Milwaukee-born short-seller Jim Chanos, founder and managing partner of New York-based Kynikos Associates, teaches University of Wisconsin and Yale business students about corporate fraud. During his life and career, he has witnessed seismic shifts in economic thinking and the relationship between labor and capital. Chanos shares his thoughts on the world emerging from the election of Donald Trump and the tumultuous political events of 2016.
Lynn Parramore: Leading up to the election of Trump, we had eight years of Obama, and before that, eight years of Bush. Before we get to the president-elect, how do you assess the records of those past presidents in terms of basic policing of markets and corporate fraud?
Jim Chanos: Bush was the MBA president who was going to be pro-business, cut taxes, and deregulate. Meanwhile, he had two recessions on his watch, less employment than when he started, and two bear markets in the stock market — probably the worst president for business since Herbert Hoover. The business guy!
Yet, he did tighten up the Justice Department and go after corporate crime. The Ashcroft Justice Department, as bad as it was in lots of other things, went after corporate fraud and accounting fraud, criminally. In 2002, we got Sarbanes-Oxley to curb fraud.
I don’t know that all this was Bush’s predilection — remember, his biggest supporter was Enron. But because of Enron and the other dot-com era scandals, he got backed into a corner to go hard on them. I’ve joked that the only person who put more corporate executives in jail than George W. Bush was his father during the Savings and Loan Crisis.
On these issues, I’d rather have Bush any day of the week than Obama. Both Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer of Obama’s Justice Department said in TV interviews and testimony that they factored in non-judicial aspects as to whether to mount prosecutions. I think that this had political costs to the Democrats. The crony capitalism still bothers people — the idea that Wall Street got off scot-free and they are still struggling. That lack of justice applied equally under the law was corrosive, not necessarily for Obama personally, but certainly for the party following him.
LP: How do you see a Trump presidency in this light?
JC: You and I have talked about how it has become a cost calculus for lots of corporations and financial institutions to cheat. “If I get caught,” they say, “I’m just going to pay a fine.” How does this change with new faces in Washington? You still have this very pro-corporate group on Capitol Hill whose main bailiwick, in my opinion, is to protect the corporate class and the very wealthy. You’ve got what ostensibly is a proto-populist in the White House with a cabinet that is a mélange of different types, so who knows?
In my overall view, stuff happens to change people. If we go back to Bill Clinton, his “Putting People First” manifesto in ’92 was quite left-of-center, but he didn’t govern that way. If you look at things like NAFTA, Welfare reform, and cutting capital gains taxes — well, in many ways, Ronald Reagan would have been proud of him.
Events conspire to derail our perceptions of presidents. When we look at their platforms, we think we know where things are headed. But in modern times, the only two presidents that I can think of who really got their ideas and platforms enacted wholesale were FDR and Reagan. Everybody else has gotten compromised, or has had events overwhelm them.
LP: What do you make of the expectations of the economy under Trump?
JC: I worry about the heightened expectations from the people who voted for him thinking that he’s their savior. That’s what scares me — unmet expectations. For the swing voter in the Midwest who voted for this guy because he thinks coal-mines are coming back or the plants are going to reopen — it’s not going to happen.
LP: What about the rise in bank stocks since the election? Are banks anticipating deregulation?
JC: Almost all stocks are going up, mostly because of the belief of lower taxation. But after Obama’s election, most stocks went down and kept going down until the following March — and then they tripled! So I wouldn’t read a lot into the first month or two.
It could be that banks are anticipating deregulation, but so what? Deregulated to what end? They’re still going to have the capital requirements, which are international. Putting capital standards on them is the biggest way in which they were regulated.
In the bigger picture, if you think this is an uncertain presidency and we’re not quite sure where he’s going and how events will conspire, it’s not that important to get too worked up because things will happen and you’ll have to react. If, however, this is a once-in-a-fifty-year change in global thoughts about capitalism, then you have to pay attention.
LP: If this is a once-in-fifty-year change, what’s at stake?
JC: Part of my view is that in the 1930s, we rejected the individuality of the ’20s and before. After the crash and the Depression, we finally put the corporate class and bankers to the sidelines. Whether it was Keynesianism or the New Deal in the West, or state fascism or the advent of Stalinism, you saw more government control over the economy. This was good for workers and large governments. It was more nationalistic and led, obviously, to the next conflict. But the rise of government planning and government involvement was good for nominal GDPs. It was not good for the asset-holding classes — stocks and bonds did terribly over that period, right? You wanted to be a worker, you wanted to be labor, not capital.
The period from the late 1970s to 1980 changed all that. You had Thatcher and the U.K. and Reagan in the U.S. Mao died in 1976, the Solidarity movement in Poland began in 1978, and the Soviet Union peaked in power in 1979. You saw that the pendulum had gone too far and now we’re going to cut taxes on capital, we’re going to be more globalistic, and trade was going to improve. Since then, capital has risen and assets have done better than labor. Taxes have been light on financial assets and heavy on labor. Everything was reversed on its head.
If we look at the events of 2016 — Brexit, the Italian referendum, Trump, and the rise of nationalist China — are these the harbingers of something bigger? Or are they just a coincidence? The ground seems to be fertile for things to change globally. If so, does this give rise to a more nationalistic, protectionist, statist scenario? Are labor prices going to go up again? Are we going to tax capital and emphasize wages?
We’ll see…....MUCH MORE