Chanos vs. China

November 17, 2010, 1:00 PM UTC

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.

By Bill Powell, contributor

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.”

Chanos smiles when I relate the story to him on a recent morning in New York. He knows what a lightning rod he has become. “The only time I have ever been heckled giving an investment presentation was earlier this year at Oxford,” he says. “Some Chinese graduate students got so annoyed with me that they started to shout me down, saying the same sort of stuff: ‘What do you know about China? How dare you say such things!’ ”

It’s not, of course, just young Chinese people who get worked up on the subject. What Fortune Global 500 company isn’t betting that China is the future? For many companies, the possibility that Jim Chanos could be right, that there could be a U.S.-or-Japanese-style bust in China, is beyond scary. It’s unthinkable.

Something unprecedented

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 Reform 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.”

So many empty properties

To understand Chanos’s China skepticism — he calls it “Dubai times 1,000” — it’s worth visiting the Rose and Ginko Valley housing development near Sheshan Mountain, a new suburb outside Shanghai. Block after block after block of villas have gone up. And they are empty.

In the country’s largest, most affluent cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, known as tier-one cities to the real estate cognoscenti — it is not an unusual phenomenon. There is a lot of new, unoccupied housing in China. Just how much — and just how much of a concern it should be — is a central debate.

Fixed-asset investment accounts for more than 60% of China’s overall GDP. No other major economy even comes close. And of that fixed investment, slightly less than a quarter is attributable to new real estate investment.

There are reliable data on the amount of new construction under way each year, and on how much is sold. In 2009, for instance, buyers in China purchased 44% more residential floor space than they did in 2008.

Unoccupied houses in a subdivision in the Kangbashi district outside Ordos City, Inner Mongolia

But there are no official estimates yet for the vacancy rates for private housing, for how much of that new housing bought is actually occupied. (The government, signaling that it understands how much it matters, is carrying out a census now to try to get a grip on the question.)

Consider the Sheshan project. A spokesman for the Chongqing-based development company would say only that almost all the units were sold in advance. That, in fact, has been standard-operating procedure in the market for new housing in China. Buyers plunk down money based on a plan, and the developer takes those commitments to the bank to get financing for construction. Very few projects are done on spec.

But that still leaves the question that makes a lot of people nervous — and Chanos bearish — about China: Why are so many flats and villas that have been bought and paid for empty? And how could that augur anything but pain for the real estate market in China? And if it means pain for the real estate market, considering that new property sales accounted for 14% of GDP in 2009, doesn’t that mean trouble, sooner or later, for the broader economy?

That the real estate market in China is hugely speculative is not in dispute. An investor who lives near me in suburban Shanghai has bought — count ’em — 43 units over the past three years. He is still sitting on them, because, he believes, prices will continue going up.

Chanos ticks off reasons for that kind of behavior. Individual Chinese investors are limited in where they can put their renminbi. They can stash it in a standard bank account and receive a negative rate of return, given an inflation rate running at about 3%. They can put the money in the stock market, but equities in China are much more volatile than those in developed markets. Capital controls limit investment opportunities for individuals abroad. So that leaves real estate.

Chanos acknowledges that China’s emerging middle class sees real estate as a store of value. To many, buying an apartment in Shanghai or Beijing is like buying a bar of gold. And many — “too many,” Chanos says — have kept on buying as prices have gone up in the past five years.

Chanos’s team, like a lot of other people, is trying to get a grip on just how many empty units there are in China. One prominent bear in China, independent economist Andy Xie, has put the amount at the equivalent of 15% of GDP. Chanos doesn’t endorse that specific figure but believes “it’s a big problem, and it’s getting worse, not better, as more units come onstream.”

Chanos: Right or wrong?

There’s no question the speculative fervor in real estate has captured the Chinese government’s attention. Last spring Beijing moved to stiffen financing requirements, and it is trying to limit the number of units any single investor can buy to two. For a time that did cool off the market. But Chanos points out that prices are rising again, and more than 30 million new apartments, villas, and houses are due to come onto the market next year. If the government intensifies its efforts to try to limit speculation, the market may turn down sooner than most think, Chanos believes. And if the government doesn’t intensify the effort against speculators, “they’ll just be climbing up a few more rungs on the diving board.” Either way, he says, “they’re going to end up in the same place.” Consider Dubai, he says: At the peak of its building boom, there were 240 square meters of property under development for every $1 million in national GDP. In urban China today that ratio is four times as high. “We’ve seen this movie before,” he says. Whether it was Dubai a couple of years ago, Thailand and Indonesia during the Asian crisis of the late ’90s, or Tokyo circa 1989, “this always ends badly.”

Chanos puts his money where his mouth is. Late last month he went before the Grant’s Interest Rate Observer conference at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and not only made his case for being bearish on China, but ticked off individual stocks that he is shorting. Poly HK is one: a real estate developer that trades on the Hong Kong exchange (and a company that Goldman Sachs (GS) recommended as a buy as recently as last month). It’s a state-owned company that started out as a defense contractor but, enticed by the real estate boom, has plunged in as a property developer. Chanos is also short the listing for the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And he believes that China Merchants Bank, one of Beijing’s largest, is deeply exposed to the financing affiliates of local governments throughout China. About 11% of its total loans outstanding, according to Chanos, are to these local financing affiliates (known as local government funding vehicles, or LGFVs).

