Chanos called it right on Enron and Tyco before they collapsed. He is no lightweight observer of the economic scene. However, he is wrong about China. For once I agree with the famed investor Jim Rogers, who cofounded the Quantum Fund with George Soros. He says China is not in a bubble and adds that he finds "it interesting that people who couldn't spell China 10 years ago are now experts on China."
Betting against China in 2010 is a bad mistake for investors and companies alike. Here are three reasons why Chanos is wrong and Rogers is right about the strength of China's economy:
Chanos' first error is his belief that China's real estate sector soared in 2009 because of speculation triggered by a loosening of credit by China's banks. Lending in China doubled to $1.35 trillion in the first 11 months of 2009. Real estate prices rose sharply throughout the country and almost doubled in cities like Shenzhen. Chanos calls that a bubble--"Dubai times 1,000--or worse"--that could lead to fallout like the subprime mortgage mess in the U.S.
There are, however, fundamental differences between China's real estate and consumer finance markets and those of the U.S. and Dubai, which Chanos compares them to. First, when buying residential properties, consumers in China have to put down 30% before taking out a mortgage. For a second home, they have to put down 50%, no matter what their net worth. Therefore, China doesn't have the reckless consumer behavior that occurred in the U.S., where people with bad credit were taking out huge loans from Countrywide with no money down, or were buying 10 homes without deposits in the hope of flipping them in a few months. People who buy homes can afford it.
Also, mortgages are not being spliced up and packaged and securitized by the likes of Citigroup and Bank of America. Instead mortgages are held by the original lenders, the way they were in the U.S. before financial innovation and lack of regulation broke down the old rules.
The Chinese government also has no qualms about overseeing the market and has not been run by Ayn-Rand-loving free marketers like Alan Greenspan, who seemed to believe that no government intervention at all was best. The Chinese government is gravely concerned about social stability because of the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It is therefore limiting the sizes of new apartments and restricting the construction of stand-alone luxury villas. (Most people in China's urban areas live in high-rise apartment buildings. I myself live in a 60-story building.) The government is also forcing developers to build low-income housing. And to prevent flipping and excess speculation, it is heavily taxing sellers who unload their properties within two years of buying them.
The real estate business to be concerned about is commercial building. There has been way too much construction of large office towers, especially in Shanghai, which is gearing up for its World Expo this year. Too many gleaming skyscrapers sit empty of tenants. The glut of office space has already caused rental prices to drop in places like the Shanghai financial district, Pudong.
Too much leverage, not high prices, caused the problems with real estate in Dubai and the U.S. There just isn't that much leverage in China. So even if prices are too high, a drop of as much as 20% or 30% wouldn't cause anything like the tsunami that hit the American and Dubai markets.
The second way Chanos is wrong about China is that he, like most economists and Wall Street analysts, underestimates income there. I have recently been debating several Harvard economists who worry that incomes haven't risen as fast as GDP in China. They argue that it shows that too much of China's growth has been a matter of government investment in unsustainable infrastructure projects like bridges and highways, as happened earlier in Japan. They point out that Chinese consumers account for just a third of the economy in China, vs. two-thirds in the U.S. However, my firm, theChina Market Research Group, estimates that Chinese consumers will come to account for half of the economy within the next three to five years as the role of exports diminishes. (See my "Three Myths About Business in China.")
If anything, incomes are grossly underreported in China. A simple look at how accounting works will show why. Whereas in the U.S. individuals must report their income to the Internal Revenue Service every year, in China all individual tax is reported and paid for by companies, except for that of high earners. Many Chinese companies limit the tax they pay by reporting low salaries and then paying their employees higher amounts while accounting for the difference as business expenses like phone bills. The employees are happy because they make every bit as much as they were promised, and the companies are pleased to lower their tax exposure.
Also, many companies pay for housing and cars for their employees, a holdover from the old system of state-run businesses. Most Western economists don't count those expenses as income, but they should. Deceptive accounting of income is so widespread that the government has announced plans to tax some business expenses in state-run enterprises--the kinds of expenses that let executives pay taxes on earnings of $300 a month while living in multimillion-dollar homes and driving Mercedes.
The third thing Chanos gets wrong about China is the notion that the yuan is likely to appreciate. In the short term, it would be disastrous for China to let that happen, as I wrote in "Why Krugman Is Wrong About The Yuan." It would cause China's exports to plunge, swell the Chinese unemployment rolls by millions, and destabilize the financial system. In the long term, however, once the world's economy stabilizes, appreciation of the yuan might make sense. Getting exposure to Chinese assets now would benefit an investor when that time comes.
Chanos has an excellent track record in divining the future. However, part of his job as a short seller is to make money by causing markets to question good things. That can be useful for keeping companies honest and in check. But in this case he clearly doesn't understand the economic system he's talking about. China is not in imminent threat of collapse, and investors and companies are wise to stay involved with it, as Rogers argues.
This column originally appeared in Forbes.