Followers of Jim Chanos of Kynikos Capital know the short-seller is bearish on China, which is why he presented Sohn Investment Conference attendees with something different.
As the country moves from an investment-driven to a consumer-driven economy, a slowdown in China is sure to take a few victims with it. Those victims may very well be South Africa and Nigeria, according to Chanos. The two countries' economies are still heavily dependent on commodities. In Nigeria, 70% of government revenues came from oil, and commodities accounted for 35% of GDP between 2010 and 2016.
As China grew, it provided foreign direct investment to sub-Saharan Africa. This provided capital for countries such as South Africa and Nigeria to extract minerals and develop rail lines to get needed raw materials to China. That trend is going in reverse now, Chanos says. As the projects are completed, China is leaving the region and commodity prices are in decline.
But it's not just China that is hurting Nigeria and South Africa. The countries' own politics and economics are also at play. South Africa, for example, has a 52.6% youth unemployment rate, a monstrous debt load and President Jacob Zuma runs the country like a fiefdom, Chanos says. Nigeria, meanwhile, is troubled by domestic terrorism and is running out of currency reserves and the country appears to be desperate for money.
With this in mind, Chanos presented his short idea: MTN Group, a South African-based telecommunications company. It gets 62% of its revenue from South Africa and Nigeria and the rest of its top clients are similarly troubled nations. While MTN was able to hold onto market share, it is facing increasing pressure from competitors, Chanos said.
Finally, as evidence of MTN's troubles -- and also weakening economic prospects in Nigeria -- MTN faces a $3.4 billion fine imposed by the Nigerian Communications Commission. The fine was initially $5.2 billion but was reduced in December, further evidence that the Nigerian government is hungry for cash, Chanos said.
See full coverage from the Sohn Investment Conference here. The event brings together some of the top minds in the financial world for a day of sharing investment ideas. It is held in honor of Ira Sohn, a Wall Street professional who lost his battle with cancer when he was 29. Proceeds from the New York conference, as well as other conferences the Sohn Conference Foundation holds, are dedicated to the treatment and cure of pediatric cancer and other childhood diseases. The foundation has so far raised more than $65 million.