November 18, 2010


Chanos vs. China: The influential short-seller is betting that China's economy is about to implode in a spectacular real estate bust. A lot of people are hoping that Chanos - who called Enron right - is wrong this time. (Bill Powell, 11/17/10, Fortune)

The scene is a cocktail party high above the Shanghai skyline on a summer night a few months ago. Our host is a Master of the Hedge Fund Universe, one who doesn't want to be identified in the press. We'll call him Pete. Pete comes to China at least twice a year to stay abreast of what's happening in the world's most dynamic economy. He has said, in fact, that if he didn't have kids in school in the U.S., he would consider moving here, so bright is the future. In attendance are other hedge fund investors, venture capitalists, and fund managers, China bulls all. If there is one sure-fire way to ruin the atmosphere on such a pleasant evening, it is this: Ask the crowd what they think of the legendary short-seller James Chanos, CEO of Manhattan-based Kynikos Associates.

So that's what I do.

"Hey," I say to a cluster of people surrounding Pete. "Did you guys see what Jim Chanos said about China on Charlie Rose the other night?"

"No," says an American venture capitalist working in Shanghai. "What did he say?"

"He said, 'China's on an economic treadmill to hell.' "

For over a year now Chanos -- the man who got Enron (among other things) right before anyone else -- has been on a rampage about China. The guy who became famous -- and rich -- shorting companies now says he is shorting the entire country.

When I mention the "treadmill to hell" line to the group in Shanghai, the reaction is the usual one when Chanos's name comes up here: "What does he know about China?" the American VC asks. "Has he ever lived here? Does he have staff here? Does he speak Chinese?"

The answers are no, no, and no. But our host, who counts Chanos as a friend, knows that is not the point. "He did get Enron right," Pete says. "And Tyco. And the whole mortgage bust." He concludes: "Look, he may be wrong, but you need to tell me why he's wrong, not point out that he doesn't live here." [...]

How did Chanos come to his China obsession? It started in 2009, when he and his team at Kynikos looked at commodity prices and the stocks of big mining companies. "Everything we did in our microwork [on commodities] kept leading us back to China's property market," Chanos says. China's construction boom was driving demand for nearly every basic material.

One day, at a research conference in 2009, Chanos listened to an analyst tick off numbers about the scale of China's building boom. "He said they were building 5 billion square meters of new residential and office space -- 2.6 billion square meters in new office space alone. I said to him, 'You must have the decimal point in the wrong place.' He said no, the numbers are right. So do the math: That's almost 30 billion square feet of new construction. There are 1.3 billion people in China. [In terms of new office space alone] that amounts to about a five-by-five-foot cubicle for every man, woman, and child in the country. That's when it dawned on me that China was embarking on something unprecedented.''

Kynikos didn't post anyone in China. Analysts make occasional research trips, though Chanos himself does not. Given his reputation there, he says, "it's probably best that I don't go. I can just see the New York Post headline: NEW YORK INVESTOR KILLED IN MYSTERIOUS ONE-MAN EARTHQUAKE."

Chanos says that underlying his firm's analysis are data the Chinese government itself reports publicly, such as numbers from the Bureau of Statistics and the National Development and Reconstruction Commission, the country's most powerful economics ministry. In the past year, he says, his team has developed a "proprietary database" that tracks real estate sales in China. "We are not fudging data or just hearing or seeing what we want to hear and see," he insists. And he has a standard retort to those who say you can't know China because you don't live there: "I didn't work at Enron either."

...with none of the strengths.

Try to make a back of the napkin case for China's future and you can't. List its problems and you run out of napkin. At some level its inflated reputation has to be a product of little more than old Yellow Menace tropes and the mesmeric effect of the number one billion.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2010 6:06 AM
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