Entertaining and informative in equal measures, The China Hustle is a great primer on one of the lesser-known, albeit one of the biggest financial frauds in history.
Hot in the heels of the 2008 Financial Crisis, investment firms in the United States were looking for new ways to improve their clients’ investment portfolios while also making a big buck for themselves. Enter China and its miraculous growth story.
The documentary narrates how small nondescript Chinese companies are systematically hyped up and sold by investment banks to U.S. based investors. It depicts investment conferences organized by companies such as Roth Capital, who rope in the likes of Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, and hype up the stocks of these sketchy Chinese companies. Another organization named by the documentary, that allegedly colluded with these Chinese firms, is Rodman & Renshaw.
The documentary explains how these small companies gained credibility and authenticity using “reverse mergers”, which involved mergers with defunct American companies to get the former listed in the NYSE. If it was the rating agencies that turned a blind eye during the 2008 financial crisis, some of the blame supposedly rests on the Big Four auditors for inadequate due diligence in vetting these companies. Once these companies got listed, investment firms goaded their investors into buying them, siphoning off brokerages on the way. When the prices of these stocks invariably crashed, it was the unsuspecting common man, who was left holding large amounts of worthless stock.
The documentary is largely driven through interviews with activist shareholders who got wind of the fraud and subsequently short-sold the toxic stock in order to bring about the collapse of the fraudulent entities. There was a great analogy to explain the complex concept of “short selling”, which essentially means betting on the stock prices going down. Let’s say you have a hunch that sugar prices are going to drastically go down. You borrow 10kg of sugar from your neighbor, promising to return it later. You sell it in the market at the market price of $50. When the price eventually crashes to say $25, you buy 10kg of sugar at the much-reduced price, return it back to your neighbor, making a nifty little profit in the process.
The documentary also features some nice sleuth work from our protagonists. While investigating China Green Agriculture, they sent in a spy posing as a tea seller looking to sell tea samples. Combined with the video surveillance, they came to realize that the company had just one truck, one driver, and a paltry 40 employees in its payroll while making some outlandish claims about its profits and assets,
One of the movie’s protagonists is Carson Block, who founded the firm Muddy Waters, an American short-seller, who was in the news recently for exposing another massive fraud. They published an 89-page report on Luckin Coffee (China’s answer to Starbucks) how the company was fudging numbers and inflating the total items sold per store by as much as 80%. The report was the result of some good sleuthing, featuring store traffic, media spends, and receipt numbers, and makes for good reading.
Unlike some documentaries about finance and economics, The China Hustle is very accessible for mainstream viewers with little knowledge of how stock markets and investments work.