Jim Chanos: China’s Emperor Down To His Underwear

For the past several years, well-known hedge fund manager Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates has been an outspoken China bear. He explains how he became concerned that the world’s second largest economy was headed for trouble and discusses why any country, whatever its political ideology, will end up paying for economic missteps.

Lynn Parramore: You’ve been skeptical towards China for a long time. What did you see that set off alarm bells?

Jim Chanos: Way back in fall of ‘09 we were looking at why the global mining business was actually doing so well through the teeth of the recession, the crisis of 08-09. I knew intuitively it was because China was a vast source of demand for commodities, but I didn’t know how much until my real estate analysts put some numbers up on the white board. One of them said that as of the summer of 09, China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, both approved and pending. He said half of that was apartment buildings and half of it was commercial and mixed-use. I said, wait a minute — you’ve got the decimal point wrong because 5.6 billion square meters is 60 billion square feet. And it can’t be. He looked at me and checked the numbers a few times and said, “It’s 5.6 billion square meters.”

That was the “ah-ha” moment. If half of that was office and mixed commercial space, — 30 billion square feet out of the 60 — and China has 1.2 -1.3 billion people, then you’ve got a 5’ x 5’ office cubicle for every man, woman, and child in the country! That’s all been built, by the way. I think the latest number on that time series shows 10.6 billion meters currently under development.

It hit me as to just how

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