Hedge Fund Manager James Chanos on His Big Short Position in China

“Shorting is not a criminal trial. It doesn’t have to be beyond a reasonable doubt. There just has to be a preponderance of evidence.” — James Chanos, February 2011 interview

“We certainly weren’t the first on this idea,” Chanos tells me at his offices in April of 2011 about the biggest short position of his life: The People’s Republic of China. Chanos first spoke publicly about his grand stake in China over a year and a half ago on CNBC’s Squawk Box in December 2009. “Right now, we’re as bearish on China as we’ve ever been,” he says. He followed that with a presentation at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in January 2010, “The China Syndrome: Warning signs ahead for the global economy.

Chanos argued that China, fearing a sharp slowdown from the financial crisis, pumped credit into asset growth — mainly real estate but new roads and high-speed rail, too. There were “classic pockets of overheating, of overindulgence” he said in his presentation. Fixed asset investments as a percentage of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) were exceeding 50 percent — a “sh-a chén bào” (sandstorm) of money, he said. The stimulus was massive: $586 billion, or 14 percent of GDP (the U.S. package was $787 billion, or 6 percent of GDP). With state-owned enterprises controlling 50 percent of industrial assets, and not being driven by the need to make profits, and local party officials dictating the real estate development process, large-scale capital projects were growing “sillier by the day,” including rising industrial and manufacturing overcapacity. There were empty cities, such as Ordos, and lonely malls, such as the New South China Mall. News reports showed new buildings toppling from shoddy construction. It was the latest chapter in China’s history of credit-fueled booms and busts. China was “letting a thousand Dubais bloom,” he quipped. “Go to Dubai and see what happened. It was… what I call the ‘Edifice complex.'”

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