Lessons in Short Selling: Why Jim Chanos Targeted Enron

I saw this testimony, delivered to Congress February 6, 2002, by Jim Chanos on his decision to short Enron before it collapsed, posted over at John Chew’s Case Study Investing. I enjoyed reading it and thought it was worth commenting on as a kind of basic guide to short-selling– why and how. This testimony is a Warren Buffett-style (and quality) lesson on short-selling fundamentals.

How To Identify A Short-Sell Opportunity

Kynikos Associates selects portfolio securities by conducting a rigorous financial analysis and focusing on securities issued by companies that appear to have (1) materially overstated earnings (Enron), (2) been victims of a flawed business plan (most internet companies), or (3) been engaged in outright fraud.

Three key factors to look for in a short-sell:

  1. Overstated earnings
  2. Flawed business model (uneconomic activity)
  3. Fraud

As with the Enron fiasco, Chanos first became interested when he read a WSJ article that discussed Enron’s aggressive accounting practices. Aggressive, confusing, archaic or overly technical accounting practices are often a potential red-flag that could identify a company which is not actually as profitable as it appears to be to other market participants. When this profitability if revealed to be illusory later on, a catalyst is in place to galvanize investors into mass selling.

Another factor which can create an opportunity for a short is when the company has a flawed business model which essentially means the company is engaged in uneconomic activity. Short of government subsidies and other protective regulations, the market place tends to punish uneconomic (wasteful, that is, unproductive) activity with the tool of repeated and mounting economic losses until the offending individual or firm’s resources are exhausted and they must declare bankruptcy and liquidate their assets into the hands of more able owners. Chanos gives the example of tech bubble companies which never managed to achieve operating profitability– their business models were nothing more than exciting ideas, unable to overcome the reality check of achieving business profit.

The last type of short Chanos describes is general fraud– a company claims to own assets it does not own, or it is subject to liabilities and debts it has not disclosed, or there is an act of corruption or embezzlement amongst employees or managers of the business. Recent examples could be found in the growing “China short” sub-culture of financial research and hedge fund activity, such as the Sino Forest company which did not have thousands of acres of productive timberland it claimed to own.

The Enron “Case Study”

Returning to the Enron example, Chanos discloses three suspicious facts he and his firm uncovered through perusal of public financial disclosures that got them thinking about shorting Enron:

The first Enron document my firm analyzed was its 1999 Form 10-K filing, which it had filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. What immediately struck us was that despite using the “gain-on-sale” model, Enron’s return on capital, a widely used measure of profitability, was a paltry 7% before taxes. That is, for every dollar in outside capital that Enron employed, it earned about seven cents. This is important for two reasons; first, we viewed Enron as a trading company that was akin to an “energy hedge fund.” For this type of firm a 7% return on capital seemed abysmally low, particularly given its market dominance and accounting methods. Second, it was our view that Enron’s cost of capital was likely in excess of 7% and probably closer to 9%, which meant, from an economic cost point-of-view, that Enron wasn’t really earning any money at all, despite reporting “profits” to its shareholders. This mismatch of Enron’s cost of capital and its return on investment became the cornerstone for our bearish view on Enron and we began shorting Enron common stock in November of 2000.

Chanos essentially did a competitive analysis on Enron and concluded that Enron was underperforming its competitors in the energy trading arena, despite large size and market dominance. He also concluded that its returns appeared uneconomic because they did not cover costs (capital), implying the company was  consuming capital rather than generating it.

We were also troubled by Enron’s cryptic disclosure regarding various “related party transactions” described in its 1999 Form 10-K as well as the quarterly Form 10-Qs it filed with the SEC in 2000 for its March, June and September quarters. We read the footnotes in Enron’s financial statements about these transactions over and over again but could not decipher what impact they had on Enron’s overall financial condition. It did seem strange to us, however, that Enron had organized these entities for the apparent purpose of trading with their parent company, and that they were run by an Enron executive. Another disturbing factor in our review of Enron’s situation was what we perceived to be the large amount of insider selling of Enron stock by Enron’s senior executives. While not damning by itself, such selling in conjunction with our other financial concerns added to our conviction.

