Jim Chanos, who spotted Enron fraud, calls Trump’s infrastructure plan 'fake fiscal news’

Key Points
  • Short seller Jim Chanos is skeptical President Donald Trump's infrastructure proposal will lead to any significant economic growth.
  • Chanos says the plan is based on leveraging investments from private investors.
  • Because these investors need "high rates of return," it will result in a low number of infrastructure projects being funded.
Jim Chanos
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Short seller Jim Chanos recently explained why President Donald Trump's infrastructure spending plan will not lead to big economic growth because of the way it is structured.

Chanos is founder and managing partner of Kynikos Associates, one of the largest short selling investment firms in the world. Chanos is lauded for his prescient negative calls on Enron and Tyco.

Institute for New Economic Thinking's Lynn Parramore spoke with Chanos in an interview covering Trump's agenda and the U.S. economy. Parramore asked the short seller if Trump's infrastructure spending plan will spur economic growth.

"That's just another sort of fake fiscal news, if you will. It's going to be public-private partnerships," Chanos said.

"Because private investors need high rates of return, these deals generally haven't been good deals for anybody. ... We're told that the private sector will be able to do this better. Well, they might be able to do it better and faster, but only for a small number of projects," he added.

The investor cited his experience with Macquarie Bank, a company he was short in the past, which was a pioneer in infrastructure as an asset class trend. He noted the company only focused on projects with "clearly definable cash flow" such as parking structures and toll roads.

"Real projects that we need — repairing, refurbishing, whatever — are tougher. You're not going to get private investors to sign up for those without definable cash flows," Chanos said. "It's something that sounds good but when we actually start looking at projects that make sense for private investors leveraged up with state-backed or federally-backed bonds to do a project, we're going to find that it winnows down the list dramatically."

The White House website said Trump's infrastructure plan will rebuild U.S. cities and states by "unleashing private sector capital." The proposal will leverage $200 billion of government funds into $1 trillion, according to the page.

In addition, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross co-wrote a white paper in October 2016, when he was a senior policy advisor to the Trump campaign, which said "for infrastructure construction to be financeable privately, it needs a revenue stream from which to pay operating costs, the interest and principal on the debt, and the dividends on the equity."

Chanos declined to comment further on the interview in response to this story. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

See here for the full Institute for New Economic Thinking interview with Jim Chanos.