Tesla’s New Buyback Scheme—A Lease With Tax Arbitrage

The Tesla Model X is introduced at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 15, 2013.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

One way to get a car is to buy one. Another way is to lease one. But a variety of tax credit programs exist to encourage people to buy electric cars, which is why Tesla Motors has now devised a “revolutionary new finance product” that will let you lease a Model S while reaping the tax benefits of buying one.

The way the program works is that you “buy” your Model S with a loan from US Bank or Wells Fargo, putting 10% down (Tesla helpfully notes that “[t]he 10% down payment is covered or more than covered by US Federal and state tax credits ranging from $7,500 to $15,000”), and then after 36 months you have the right to “sell” the Model S back to Tesla “for the same residual value percentage as the iconic Mercedes S Class”. Get it? It’s not a lease. It’s an agreement to buy the car on credit and then sell it back later to the seller at a prearranged depreciation level.

Clever stuff. Not sure I’d call it “revolutionary”—it’s just a slightly kludgy workaround so that you, Tesla, and Wells Fargo can all split the value of a tax credit. But it is clever. Note, however, that while the “iconic Mercedes S Class” may be a fine automobile it also appears on Popular Mechanic’s list of ten cars that depreciate very quickly. That said, a Model S probably should depreciate very quickly as the success of the electric car industry more or less hinges on the idea that Tesla and others will find ways to build cheaper cars.