We had the rare opportunity to sit down with the world-renowned, President and Founder of Kynikos Associates, Jim Chanos. Read our full interview with him in the latest edition of the Capitalize for Kids Investor Series.
Investment Insights from Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: When you look at the current makeup of Kynikos, how does that compare to what you originally envisioned when you started the firm?
JIM CHANOS: Well I mean the original ethos of the firm hasn’t changed, it’s basically through a portfolio of good fundamental short ideas that we provide a hedge for our clients which enables them to basically stay long or be more long secure than they otherwise would be comfortable with. So, I joked way back in ‘85 and to this day, that I’m in the insurance business, and so that hasn’t changed. What has changed of course is the actual make up the firm in terms of number of partners, capital employed, you know the size of the operation. But what we do and how we do it hasn’t changed since it was just me and a secretary in 1986. So, I think that’s the one nice thing about the firm, its continuity. The other aspect that I’m very proud of is the fact that the core group of partners, as well as several employees, have been here a very, very long time. So, I have 7 partners and we have over 150 years on Wall Street but 100 of it under this roof, combined. My oldest partner, Chuck Hobbs, has been with me since 1992.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: That’s incredible.
JIM CHANOS: And the head of trading, they’ve been with us since 1993, and the next group kind of all came around 2000. So, that’s unheard of in our industry, really, to see people stay at one shop for so long.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: You must be very proud of the loyal culture you’ve been able to build.
JIM CHANOS: Well I think it gets back to what we do and it’s not a business model for everybody. So, I think that that’s another thing that sort of sets it apart.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: When you founded Kynikos, you mentioned it was just you and a secretary. Since then, your resources have grown meaningfully. How has your ability to detect frauds or bad actors in the financial community changed as a result?
JIM CHANOS: Well, it’s always better when you get a little bit more support than when you’re the only person doing it. So, I think that certainly has made a difference. I like to tell people, my analysts and my students, that back in 1985 really for a good 10 + years the problem was getting the information. So, I used to spend a lot of time in the SEC micro-feed rooms in New York, just looking at 10-Qs. Today, it’s completely different. Today it’s filtering the information that comes at you in a firehose. Everybody has instant information in their pocket. The question is what do you do with it?
So, I think that the core problem for a research-oriented shop has changed from obtaining the information that gave you an edge to now being a better analyst of said information. So, we really have begun to change our focus, it’s really not about going out and going to the collegial factory up in Albany to check on their out of home computer production. Or, going to some parking lot and counting cars. You can do that by satellite today right. Again, there’s no shortage of things like Glassdoor or whatever that will get you inside a company in public forums.
So, those sorts of things that short sellers were known for in the 80’s and 90’s are much much less important today than actually understanding the way that businesses work, understanding how the numbers are flowing and when bad actors are playing games with you.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: You spoke at length about information becoming more ubiquitous. How has the past experience of your team allowed you to see what could potentially unfold?
JIM CHANOS: I’ll give you great Canadian example from a little company called Valeant Pharmaceuticals. I’ve been on record saying I believe it might be the largest single stock loss in the hedge fund industry and greater than Lehman, Enron, and a number of others because the hedge fund concentration was so high. When we first discussed the idea in late 2013 in this room, our pharma analyst, who was a CPA, brought up the idea. Two of the partners who’d been here a long time and were here in 2000 looked at me and we all basically said the same words at the same time, Tyco International. Tyco was an aggressive roll up run by two guys who ended up going to prison, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz. They were playing some of the most aggressive roll-up type accounting games.
The situation was different but they were still employing some of the same stuff that Mike Pearson was doing at Valeant.
When we said ‘Tyco International’ every other person in the room looked at us blankly. They were too young to go through that with the firm and it was great having some institutional memory for pattern recognition. The ability to see a story, have it put out for you on a whiteboard and suddenly say, “Wait a minute I’ve seen this before.”
It’s not always exactly the same of course, but there were enough clues that I felt it was worth doing a deep dive on the idea. Now, as a follow-up on that regarding the information issues that we were talking about – the challenges of either getting it or processing it. In 2015, I saw on a website called FiercePharma, which is a daily website for the pharmaceutical industry that shows up in my
inbox every day. There was a story about an aggressive pharmacy called Philidor and someone had pointed me to the link. I looked at the link and under the comment section, of all places, was a series of comments by people saying Philidor fills Valeant Pharmaceuticals orders. Well, then there were a couple of comments that said no, Philidor is Valeant. That set off alarm bells in my head. This was April of ‘15. Now Roddy Boyd and others wrote about it in late September, early October of ‘15. We had already sent our analyst in the summer of ‘15 to go check out Philidor. We drove out to Pennsylvania, and we expected to find a mail drop, we expected to find just some sort of paper thing that Valeant was using as a pharmacy of convenience. Instead we were actually stunned. We saw a big operation – warehouses, drops, the whole nine yards and it was enormous. And that’s when we began looking back. Where was the disclosure of this thing? Obviously, this is a huge operation. It wasn’t disclosed properly. So we started asking ourselves, ‘what else don’t we know here?’.
