‘The Darth Vader of Wall Street’ on the trouble brewing in markets and why he is shorting Tesla

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Even its detractors acknowledge that short selling, in a normal environment, helps the markets to question conventional wisdom. But a sharper complaint, usually heard from targets, is that short-sellers acting together to sow FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about a company’s accounting or financial position can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the past, investors such as Chanos have moved markets just by revealing a bet against a particular company.

Chanos happily concedes that he talks frequently to other short-sellers. He shorted Luckin Coffee, once touted as China’s answer to Starbucks, after Carson Block of Muddy Waters encouraged him to look at it. (The company is now being investigated for accounting fraud.) But it’s “a myth” that short-sellers act together, he tells me from Prime 112’s private room. “If there were conspiracies, we’d be in something much more profitable than short selling.”

I mention Canadian insurer Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. It sued a group of hedge funds, including those run by Chanos, Dan Loeb and Steve Cohen, for allegedly driving down its stock under a short selling scheme. “That was the perception, but it wasn’t true,” says Chanos. “The case was thrown out (in 2018) on jurisdictional grounds. Our allegation was that the company was overstating their earnings, and during the process they restated their earnings.”

Chanos’s hedge fund manager Kynikos Associates Ltd. is named after the ancient Greek word for “cynic”. His pitch is that he can identify corporate disasters-in-the-making. The New York-based outfit employs 20 people and has US$1.5 billion in assets under management. Chanos also teaches a course on the history of financial fraud (“how to detect it, not how to commit it”, he quips) at Yale University, his alma mater. The syllabus stretches back to the 17th century. Today, he says, “we are in the golden age of fraud”.