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Opinion: Elon Musk pumps Tesla stock with ridiculous $4 trillion target. Is a dump coming next?

Another Tesla Inc. earnings call, and another fanciful Elon Musk prediction that likely encouraged yet another open file at the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday.

The chief executive of Tesla Inc. TSLA, +0.84% told investors Wednesday that he believes the valuation of the electric-car maker will exceed the combined market capitalization of the two most valuable companies in the world: Apple Inc. AAPL, +0.08% and Saudi Arabian Oil Co. 2222, +0.42%.

“I am of the opinion that we can far exceed Apple’s current market cap,” Musk said. “In fact, I see a potential path for Tesla to be worth more than Apple and Saudi Aramco combined.”

Based on Wednesday’s closing prices, the combined market capitalization of those two companies is about $4.4 trillion U.S. dollars. But at least he added a caveat — “That doesn’t mean it will happen or that it will be easy, in fact it will be very difficult, require a lot of work, very creative new products, expansion and always good luck.”

This type of outrageous prediction is not new for Musk. He already predicted that Tesla would be worth as much as Apple, and its market cap now is roughly the same size as Apple’s was then, though his explanation for why Tesla would spike to that level was way off.

The situation Musk is in right now, though, is new. As the soap opera that has erupted from his deal to buy Twitter Inc. TWTR, +0.10% draws to a close, he is believed to need somewhere between $5 billion and $8 billion to finish off that deal, as our colleagues at Barron’s recently reported, and his only real avenue to that kind of cash is to sell Tesla stock.

Musk was precluded from selling shares before Tesla’s earnings report due to SEC rules, so what better way to try and pump Tesla’s stock before that blackout ended than to make some far-out predictions on the company’s earnings call?

A $4 trillion-plus price target wasn’t the only eye-opening claim Musk made in Wednesday’s call. He also told investors that he expected Tesla to perform the first stock buyback in its corporate history next year, and a large one at that: $5 billion to $10 billion.

“Even in a downside scenario next year, given next year is very difficult, we still have the ability to do a $5 [billion] to $10 billion buyback. This is obviously pending board review and approval,” he said. “So it’s likely that we will do some meaningful buyback.”

It is very odd to announce a share repurchase plan before it is approved and officially put in place by a board of directors, though sharing the news early is not automatically a violation of securities laws, said Stephen Diamond, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

“Best practices would suggest waiting until you have your ducks in a row before making such an announcement, but I doubt it creates any obvious legal problems,” he said.

He added that the Tesla board is likely seeking approval from its auditors and legal counsel for the share repurchase, which would be why it isn’t approved yet.

“There is an accounting test under Delaware law that the company must meet in order to buy back shares,” Diamond said in an email. “Generally, it can only buy back shares if there is a ‘surplus’ available. To assess that would require support from their internal finance team to the board and likely as well outside opinions from their auditors and legal counsel.” 

While early disclosure of buyback plans would not register alarms at the SEC office automatically, these types of pronouncements from Musk specifically will perk up some ears at the regulator’s offices. Musk has already faced recriminations from the agency for earlier statements, and been targeted for failing to live up to the settlement he agreed to in that case. Musk is also reportedly actively being investigated for his behavior as he moved to acquire Twitter, which Twitter seemed to confirm in a legal filing earlier this month.

On the call, Musk would only say that he is “excited about the Twitter situation,” while admitting that “myself and the other investors are obviously overpaying for it right now.”

Tesla officials did not respond to a request for comment or answer a question about whether Musk does need to sell more Tesla shares to complete the Twitter deal.

The question for Tesla investors, though, is whether they have overpaid for Tesla stock before another round of stock sales from Musk, who has already offloaded billions in shares in the past year, which reportedly resulted in yet another SEC inquiry. On Wednesday, though, shares fell more than 6% in after-hours trading despite the chief executive’s boosterism, which seemed to be overshadowed by a revenue miss and trimmed forecast.

Perhaps investors are finally seeing through Musk’s earnings-call bloviating that boosted the value of Tesla’s shares in the past. But if Musk sells Tesla shares in the coming days after trying to talk up the company’s value, it won’t be the investors who knock on his door, it might be the SEC yet again.