That was right around the stock’s peak, around $240 or $260. Now that was sitting out there in the public domain from April to October, before the rest of the world figured out what Philidor was, but it was there. And you just had to go find it or be pointed to it, or whatever the case might be, and understand the significance of it. That became crucial to the whole Valeant story, just this little piece of information that they were using these mail order pharmacies and that they were booking through the pharmacies that they in effectively controlled.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: The timing gap sounds similar to what transpired at Baldwin-United.
JIM CHANOS: That was a whole different scenario, but there, it was getting the information because again it was a series of very blatant documents and letters that were sitting in a public file that we didn’t know about in Arkansas. So, that really underscores it beautifully. Getting the information and seeing the letter from the State of Arkansas saying basically that the company is insolvent.
That letter was published by The Wall Street Journal in October. We had passed it on to the Journal and the stock went up for another 6 weeks, I mean, in the face of that. Which was remarkable. But, then it collapsed on Christmas Eve. But in that situation, we didn’t know that this file existed and an insurance analyst told me about it. In Valeant’s case, Philidor was sitting out there, hundreds of people saw it, thousands of people saw it and apparently knew it, but Wall Street didn’t know it. Wall Street didn’t understand what it meant because when we went and asked them about that and they replied with, “I have no idea what that is, I’ll call the company and find out”.
Valeant is a wonderful example of lots of different aspects here but not least of which, as you say, is having some good institutional memory where senior decision makers at the firm have seen these kinds of things before.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: As you look forward over the next decade, how do you see Kynikos evolving? Machine learning has become the topic de jour for hedge funds. Are there aspects of technology that you see being integrated into the firm?
JIM CHANOS: That’s the big question. To what extent will Wall Street decision making be automated at the most basiclevel, doing research, and will we be supplanted? My guess is at some point the answer is yes. I think that is probably be last thing anyone would want to say about their business or their career. Maybe I’ll be dead and buried by then, but I think that there are some things the human brain still does very well – having institutional memory being a key differentiator. This is one thing that makes us a little less susceptible to big data and machine learning. You have to remember that most of that is only as good as it’s inputs, right?
JIM CHANOS: In our universe companies are actively trying to give you false inputs. They’re trying obscure the numbers. They’re trying to basically make it look better than it really is and so, if you are analysing reams of reams of stocks based on a P/E ratio, momentum, whatever factors are en vogue, you’d better be sure that you don’t have a Valeant that is puffing up their earnings in a bunch of one time ways because that algorithm will kill you. So, I think it’s one area, where because you’re questioning the actual inputs and not how they interact with the market price, that you might still have an edge. Might. I’m always willing to consider the opposite. You have to.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: In previous interviews, you’ve talked about challenges surrounding unmet expectations in today’s administration and regional tensions in the Pacific being two areas that could potentially heat up. In your opinion, where are investors most significantly miscalculating risk?
JIM CHANOS: Well, with the obvious caveat that I’m not a geopolitical strategist or a macro guy, but someone who just sees the world as part of my every day job. I’d have to say I think one of the least appreciated risks is the political set of risks the world is now facing.
We are at one of those great turning points. Are we at a point where the pendulum between capital and labour has swung so far over to capital or globalism or whatever you want to call it, that populism, nationalism, and labour are beginning to swing back? If so, then lots of things will change. Who knows but we’ll see. But there’s certainly a growing amount of evidence that nationalism is rising, protectionism is rising, authoritarianism is rising. We see it in Russia, we see it in China, we see it in Turkey, we see it in lots of places now and arguably the US of A. And where strong leaders who want to make the country great again becomes the ethos and the mantra, that’s right out the 1930’s.
