Calling the Chinese bluff

Lovely column by Joe Nocera about Jim Chanos, the guy who spotted the unsustainability of the Chinese real-estate bubble before most people — and acted on his insight.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)