Liam Dann 's Opinion

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: New trader on the block a dragonslayer

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Slick Sinophile deadly in Chinese market.

Trader Carson Block is a bit of an 80s throwback - like the preppy Alex P. Keaton - played by Michael J. Fox. Photo / supplied
Trader Carson Block is a bit of an 80s throwback - like the preppy Alex P. Keaton - played by Michael J. Fox. Photo / supplied

The world is changing fast, these days even the stock market wonder kids are part of the China story.

How about this guy Carson Block? He seems to be the first superstar trader of the post-GFC era.

Block is very 1980s retro - preppy with all-American good looks, a thirty-something Ferris Bueller or Alex P. Keaton.

Wall Street used to churn these alpha males out, the heroes and villains of Tom Wolfe, Brett Easton Ellis and Oliver Stone.

Block's new-found celebrity could be a sign - the traders are back. Only he hasn't walked out of Wall Street, he's emerged fully formed, fluent in Mandarin and fresh from pounding the streets of Shanghai.

According to the Financial Times, he's a New Jersey native who loves gangsta rap. But he's been working in China since 2005 and has paid close attention to what's going on ...

very close attention.

Block, with his investment firm Muddy Waters Capital, has effectively gone to war with a number of Chinese-listed companies - picking that they are overvalued and have pulled the wool over the eyes of Western investors with complex structures and even more complex accounting tricks.

He is a research analyst and a short seller - a deadly combination. His strategy is audacious.

He picks his target, does his research, takes short positions - which means he bets big that the share price will fall - then he publishes damning research which sends the shares falling through the floor.

He pulled off five huge market plays with Chinese companies before hitting the headlines last week for targeting Singaporean commodity trader Olam.

We know Olam here because it's just finished the full takeover of NZX-listed Farming Systems Uruguay.

But here's Block's first five hits according to CNBC: Orient paper fell 50 per cent after Block released a negative report, RINO International fell 64 per cent, China MediaExpress fell 28 per cent, Duayuan Global Water fell 40 per cent, and then, the one that made the world take notice, Sino-Forests fell 74 per cent and went bankrupt.

There are no reports of how much Block has made but you can bet it is shed-loads. He'll need some cash now because Olam is suing him for slander and libel.

Last week, at a commodities trading conference in London, Block declared he was short selling Olam and laid out his reasons why he thought they were going to fail. Olam hit back saying it was a deliberate ploy to create panic.

Putting aside the outcome of that dispute, Block has been successful in seeing through the hype around Chinese companies.

Across the Western world everyone in business, from traders to manufacturers, has been scrambling to get a piece of the Chinese economy for the past decade.

That staggering GDP growth can't be ignored. And there's no doubt China is the new force in the global economy.

But that bull market, that frenzy of Western interest, means there is plenty of bluster, inflated valuations and bubbles just waiting to be burst by someone clever enough or brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes.

Block's short selling is an ethical grey area for some people. It was banned in some sectors after the 2008 crash.

There was general outrage that the banks that had bundled up all that rubbish US mortgage debt and sold it around the world as derivatives, then made money short selling the same products once they realised they were worthless.

Investopedia also refers to the term "short and distort". That's the opposite of the classic "pump and dump".

But unlike that unscrupulous rumour mongering, Block is completely upfront and open about his short selling. Also, his research has thus far proved incisive. He argues that attacking these companies ensures they don't take more money off unsuspecting investors.

Here's his response to Olam last week. "Companies that attack criticism the way Olam does fail to understand that raising money from the public is a privilege."

It's a compelling line, but he's no Robin Hood - he's making his money first. Good luck to him. The more serious issue is how fair and grounded in reality his attacks are.

Olam is going to fight him and good luck to it. There will probably be a settlement which lets both sides save face and move on. Perhaps, with the element of surprise removed, Block's ability to move stocks so violently will be curbed.

But whatever happens, he has shone a powerful light on listed companies coming out of China. We'll no doubt see a lot more of him as he leverages his past successes. It's about time we saw a new superstar trader - Warren Buffett and George Soros are getting on and Donald Trump is insufferable.

Block's story offers up one more lesson for aspiring players. If you want to get very rich in the 21st century, learn Chinese.

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann is the Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, overseeing all our business content in print and online. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy.

Read more by Liam Dann

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