Importantly, Chanos notes that it was not the insider selling alone, but within the context of other suspicious activity, that concerned him. Often executives and insiders sell for personal liquidity reasons (buying a new home, sending kids to college, buying a boat, etc.) and some observers necessarily conclude this means foul play or that the insider knows the Titanic is about to hit an iceberg.

More common with smaller companies where management and ownership are often synonymous, related-party dealings are always something to be skeptical about and almost never are harmless in the context of multi-billion dollar public corporations.

Finally, we were puzzled by Enron’s and its supporters boasts in late 2000 regarding the company’s initiatives in the telecommunications field, particularly in the trading of broadband capacity. Enron waxed eloquent about a huge, untapped market in such capacity and told analysts that the present value of Enron’s opportunity in that market could be $20 to $30 per share of Enron stock. These statements were troubling to us because our portfolio already contained a number of short ideas in the telecommunications and broadband area based on the snowballing glut of capacity that was developing in that industry. By late 2000, the stocks of companies in this industry had fallen precipitously, yet Enron and its executives seemed oblivious to this! Despite the obvious bear market in telecommunications capacity, Enron still saw a bull market in terms of its own valuation of the same business — an ominous portent.

Again, Chanos and his firm were able to see the Enron picture more clearly by comparing it to the competitive landscape as a whole. How much validity does a firm’s claims possess when looked at in the context of the wider industry (or economy), rather than just its own dreams and/or delusions?

Throughout the rest of the testimony, we learn a few other interesting details about the development of his short thesis concerning Enron: the use of Wall Street analysts for sentiment feedback, the analysis of additional qualitative data for confirming target company statements and the use of conferences and investor communications networks to spread an idea and generate critical investor momentum.

Chanos also shares this helpful Wall Street axiom:

It is an axiom in securities trading that, no matter how well “hedged” a firm claims to be, trading operations always seem to do better in bull markets and to struggle in bear markets.

An important reminder for considering all business strategies which require positive momentum (ie, Ponzi schemes) to work.

More telling than insider selling, in Chanos’ mind, is management departures, change ups and board reshufflings:

In our experience, there is no louder alarm bell in a controversial company than the unexplained, sudden departure of a chief executive officer no matter what “official” reason is given.

In the case of Enron, the executive to depart was Enron CEO Jeff Skilling who was considered to be the “chief architect” of the company’s controversial trading program. His absence meant not only that Enron was potentially a ship without a rudder, but that the captain had found a leak and was jumping overboard with the rats before everyone else figured it out.

In Summary

To summarize the lessons of the Enron case, good shorts usually involve at least one or more of the following: questionable earnings, uneconomic business models and/or fraud.

Accomplished short-sellers look for clues suggesting the presence of the above factors by reading between the lines in public financial disclosures and major news stories. They use social signaling clues like surveying Wall Street analysts and other market participants to gauge sentiment, which is a contrarian tool for discovering whether controversial information they are aware of is likely priced into the market or not. They engage in competitive analysis to judge whether the target firm’s claims are credible and reasonable. They watch the activity of insiders, specifically unanticipated departures of key staff, for confirmation of their thesis. They anticipate stressors to a firm’s business model which might serve as catalysts for revealing the precarious state of a firm’s business to other market participants.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they never take the price of the shorted security going against them as evidence that they are wrong and they add to their position as their conviction rises with new evidence of weakness or trouble for the target firm.

As Ben Graham would observe, in the short term the market is a voting machine and it’s common for those who are responsible for a fraud or dying business to cheerlead the market out of desperation. And as Chanos himself observed,

While short sellers probably will never be popular on Wall Street, they often are the ones wearing the white hats when it comes to looking for and identifying the bad guys!

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