Why does that matter? A key prop under the bullish case for China’s real estate market is lack of leverage. The financial system is simply not going to be at risk, the thinking goes, even if there is a real estate bust. But Chanos believes the LGFVs are deeply exposed to property development, and that if there is a turn in the market, the pain felt by China Merchants Bank, as well as others, will be considerable. Victor Shih, a professor at Northwestern University, did a study earlier this year and concluded that these LGFVs accumulated $1.6 trillion in new debt from 2004 to 2009. As Chanos points out, China’s own bank regulator has recently been moving to rein in local borrowing, after concluding that 26% of the outstanding debt is “high risk.”

A downturn in China would have serious ripple effects throughout the world. Chanos believes the iron ore producers, and Brazilian giant Vale (VALE) in particular, will be victims. China’s huge capital investment has required vast amounts of steel and other metals, and that in turn has made it the largest market in the world for iron ore. Vale traded in early November near a 52-week high, and its CEO, Roger Agnelli, recently boasted that he has the biggest fleet of ships in the world outside of the U.S. Navy. If you take Chanos’s view of the world, that’s not a good thing. As he put it, “They’re going to have a lot of empty ships on their hands.”

A case for the bulls

Short-sellers are generally derided until and unless they turn out to be right. So it is now. Sentiment about China is so optimistic that people think Chanos either has lost his mind or is somehow involved in a giant hip fake and can’t really be serious. (For the record, he won’t say how much of Kynikos’s more than $1 billion under management is in play in China-related positions.) “Why do I go public with this?” he asks. “For the same reason I did with Enron. All the public ever hears is the longs. I have a case to make, and I have no hesitation making it. These are our convictions about China, and we’re acting on them. So argue with me. We want to hear the counterarguments. Believe me, we do.’’

Plenty of people are willing to take him up. The China bulls’ case has many parts, but the most important is leverage — or rather, the lack of it. Consider the gentleman — his name is Cheng Yue Shi — who told me that he owned 43 flats in and around Shanghai. He doesn’t rent out any of them — which is not uncommon in China; rents are cheap, and many owners therefore believe the time and hassle of being a landlord isn’t worth it. And of the 43 units he owns, he paid for every single one of them — not a single mortgage involved. According to a recent study by CLSA Asia Pacific Securities, the use of mortgages is increasing in China, but only 40% of all houses purchased are debt-financed. Even when they are, Chinese buyers typically have to put down 30% or more of the sales price.

No liar loans here. No securitization of mortgages. This is housing finance done the old-fashioned way: The buyers have skin in the game. The lack of leverage throughout the system should mean that even if there is a significant decline in real estate prices, the financial system in China is unlikely to be crippled.

Chanos argues that there is more debt held off the books in local financing vehicles than the bulls care to admit, and that bad loans, once the real estate market turns down, will pile up more quickly than most think. This is an area in which government regulators in China have acknowledged they need to get more information into the marketplace, but even with what’s known publicly, the bulls simply disagree with Chanos. Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gave- Kal Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic consultancy, says the central government is already forcing local governments to scale back borrowing, and in fact has ordered closed several LGFVs that did not have enough revenue to service their loans from banks. “China’s government debt,” Kroeber says, “is clearly manageable.”

The second component of the bullish case is straightforward: They say the combination of price spikes and overbuilding in Beijing and Shanghai simply gets too much attention. Andy Rothman, the chief China economist for CLSA, notes that the total amount of floor space bought in smaller, tier-three cities (where nearly 357 million people — or 57% of China’s urban population — reside) has been slowly increasing as a percentage of the national total. And in those cities prices are up to 70% lower than they are in the four richest cities in the country: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. “There is no national housing bubble,” Rothman asserts.

The guy who’ll get China over the goal line

Personal income, moreover, continues to rise in China, as does consumption. In the first half of this year, real urban disposable income rose by more than 6%, on top of a 10% rise last year. “Rising incomes still support middle-class affordability,” Rothman says. As a result, “it’s the world’s best consumption story.”

Chanos’s response to those two basic points is forthright: “It’s an economy on steroids,” he says. Just as Japan in the 1980s grew largely on the back of capital investment, eventually it has to stop. “Japan became a capital-destruction machine, and that’s what China is now. You have an economy that’s 60% fixed-asset investment, and not even in the developing world is that sustainable. It wasn’t in Japan; it wasn’t in Korea.”

Chanos is agnostic as to the timing of when a serious China bust might come, nor does he have specific ideas as to what might trigger a downturn. He just believes it’s coming. One possibility — reflected by a steep stock market decline on Nov. 12 — is that accelerating inflation may force China’s central bank to tighten credit more quickly than expected, putting additional pressure on real estate developers.

I tell him toward the end of an interview that I, too, am invested in China, that in fact I’m long real estate. My wife and I bought a modest house in suburban Shanghai a few years ago, and, on paper anyway, we’ve done pretty well. Similar houses in our area have sold for considerably more than what we paid. He smiles and says, “Well, good luck with that.”

In truth, I am still, relatively speaking, a China bull. But I live near the Rose and Ginko Valley development, and even before meeting Chanos, I must admit, each time I drove by it at night, I secretly wished I would see a few lights on. I still do — now more than ever.

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