One of my favorite Philly-area investors, Dan David — a partner with Maj Soueidan in GeoInvesting, a firm of professional skeptics working in a little industrial park amid the soy fields of Skippack — is suddenly a movie star.
That's David's bullet head, ox neck, and seen-it-all smile posted at IMDb and everywhere new films are pitched. He's on the poster for The China Hustle, a "Wall Street horror story" depicting real-life U.S.-China collusion in selling bad investments to U.S. retirees.
Produced by Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and backed by billionaire Mark Cuban, the documentary premiered Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I find a company that's lying and cheating and stealing, and I run outside my front door screaming about it," David told an applauding crowd of film critics and fans after that first screening. (It's still in talks for wider distribution.)
Variety ate it up. "A sequel to The Big Short," the smart film based on the Michael Lewis book about the 2008 mortgage-finance crisis, its review gushed. "Wildly entertaining," with the "charismatic" David playing himself alongside other real-life skeptics, short-sellers, and true believers. Directed by documentary auteur Jed Rothstein, it's funny, and not too wonky, the magazine reported.
The China Hustle shows how fee-hungry U.S. investment bankers and brokers — paying celebrity pitchmen from rapper Snoop Dogg to onetime presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark — help promoters who pack overvalued Chinese assets into the carcasses of small, publicly traded U.S. firms to separate retirement investors from their dollars, without effective oversight from either country.
David, a onetime jewelry retailer, founded the firm with Soueidan, a long-ago Vanguard Group employee, after the pair met playing rec-league football in the early 2000s. He says they profited buying shaky China stocks, got burned when they blew away in the financial crisis, and has since made a good living sending investigators to check out suspect companies' China assets — enabling clients to short-sell those stocks, betting they will fall.
David insists he's agnostic about shorting — but adds that China offers many shorting targets.
He warns that this country has failed to effectively police many of the U.S.-listed companies run by China fraudsters, who face little punishment at home as long as they only rip off Americans.
GeoInvesting has called out numerous companies by name: L&I Energy, a Nasdaq-traded, Goldman Sachs- and Black Rock-backed mining firm with former Clinton and Bush officials as advisers, which claimed production from what turned out to be closed coal mines; Sino Forest, which exaggerated its timber holdings; Yuhe International, which counted chickens that never hatched; and, lately, larger targets.
The movie poster depicts David on a visit to Washington. Last summer, he asked his then-congressman, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, and a dozen lawmakers who serve on financial committees, to conduct hearings and write bills making things tougher on U.S.-listed foreign companies.
"There should be a warning label on these stocks, like on a pack of cigarettes," David told me at the time. "Wherever you can steal money and not go to jail, there's going to be more stealing."
The movie should make you mad, he told the Toronto crowd. "Get involved in your own personal finance, understand what Chinese securities you have in your 401(k), and the indifference your politicians have to your financial well-being."
Recognize that in China "you can steal the whole company and nobody goes to jail." Lean on your employer's investment managers to press for tighter listing rules, or avoid stocks likely to collapse because they are based on such shaky assets. Or else, "it goes for nothing. You need to do something. Nobody else gives a damn."
Pressed by an audience member about "the other side of the story," David referred investors to SEC-reported documents: "The company quarterly report, the company 8-K [material announcement] reports, that's their side of the story." At his side, Gibney and Rothstein defended shorts as truth-tellers.
There's deception everywhere there are securities markets, and it has its own cycles. If China follows U.S. and European precedents, its Wild West legal-investment climate will in time shade out some of the squeezers who use conjured false images of the real growth around them to build fortunes at foreigners' expense.
Has David exaggerated the danger that China stocks will collapse altogether? Are we maybe looking at Chinese capitalism's botched experiments, not its lasting growth foundations?
I'm not sure I'd bet against the shorts.