So, the questions become, what are the investment implications? What are the economic implications? More ominously, what are the political ramifications? Because, in an increasingly globalist world, we’re all interconnected and we all get along in an increasingly nationalist way. You fraction into nations, states and blocks and conflict is really the watch word not trade. So, that’s kind of the big picture stuff. Then we get into some of the more interesting hotspots. Clearly, we’re beginning to see tensions rise in the Pacific, with the South China Sea and the new dynamics in Korea and the Philippines and an apparently hardening posture by the new Trump Administration toward China. But, there are some other places that people aren’t paying attention to that I think are worth zoning in on. One is the Balkans. The Balkans are getting to be a simmering place again. You’ve got the rise of Erdogan in Turkey, who wants to bring a second Ottoman empire. You’ve got increasing activity by the Slavic people in that region because of the feeling that Putin has their back. So, people like the Serbs, the Greeks and all of that area, which was a hot bed in the 90’s, the temperatures seems to be rising again. No one’s talking about that.
You have borderline failed states now in Africa. Both South Africa and Nigeria are increasingly showing signs of major political problems, due in part to the lines on commodities and other factors but not least of which is internal corruption. I still argue that I don’t think South America’s completely out of the woods. I think all the commodity exporting countries are still probably facing more trouble than opportunity because of the inextirpable slowing down of China.
China and the countries that export commodities to China represent almost 40% of global GDP. So, it’s a big big group of countries and unless every Chinese citizen can own four apartments, the demand for hard commodities has got to slow over time.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: Earlier today we were sitting down with a peer of yours, Glenn Dubin. When we mentioned that we were going to be sitting down with you and he fed us a question. He wanted to know if short opportunities are more prevalent under a Trump Administration than they otherwise would have been under a Clinton Administration.
JIM CHANOS: (Laughs) I tell my republican friends, only half tongue in cheek, that although it’s a well-known that I’m a democrat, I guess my clients should be happy that a Republican came in because all the big money we’ve ever made has been under Republican presidencies. So, the toughest eight years I had on the short side were under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. So, basically, both of them had unrelenting, long bull markets. Whereas under Raegan, Herbert, Bush and his son, the markets were quite volatile. So, I’ll leave it at that.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: You talked about current risks and the value of institutional knowledge. Does today’s market environment remind you of a similar time in history?
JIM CHANOS: They’re all different because different things drive different bull markets. Late 80’s we had the first bout of economic boom and then too much leverage and you had the stock market crash and credit crash in ‘89, ‘90 which kind of punctuated that one. In my fraud class, we teach about the concept of displacement which is a fancy word for things on which a new financial cycle is built upon, typically an idea or concept. And in the ‘90’s it’s very clear it was the internet. It was the digitisation of an analogue economy. And that went for a good period, almost a decade, until you had the inextirpable excess and blow off. The fraud cycle, interestingly, lags the financial market by a little bit, but that’s a separate discussion. And then the next one, really, was the rise of China and the leveraging up of the American consumer in real estate.
Basically in ‘02 to ‘07 you had this monstrous rally in commodities, you had an emerging market, you had this monstrous rally in the US off the back of consumption and increased debt by consumers. That led to ‘08, ‘09.
Since ‘08, ‘09 I think we’re going to look back and say that it was the advent of central banking, ‘the central bank saves the world and makes you all rich’. So, QE and zero interest rates, I suspect we’re going to look back and say well 8 years of that policy kind of got us to where we are now, so how is that going to change if it does, and how does that change manifest itself? Are we going to see companies that just can’t possibly do well if interest rates go up by 400 bases points or 300 bases points? That’s certainly one thought.
On a macro basis, I mean, I’m not positioning the portfolio because that’s what I think but on the other hand I’m keeping an eye out for companies who might get into additional trouble should that regime be ending. And whether it’s in the auto cycle or companies with really, really low returns on capital that have been using financial engineering to bolster their results, those are sort of the things that we’re interested in right now.
CAPITALIZE FOR KIDS: In today’s world, a single tweet can move markets and a short presentation can cause a stock to drop 10%. How are you and your team staying on top of information that can affect your investments?
JIM CHANOS: So first let me just point out that was always the case, we’re just more aware of it today.
But I can tell you in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s there was all kinds of big stock movements and then you’d find out a day later that someone spoke at some event, you read about it in the Wall Street Journal. That was your news flow. And so, we’ve become much more instantaneous. We have at our fingertips the reasons or the ostensible reasons why prices fluctuate but it used to happen. You just didn’t kind of know why until maybe much later.
So, the question is struggling with the information flow and that’s where again, having a bigger staff and a good trading desk is highly important. For us, we use our trading desk as much for information gathering as we do for execution. They help make sure the partners and the analyst are in the flow on things happening that we need to follow up ourselves.
Read the full interview here.