Bloomberg reports that SpaceX has approached Goldman Sachs in hopes of arranging a $500M leveraged loan, potentially opening up an entirely new avenue of capital for the company as it approaches inflection points in its two largest development programs, the Starlink internet satellite constellation and its next-generation BFR rocket and spaceship.
In the United States, the market for leveraged loans (a form of debt capital) has experienced unprecedented growth in 2018, soaring past $1.3 trillion total. Unlike borrowers typically pursuing leveraged loans, SpaceX has little to no debt to speak of and is likely either financially stable or even healthily profitable.
SpaceX’s Boca Chica facilities now sport two massive propellant tanks, meant to support BFR spaceship hop tests. Infrastructure development of this sort is not cheap. (NSF /u/ bocachicagal, SpaceX)
The fact that SpaceX is not already heavily leveraged (i.e. lots of debt) indicates that the company’s interest in this type of loan – versus something more like traditional equity sales – arises from the need for capital to fund major one-time investments that are likely to peak within the next 2-3 years, if not sooner. Leveraged loans are typically classified as riskier investments due to the tendency for borrowers to already have plenty of debt: in the case of SpaceX, it’s clear that that risk derives more from the fundamentally risky nature of space-related endeavors.
Success is not guaranteed even if SpaceX has plenty of funds to invest in satellite constellation or rocket R&D, while major one-time expenditures like the construction of a new launch pad and test facility for BFR also carry the risk of potentially catastrophic destruction in the event of a vehicle failure during testing or launch, one case that was proven out during the September 2016 on-pad failure of a Falcon 9 rocket, multiple times smaller than BFR. Leveraged loans still are likely to work in SpaceX’s favor, drawing in investors already willing to accept that inherent risk when the potential rewards of success are immense.
“The benefits of this maiden voyage [into leveraged loan borrowing] are clear: SpaceX should have ample funding needs for many years to come as it keeps Mars in its sights. Crucially for Musk, loans are more private than most other forms of capital raising — and very hard to short.”
While the exact status of SpaceX’s major development programs is not public, it can be reasonably intuited that the company’s Starlink constellation is likely in the process of restructuring an R&D-centered experimental wing into something closer to a factory. Such a factory will be an absolute necessity if SpaceX intends to mass-produce high-performance smallsats at a truly unprecedented scale: ~4500 satellites make up the first wave of the constellation alone, while nearly ~7500 more would eventually follow to allow Starlink to truly blanket the world with fast internet access.
SpaceX’s Big F____ Rocket – deemed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) in public statements – is no less capital-hungry. Aside from major investments in tooling and the lengthy and return-free process of designing such a large, complex, and advanced launch vehicle, SpaceX is in the process of preparing a site for a dedicated BFR factory at Port of Los Angeles. Currently housed in a huge temporary tent, it’s already clear that spaceship prototype fabrication could benefit greatly from workspace expansions and a more controlled environment. Long-term, such a factory will be a basic necessity for SpaceX to begin true serial production of BFR boosters and spaceships.
In South Texas, SpaceX is also beginning the expensive process of constructing some combination of a launch pad and testing facility dedicated to the BFR program. Most recently, two massive propellant storage tanks have arrived at a nearby facility at the same time as construction is beginning in earnest on the circa-2014 site of SpaceX’s proposed launch pad.
Ultimately, the company could benefit immensely from an infusion of free capital, if for no other reason than to expedite critical infrastructure investments that will become the foundation for Starlink and BFR.
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