June 24, 2008, 5:51 pm
Jim Chanos: A Short-Seller Comes To Stanford
Posted by Eric Savitz
Jim Chanos, the world’s biggest short-seller, today made an appearance in the enemy camp.
Chanos, the president of Kynikos Associates, which has $6 billion invested in bearish bets on the stock market, gave a talk this morning at the Stanford Directors’ College, an annual symposium at Stanford Law School for the directors of public companies.
Chanos provided some insights on what he does, areas of the market where he sees opportunity to short stocks, and how directors ought to react when the find short interest in their stocks rising. Here are a few bullet points from the talk:
- Chanos noted jokingly that he doesn’t often get invited to talk to corporate directors – and that when he does, “there tends to be a battery of lawyers in the room and a stenographer.” More seriously, he said part of his goal was to make it clear that shorts are neither “the evil omnipotent financial geniuses the market thinks we are on down days or the village idiots the market thinks we are on up days.”
- Kynikos has 5 investment partners with a combined 160 years of experience, and 20 investment professionals in all. Chanos notes that the firm has “no opinions on interest rates, or drilling offshore, or the dollar, or the Fed.” Instead, he says, “we are just looking at companies, the only place we feel we can add value.” And he adds that they “delve into companies more than you would ever want to know.”
- Chanos notes that there is a basic asymmetry in the financial markets; he notes that the short side is not simply the mirror image of going long. While he says they evaluate companies much like any securities analyst might, he says there is a distinct difference. Chanos notes that the daily “hum and drum” of Wall Street, where “the constant backdrop is positive.” He says that Wall Stret is “a giant positive reinforcement machine.” Chanos notes that his firm is short about 50 U.S. stocks and another 50 international stocks, and that every morning at least 10-20 of those have had estimates raises, or CNBC appearances by the CEO, or takeover rumors, or some other factor pushing stocks higher. “It’s the Muzak of the investment business,” he says, though “most of it has no informational content long term.”
- Chanos notes that people tend to prefer positive reinforcement; short-sellers, he observes, are constantly told “you are wrong.” The number of people who can take the heat and succeed professionally on the short side, he said to the assembled group of directors, “would fit at a couple of tables.”
- Chanos outlined some of the broad themes he follows in seeking out short candidates. One of those is “booms that go bust,” or more specifically, credit-driven asset bubbles. Examples include the telecom boom of the late 1990s and the commercial real-estate boom and bust that created the S&L crisis in the 1980s. (He says we could see another one in debt from private equity deals.)
- Another theme: technological obsolescence. “This is a very fruitful area,” he says. In recent years, he says, “the digitization of of many businesses has destroyed a lot of companies.” Chanos says he’s been actively looking for companies where the distribution of analog products had been digitized. He cites video rentals, music retailing and newspapers as a few areas where he has had successful short positions in recent years. Chanos says he’s currently short cable and satellite stocks on the theory that video will be the next area to be disintermediated. At times of great technological advancement, he says, there are often more losers than winners.
- Yet another theme: growth by acquisition, and its cousin, questionable accounting. Chanos says that most large acquisitions destroy shareholder value, rather than enhancing it. He also sees the potential for accounting mischief when companies take large charges and reserves related to M&A, allowing things to look better than they are.
- Another red flag, he says is the use of “irregular accounting.” He points to Enron as a prime example of the use of “mark to model” accounting, rather than “mark to market.” Another example, he says, was the use of “gain on sale” accounting at sub-prime lenders like the Money Store in the mid-to-late 90s. One more example he cited involved Tyco’s ADT home security unit. He says ADT at one point was buying up subscribers from other security providers for about $900 each, at a time when others were only willing to pay $600 per sub. He says the sellers turned around and paid ADT $200 in fees which were booked as revenue; the result was a net cost of $700, and at the same time, a magic way to turn capital into earnings. “Make sure your companies are not turning capital into earnings,” he told the directors. “The market will be fooled by that for a while, but then the lawsuits start flowing.”
- Chanos advised the directors to ask management for a concrete explanation when there is a short position building at a company where they sit on the board. “I guarantee you the CEO and CFO know why,” he says.
- Chanos said he’s often asked why financial frauds continue to occur, despite the installation of new rules like Sarbanes-Oxley. He notes two decade-old surveys that found a shocking number of CFOs that had been asked at one time in their careers to falsify financial results. A July 1998 Business Week CFO survey, he says, found 55% had been asked to falsify documents but refused to do; 12% said that had been asked and agreed to. A similar survey in 1999 by CFO magazine found 45% of CFOs had been asked by the CEO to falsify financial results. “There is a lot of hanky-panky going on in corporate America, gang,” he said. “And it continues to this day. There is always incentive to shade the truth, to make things appear rosier than they are.”