinquish his role as chairman of Tesla.

His 2018 tweets also sparked a class-action lawsuit by Tesla investors. They alleged that Musk’s tweets misled them and said that relying on his statements to make trades cost them significant amounts of money.

The shareholder trades in question took place during a 10-day period before Musk appeared to concede that a take-private deal was not going to happen in 2018.

Musk said Friday under oath that it is difficult to link Tesla’s stock price to his tweets.

“There have been many instances where I thought if I were to tweet something, the stock price would go down,” Musk said. “For example, at one point I tweeted that I thought the share price was too high in my opinion… and it went higher, which was, you know, counterintuitive.”

A large increase in trading volume after he tweeted

It is rare for senior managers of listed companies to discuss their share price because any comment can affect price movements.

Daniel Taylor, director of the Wharton Forensics Analytics Lab and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed every trade in Tesla stock that occurred on August 7, 2018, the day Musk tweeted. He calculated the total trading volume every minute from the market open until Musk’s tweets about an acquisition.

Taylor found that the trading volume the minute Musk tweeted, at 12:48 ET that day, was over $350 million, and the trading volume for Tesla stock in the next minute was over $250 million. By comparison, the average volume five minutes before Musk tweeted was $32 million per minute. The minute before Musk tweeted, trading volume was $24 million.

“It’s generally true that correlation is not causation,” Taylor told CNBC on Friday, after Musk’s first day on the witness stand. “But I’m not aware of any alternative explanation for a 10-fold increase in trading volume the minute Elon Musk tweeted.”

Musk also testified about his low opinion of short sellers on Friday.

“I think short selling should be made illegal,” Musk said, referring to short sellers as “bad people on Wall Street” who “steal” from other investors. He said they also plant stories in the media to “make the stock go down” and will “do everything in their power to make a company die.”

Tesla was among the most shorted stocks in August 2018, when Musk made the statements about taking Tesla private. Tesla’s share price rose around 10% during trading that day. Short sellers face huge losses when the shares of a given company rise higher.

Some of the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit claim that Musk’s “funding-secured” tweets were intended to put price pressure on Tesla’s shares and drive a so-called “short squeeze.”

Musk’s testimony is not yet complete, and the court plans to hear from him again on Monday.

SEE: Musk testifies over tweets

Elon Musk defends tweets in San Francisco securities fraud trial

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