Jim Chanos on the return of choppy markets, Tesla, and the 'rent seeking behavior' that's hurting our economy
Business Insider Senior Finance Correspondent Linette Lopez spoke with famed short seller Jim Chanos at the Nasdaq Market Site about the reintroduction of inflation to the market for the first time since the financial crisis, which is causing volatility unseen years. Chanos also touched on Tesla, China, and what he refers to as "the rent-seeking behavior" of corporations.
The following is a transcript of the video.
Linette Lopez: Hi, I'm here with Jim Chanos, founder and president of Kynikos Associates the world's largest short hedge fund. So we just had the highest CPI print in 13 years. It looks like inflation is, sort of, back. The market is changing. Legendary trainer Paul Tudor Jones just said it's making him feel like he's in his 20s again - all this volatility. How do you feel about this market and do you feel like you're in your 20s again?Jim Chanos: Well, I want to take whatever he's taking to feel like he's in his 20s again. It's - there's more volatility. But, again, compared to historical - when Paul was in his 20s and I was in my 20s - I mean it's kind of nothing. Back then the 30-year bond, which is what we used to look at, would trade in a 30 basis point band in a day. Now moves three basis points and people get terrified.
Lopez: It's crazy because there are so many young wall streeters who have never seen a market like this. They've never been chained to their chairs. They've never been, you know, glued to their screens in the way they have to when the market is volatile. Do you have any advice for those kids?
Chanos: Well back in my day, I mean no one wants to hear that. What Wall Street has benefited from among many things is basically a probably once-in-a-lifetime move in rates from 14% to basically 2% or 0 depending on your - whether you're looking at short-term rates. And we're not going to repeat that. That's not going to - I'm pretty safe in saying. So what Wall Street hasn't seen - with the exception of a few graybeards like Paul and myself - is high interest rates or rising interest rates for any sustainable period of time. And the big change will come when that changes. So I don't know if that's what's happening now. We'll see. But, you know, when you see things like Greece borrowing it at rates lower than the US for two-year notes -
Lopez: It's a little wonky.
Chanos: It's a little crazy. And so things are happening in the credit markets that are making people a little uncomfortable. We've moved to almost three percent on the 10-year. But based on where nominal growth is right now - I mean with or without a rising CPA - I mean the 10-year should be north of 4%. So we're still in a very accommodative environment.
Lopez: We seem to have like a stew going here. We have this tax cut. We have this massive budget agreement between the Democrats and Republicans that's going to add to the deficit. And it seems like corporations are really winning out. And it seems like labor - you have regular people like me are, kind of, losing in this equation. This has been going on for years. How do you stop it?Chanos: Yeah, the rent-seeking economy -
Lopez: The rent seeking economy -
Chanos: You know, it really is a puzzle. And I was reading a column in the New York Times this morning talking about that. And why we haven't seen more competitive forces bringing returns down to where rates are. I mean that's - in a highly competitive economy, if interest rates are so low, returns should be dropping. Instead, returns and corporate assets are remaining high. And some of that might be technology. Some of it might be just simple lobbying - rent-seeking. And I think it's probably a combination of both. But what it does lead to is stagnating wages, lower capital investment, and a disproportionate amount of the economy going to the corporate sector and shareholders. And that's great for equity holders; it's not really great for everybody else.
Lopez: Back to your twenties, back then your nemesis was a CEO named Morley Thompson - the CEO of Baldwin Piano. That was your first big short. Now it seems like you've set your sights on another CEO his name is Elon Musk. He's got this little company called Tesla.
Chanos: I've heard of it.
Lopez: Yeah, what's wrong with Tesla?
Chanos: Well, I mean, first of all, Morley Thompson who ran Baldwin United had to be the greatest salesman of all time. He started out selling pianos door-to-door.
Lopez: That sounds difficult.Chanos: And anybody that can do that and then rise to CEO, you know, had to be able to sell pretty much anything. And that's, I think, Elon's greatest quality. He's a pretty good salesman. He's always pitching the next great idea. The problem is is that the execution of the current ideas is falling short. And that's where I think it's problematic. And on top of that, I think - increasingly - he's making promises that he knows he cannot keep. And I think that's a much more ominous, turn.
Lopez: What is the most recent promise that he's made that he can't keep?
Chanos: Well I think the the biggest whopper that I've seen - and we have a actually a spreadsheet of Elon's whoppers, but - along with a longer spreadsheet of all the executive departures at Tesla. But I think the latest one that kind of stunned me was when he unveiled the semitruck - EV.
Lopez:But he hasn't really even given us a regular car. The $30,000 car that he promised everyone.
Chanos: Well forgetting that, he said that truck will be out in 2019. And if that's the case, those production lines have to be up now. That factory has to be up now. And where is that? I mean what factory line is going to be making a truck in 2019 and a roadster sports car that he unveiled in 2020? I - you can't simply say things like that without having some evidence to back them up. You're a public company's CEO. And, you know, I'd want some clarification on where exactly this truck is going to be built to be out in 2019. But, you know, he's missed production estimate after production estimate. He thought there'd be ten thousand model 3s a week by the end of '17.
Lopez: Isn't it 5,000?
Chanos: Now it's five thousand by June. I think even worse is that people have thought they were getting a car for what amounted to $27,500 - the $35,000 base plus the federal tax credit. Now are realizing that the federal tax credit's going to, basically, be over by this year. And every manufacturer has a limit.
