The recent announcement of securities fraud charges against Trevor Milton, the former CEO of Nikola Corporation, may prove to be the first in a line of similar cases involving electric vehicle (“EV”) companies, and more broadly, companies that go public via SPACs. This situation highlights the importance of careful investment decision making, particularly in the EV and other rapidly growing, highly complex industries.
At the heart of the civil and criminal complaints against Nikola are allegations that as its CEO, Trevor Milton, regularly spread false and misleading information about the progress of Nikola’s EV products and technologies. Nikola’s focus is on manufacturing low- and zero-emissions trucks, and the complaints allege in part that under Milton, Nikola published a promotional video of a prototype truck which did not actually work, but appeared to only because the truck was set in neutral and rolled down a hill. 
Promotional videos like that one, along with Milton’s enthusiastic social media posts and numerous podcast and television appearances, all painted a picture of exciting and impressive forward progress at Nikola, which Federal prosecutors and SEC regulators allege was nothing more than an illusion. 
This illusion allegedly created by Milton came at a steep cost – and was seemingly targeted retail investors in particular. Nikola went public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (“SPAC”) in June 2020, and once it began trading publicly, the value of its shares increased by $7 billion. However, Nikola’s value dropped steeply once the public learned of ongoing federal investigations into the company and its operations, leading to huge losses borne by retail investors who had been misled. 
Of course, EV companies and their executives are in a unique position given the bounding public interest in, and relative infancy of, the EV market. When attempting to evaluate a new or existing EV company, projections into the future must be made, and no fool-proof roadmap for this technology currently exists.
However, these uncertainties pose a particularly risky situation for prospective retail investors who can be easily misled by companies making false claims about their highly complex products or technologies – especially when, as here, these claims are being shared rapidly over social media.
Here, Nikola’s non-traditional IPO process put unsuspecting retail investors at even greater risk. When a company goes public via a SPAC, the traditional “quiet period” after a company is publicly listed is not required. This allowed Milton to continue amplifying false claims about Nikola on social media just after going public, thereby attracting additional retail investors, and driving the stock price up further. 
In pursuing these securities fraud charges against Nikola, the SEC continues to signal its sharp focus on SPAC regulation in the interest of protecting investors. As we all navigate the rapid influx of SPACs along with the continued push for broad adoption of EVs, retail investors should continue to carefully research prospective investments by identifying concrete achievements such as milestones hit and actual sales or delivery figures to date, while steering clear of “bandwagon effect” investing. These careful considerations, along with continued scrutiny by regulators, are some of the best ways to protect your assets in the market.