Monday, March 17, 2008

Buffett On Derivatives

Recently I found an article that talks about how to replicate Buffett's recent sales of put options.

Playing With Fire: Trading Put Options With Warren Buffett

This gave me reason to go back and to extract all his statements from the letters to shareholders back till 2002 that talk about derivatives in one form or another and to put it all here in one place. Actually, I have left out everything related to options and CEO compensation. That might be even a bigger post.

Of course, it is especially interesting in the light of the recent sub-prime/credit crisis (Bear Stearns just down, UBS to be split up?! Who knows what we will call it when it will be all over). Something else he only said in interviews (he called it madness before here), but is maybe more to the point than anything else he wrote, is this excerpt:
BUFFETT: But it shows you--when things get that complex, you're going to have a lot of problems. And CDO squared--I figured out, on a CDO squared you had to read 750,000 pages to understand the instruments that were underneath it.

QUICK: Oh, my gosh.

BUFFETT: Yeah. Well, you start with the RMB, that's the residential mortgage-backed securities, and that would have 30 tranches. And then you'd take--and that would be a 300-page document--you'd take a tranche from each one of that and create a CDO, 50 of those times three--300, you know, it becomes 15,000. Then you take a CDO squared with 50 more, and now you're up to 750,000 pages.

QUICK: You have to read through it.

BUFFETT: And the mind can't comprehend that.
As mentioned above, "it's madness".

Now, if you plan to read it all in chronological order, you might start from the bottom.

2007 letter:
Last year I told you that Berkshire had 62 derivative contracts that I manage. (We also have a few left in the General Re runoff book.) Today, we have 94 of these, and they fall into two categories.

First, we have written 54 contracts that require us to make payments if certain bonds that are included in various high-yield indices default. These contracts expire at various times from 2009 to 2013. At yearend we had received $3.2 billion in premiums on these contracts; had paid $472 million in losses; and in the worst case (though it is extremely unlikely to occur) could be required to pay an additional $4.7 billion.

We are certain to make many more payments. But I believe that on premium revenues alone, these contracts will prove profitable, leaving aside what we can earn on the large sums we hold. Our yearend liability for this exposure was recorded at $1.8 billion and is included in “Derivative Contract Liabilities” on our balance sheet.

The second category of contracts involves various put options we have sold on four stock indices (the S&P 500 plus three foreign indices). These puts had original terms of either 15 or 20 years and were struck at the market. We have received premiums of $4.5 billion, and we recorded a liability at yearend of $4.6 billion. The puts in these contracts are exercisable only at their expiration dates, which occur between 2019 and 2027, and Berkshire will then need to make a payment only if the index in question is quoted at a level below that existing on the day that the put was written. Again, I believe these contracts, in aggregate, will be profitable and that we will, in addition, receive substantial income from our investment of the premiums we hold during the 15- or 20-year period.

Two aspects of our derivative contracts are particularly important. First, in all cases we hold the money, which means that we have no counterparty risk.

Second, accounting rules for our derivative contracts differ from those applying to our investment portfolio. In that portfolio, changes in value are applied to the net worth shown on Berkshire’s balance sheet, but do not affect earnings unless we sell (or write down) a holding. Changes in the value of a derivative contract, however, must be applied each quarter to earnings.

Thus, our derivative positions will sometimes cause large swings in reported earnings, even though Charlie and I might believe the intrinsic value of these positions has changed little. He and I will not be bothered by these swings – even though they could easily amount to $1 billion or more in a quarter – and we hope you won’t be either. You will recall that in our catastrophe insurance business, we are always ready to trade increased volatility in reported earnings in the short run for greater gains in net worth in the long run. That is our philosophy in derivatives as well.
2006 letter:
I should mention that all of the direct currency profits we have realized have come from forward contracts, which are derivatives, and that we have entered into other types of derivatives contracts as well. That may seem odd, since you know of our expensive experience in unwinding the derivatives book at Gen Re and also have heard me talk of the systemic problems that could result from the enormous growth in the use of derivatives. Why, you may wonder, are we fooling around with such potentially toxic material?

The answer is that derivatives, just like stocks and bonds, are sometimes wildly mispriced. For many years, accordingly, we have selectively written derivative contracts – few in number but sometimes for large dollar amounts. We currently have 62 contracts outstanding. I manage them personally, and they are free of counterparty credit risk. So far, these derivative contracts have worked out well for us, producing pre-tax profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars (above and beyond the gains I’ve itemized from forward foreign-exchange contracts). Though we will experience losses from time to time, we are likely to continue to earn – overall – significant profits from mispriced derivatives.
2005 letter:
Long ago, Mark Twain said: “A man who tries to carry a cat home by its tail will learn a lesson that can be learned in no other way.” If Twain were around now, he might try winding up a derivatives business. After a few days, he would opt for cats.