Lopez: So then it's a $60,000 car?
Chanos: Well it's - the model 3s he's delivery now - excuse me - are $50,000 base pretty much. And with delivery charges and sales tax they're probably closer to 55. So they're almost twice what he promised people. And the car for $55,000 is not a particularly great car in our view. It might be for 27.5. But it competes against basically luxury cars at the $55,000. And that's a pretty competitive area and going to get more competitive.Lopez: Gotcha -
Chanos: But he's already talking about the Model Y
Lopez: And Mars?
Chanos: Then and - well that's the other problem.
Lopez: And then there's Mars
Chanos: They think there's Mars yeah.
Lopez: Yeah, I mean Mars looks good I guess.
Chanos: Well and Mars doesn't have a current extradition treaty with the US what I understand.
Lopez: He could go; it's fine. So you once said that the single most important market in the world is the Chinese property market. China has been incredibly quiet in 2018. We didn't see our normal China puking that we do every year at the beginning of the year as we have for the last like four years. So what's going on there? And is it still the most important market in the world?Chanos: I do think it's the most important single asset class globally. Because residential real estate represents roughly half of China's investment and investment represents roughly half its GDP - give or take. And so that means that the Chinese residential real estate is probably a quarter - roughly - of the Chinese economy - or almost $3 trillion in dollars. $3 trillion is four percent of global GDP for one asset class that I think most would realize is simply being bought for for speculative purposes. They don't need to build 20 million apartments a year, but they do. And in urban environments, the amount of depreciation and net inflow to the city's, you know, means they got to be building six or eight or nine million not 20. So it really is the most important asset class. It drives commodity markets. It drives China's GDP. It certainly is the backbone of their banking system in terms of credit. So if you wanted to look at one asset class, you know, maybe the US Treasury Market might be up there as well. But the Chinese real estate market - residential real estate market - is probably the most important market.
Lopez: So Wall Street is a place full of geniuses. I'm sure that in your thirty years you've found that.
Chanos: I just ask them.
Lopez: Oh yeah, so given all the genius that we have on Wall Street, what are you tired of hearing in this market? What do you hear over and over and over again that kind of drives you a little bit crazy?
Chanos: Well I mean probably one of the things that I think we look at - a little bit askance - is the idea that we can just keep discounting the same amount of good news over and over and over again. So whether it was tax reform, which powered the market higher in 20 - at the end of 2018. And people were just simply, you know, every single day coming in and say, " tax reform is going to be amazing; tax reform's going to be amazing." But the S&P 500 estimates for 2018 are no higher than they were when it became apparent tax reform was going to pass in the summer. And so - about $150 - give or take. And so it's not as if we didn't quantify the impact of tax reform. But yet, as a Polish backdrop, people wanted to get more and more excited about it and keep discounting it. And that's just the nearest term. But in bull markets people will find all kinds of reasons to discount news over and over and over again. And they do the opposite in bear markets.
Lopez: Okay, we've talked about one silly place - Wall Street. Let's talk about another one - Silicon Valley.Chanos: Yeah.
Lopez: Okay, we're seeing ICOs. We're seeing fewer IPOs. Where is all that money going?
Chanos: Yeah, and we're seeing lots of pro-form earnings, which is also kind of fun in Silicon Valley. They've resurrected that -
Lopez: You have a weird notion of fun, but okay.
Chanos: Yeah, you know, I think that that the sense has been there's been such a deep private market for deals that no one has needed to go public. Now some would argue that some of the business models that have these incredible valuations in the private market like Uber and Airbnb might not like the scrutiny of public markets.
Lopez: I would never go public.
Chanos: So if you can get a unicorn-type valuation of $50 billion without going public, who needs it?
Lopez: Right, but who's giving them all that money?
Chanos: Well I mean first of all, it's it's not a deep liquid market right? So it's a round of financing of maybe another billion dollars, but at a higher price. So these are not companies capitalized with, you know, hard assets, and cash of $50 billion. They are being, basically, valued at that based on the last round of financing. And that's an entirely different thing. That's pretty ephemeral and can go poof as it did in '01 and '02.Lopez: Would you short Uber?
Chanos: I'd have to see the numbers. You know, like anything we value businesses based on the numbers. From what I've heard, it seems to be a pretty interesting business model that works off basically, you know, the rent-seeking - for lack of a better term -or entire morning- our morning term - on the back of the drivers.
Lopez: I know that you love a good executive departure list, too. So I feel like that would be an interesting one.
Chanos: Probably - yeah, we'd probably see - although, it's hard to beat Tesla's. I mean I haven't seen an executive departure list like that since Valiant.
Lopez: What does it remind you of - Tesla; Valiant, what in the past has?
Chanos: Enron - Enron had the same level of executive departures. Valiant and Enron had similar executive - I think Tesla actually beats it.
Lopez: Are you guys closed - have you closed your Enron or your -Chanos: Yes, we closed our Enron.
Lopez: Yes, you closed our Enron trade. Have you closed your Valiant short?
Chanos: We still are short some Valiant. We still are short some Valiant. We think that the equity might be worthless.
Lopez: Jim thank you so much for coming by.
Chanos: This was fun thanks.
Lopez: We hope to have you again.
Chanos: Great -
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