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Jim Chanos: China’s “Leveraged Prosperity” Model is Doomed

Institute for New Economic Thinking | Lynn Parramore | Oct 14, 2021

China Evergrande - Jim Chanos: China’s “Leveraged Prosperity” Model is DoomedFamed short-seller is even more concerned with political fallout from Evergrande than economic/financial woes.

LP: Let’s talk about Evergrande, the Shenzhen developer whose crisis has got everybody worried. How did things get so bad?

JC: Last year, as the tech crackdown was gaining momentum, Xi’s administration put down a set of rules called the “three red lines.” They were sort of balance sheet financial tests. It was an attempt to deleverage the real estate developers.

LP: So with Evergrande, everyone came to expect a bailout?

JC: I think we’re at that crossroads. The problem is that these companies are so much bigger than they were in 2015 or 2011. Can you bail everybody out? In the case of the developers, you have an additional problem. The biggest amount of liabilities is not necessarily to banks and bondholders. It’s to apartment buyers. Here’s why: the Chinese real estate finance system is exactly the opposite of ours. In our system, when there’s a new development, you’re typically required to put 10% down to sign a contract, with the balance due on closing.

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You go get your financing and your mortgage proceeds pay for the rest of the house or the apartment. In China, you pay upfront. You are extending the developer a loan. So, of the $300 billion in liabilities Evergrande owes, I think the biggest chunk, last time I checked, is basically what we would call a deferred revenue item. It’s money that you took in from people, and you owe them an apartment. And the apartments aren’t done, but the money’s been spent. So the problem is not just bailing people out, but the question of who is going to put up more capital to pay off the retail people that have bought apartments that haven’t gotten anything.

These numbers are big, and Evergrande is not the only one. There are a handful of developers that are missing interest payments and have their bond prices reflecting distress.

LP: How does this problem relate to Chinese politics?

JC: As all of this is happening on the financial and economic front, along with the crackdown on business elites, we’ve seen a commensurate rise in bellicosity, in saber-rattling toward Taiwan, India, and Tibet. We’ve seen a much more aggressive posture from Xi in relating to the West. Now every day there’s a warning in one of the Chinese Communist Party organs threatening Australia if they come to Taiwan, threatening Japan. I don’t know if the Party is preparing the citizenry for a “them.” Someone to blame.

LP: To touch on Xi’s crackdown on the tech industry, how do you view that in the context of the need to lessen this dependency on the real estate sector? Certainly, we can see in our own case with Silicon Valley — Facebook and so on — that poorly regulated tech is a problem. But what does Xi’s stance mean in the context of his desire for China to be a leader in innovation, on the cutting edge of technology?

JC: The problem was that, number one, it gave rise to these global tech celebrities, and number two, I think China, or the Party, realized a little bit later than they might have that the control of databases and information that these companies have is certainly a power center.

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And the one thing that the Communist Party cannot brook is a threat to its control. There are no other political parties, no free press. The only thing that could challenge control is the thing that people said would liberalize China – the internet. Access to the internet, access to ideas, access to global media. People thought these things would democratize China, but Xi is saying no: we’re going to put up a Great Firewall and we’re not going to allow Alibaba to have as much power as the Party.

LP: And it looks like he’s going after the banks next.

JC: The real estate system is so big, and so levered – the banking system has grown with it, of course. It seems to me that Xi is basically going through all the power centers — technology, finance, etc., and cracking down. He’s making sure his people are completely in charge and that there’s no interference, no other power centers. And it makes me ask why. What’s the end game? I mean, the Party has control of the country for the most part. The citizens understand that. So why? What is coming that he feels he needs to make sure that all of his people are in control? I can’t help but think of Stalin. The end game puzzles me the most. Is it to prepare for a takeover of Taiwan? To be more forceful on the international stage? I don’t know.

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