For weeks, analysts have speculated that Tesla has seen a marked drop in sales since the beginning of the year, and the electric-car maker’s recent gyrations on price cuts and cost-saving initiatives have only bolstered their suspicions.
Recently compiled data on new-car registrations from a large portion of the United States seems to offer further support for that view. According to the Dominion Cross-Sell Report, a compilation drawn from state motor vehicle records, registrations of new Tesla vehicles fell significantly from January to February in the 23 states the report covers. The states include California, which accounts for about half of Tesla’s sales, as well as Texas, Florida and Washington, three other big markets for the carmaker.
Last month, 6,252 Teslas were registered with motor vehicle agencies in the 23 states, compared with 23,310 in January and a monthly average of 13,000 to 17,000 in the fourth quarter. The totals tend to reflect a lag because cars are often not registered until the month after purchase.
In December, Tesla was scrambling to sell cars before the end of the year because the federal tax credit available to its customers was set to fall by half on Jan. 1, to $3,850. So a surge in January registrations would not be unexpected. The question is whether an ensuing downturn like the one reflected in the Dominion data would prove lasting.
The data for California was even starker, with registrations falling to 2,198 in February from 15,429 in January.
A Tesla spokesman said a single month of vehicle registrations did not necessarily reflect the company’s delivery totals. He said registrations in individual states can fluctuate significantly from month to month because the automaker delivers batches of cars to different areas at different times.
Analysts believe Tesla’s sales flagged after Jan. 1 because of the reduced tax credit, and because its efforts to accelerate sales in December pulled in customers who likely would have bought cars in the next few months. A slump that follows a sales flurry driven by discounts and incentives is a well-known phenomenon in the auto industry. It is called payback.
Dominion’s data does not yet reflect Tesla’s introduction of a $35,000 version of its Model 3 sedan, its lowest-price offering yet, which is likely to lift sales. Tesla began taking orders for the $35,000 version on Feb. 28, but its website says customers will have to wait six to eight weeks for delivery. The company attributed the wait to a wave of orders for the entry-level Model 3.
Still, falling registration totals are another worrisome sign for the company. Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has said the automaker would report a loss for the first quarter and expected to take charges against earnings to reflect difficulties in ramping up sales in Europe and China and other challenges.
Jeffrey Osborne, an analyst at Cowen & Company, said Tesla’s sales since the first of the year were being watched closely for clues to its cash position in the next few months. The company had $3.7 billion at the beginning of the year, but used $920 million to make a required payment to bondholders and may drain more cash if it suffers a substantial loss in the first quarter.
Mr. Osborne said there were also questions about Tesla’s longer-term growth. “The question is, what is the naturalized rate of demand?” he said.
Tesla is expected to report production and delivery totals for the first quarter in early April, followed by its earnings later in the month.
Registration data and Tesla’s own sales totals have diverged in the past. In 2018, Tesla said, it delivered 245,000 cars, mostly in the United States. The research firm IHS Markit, which tracks state motor-vehicle data, counted registrations of 164,000 new Teslas nationwide.
IHS Markit has not completed a registration count through February. Its nationwide data shows Tesla registrations ranging from 20,000 to 26,000 per month between October and January.
Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds, a market researcher, said Tesla was likely to have a tougher time increasing sales after an initial rush of orders last year, the first full year of Model 3 sales.
“Tesla is going to be challenged now to sell to people outside of their fan base,” she said. “They’re going to have to sell more outside of California. They’ll have to sell to more women. They’re going to have to work harder to find customers.”
Tesla is also scrambling to streamline its delivery and sales operations. While warning last month of the first-quarter loss, Mr. Musk said Tesla would close all but “a small number” of its stores worldwide and rely on online sales. He said the cost savings were required to make money on the $35,000 Model 3.
Less than two weeks later, Tesla reversed course and said it would keep many showrooms and reopen some that it had closed. It also said it was increasing prices by 3 percent, effective Monday, just weeks after lowering prices. Citing a flurry of orders, the company didn’t put the price increase into effect until Wednesday.