We lost $104 million pre-tax last year in our continuing attempt to exit Gen Re’s derivative operation. Our aggregate losses since we began this endeavor total $404 million.

Originally we had 23,218 contracts outstanding. By the start of 2005 we were down to 2,890. You might expect that our losses would have been stemmed by this point, but the blood has kept flowing. Reducing our inventory to 741 contracts last year cost us the $104 million mentioned above.

Remember that the rationale for establishing this unit in 1990 was Gen Re’s wish to meet the needs of insurance clients. Yet one of the contracts we liquidated in 2005 had a term of 100 years! It’s difficult to imagine what “need” such a contract could fulfill except, perhaps, the need of a compensation-conscious trader to have a long-dated contract on his books. Long contracts, or alternatively those with multiple variables, are the most difficult to mark to market (the standard procedure used in accounting for derivatives) and provide the most opportunity for “imagination” when traders are estimating their value. Small wonder that traders promote them.

A business in which huge amounts of compensation flow from assumed numbers is obviously fraught with danger. When two traders execute a transaction that has several, sometimes esoteric, variables and a far-off settlement date, their respective firms must subsequently value these contracts whenever they calculate their earnings. A given contract may be valued at one price by Firm A and at another by Firm B. You can bet that the valuation differences – and I’m personally familiar with several that were huge – tend to be tilted in a direction favoring higher earnings at each firm. It’s a strange world in which two parties can carry out a paper transaction that each can promptly report as profitable.

I dwell on our experience in derivatives each year for two reasons. One is personal and unpleasant. The hard fact is that I have cost you a lot of money by not moving immediately to close down Gen Re’s trading operation. Both Charlie and I knew at the time of the Gen Re purchase that it was a problem and told its management that we wanted to exit the business. It was my responsibility to make sure that happened. Rather than address the situation head on, however, I wasted several years while we attempted to sell the operation. That was a doomed endeavor because no realistic solution could have extricated us from the maze of liabilities that was going to exist for decades. Our obligations were particularly worrisome because their potential to explode could not be measured. Moreover, if severe trouble occurred, we knew it was likely to correlate with problems elsewhere in financial markets.

So I failed in my attempt to exit painlessly, and in the meantime more trades were put on the books. Fault me for dithering. (Charlie calls it thumb-sucking.) When a problem exists, whether in personnel or in business operations, the time to act is now.

The second reason I regularly describe our problems in this area lies in the hope that our experiences may prove instructive for managers, auditors and regulators. In a sense, we are a canary in this business coal mine and should sing a song of warning as we expire. The number and value of derivative contracts outstanding in the world continues to mushroom and is now a multiple of what existed in 1998, the last time that financial chaos erupted.

Our experience should be particularly sobering because we were a better-than-average candidate to exit gracefully. Gen Re was a relatively minor operator in the derivatives field. It has had the good fortune to unwind its supposedly liquid positions in a benign market, all the while free of financial or other pressures that might have forced it to conduct the liquidation in a less-than-efficient manner. Our accounting in the past was conventional and actually thought to be conservative. Additionally, we know of no bad behavior by anyone involved.

It could be a different story for others in the future. Imagine, if you will, one or more firms (troubles often spread) with positions that are many multiples of ours attempting to liquidate in chaotic markets and under extreme, and well-publicized, pressures. This is a scenario to which much attention should be given now rather than after the fact. The time to have considered – and improved – the reliability of New Orleans’ levees was before Katrina.

When we finally wind up Gen Re Securities, my feelings about its departure will be akin to those expressed in a country song, “My wife ran away with my best friend, and I sure miss him a lot.”
2004 letter:
The wind-down of Gen Re Securities continues. We decided to exit this derivative operation three years ago, but getting out is easier said than done. Though derivative instruments are purported to be highly liquid – and though we have had the benefit of a benign market while liquidating ours – we still had 2,890 contracts outstanding at yearend, down from 23,218 at the peak. Like Hell, derivative trading is easy to enter but difficult to leave. (Other similarities come to mind as well.)

Gen Re’s derivative contracts have always been required to be marked to market, and I believe the company’s management conscientiously tried to make realistic “marks.” The market prices of derivatives, however, can be very fuzzy in a world in which settlement of a transaction is sometimes decades away and often involves multiple variables as well. In the interim the marks influence the managerial and trading bonuses that are paid annually. It’s small wonder that phantom profits are often recorded.

Investors should understand that in all types of financial institutions, rapid growth sometimes masks major underlying problems (and occasionally fraud). The real test of the earning power of a derivatives operation is what it achieves after operating for an extended period in a no-growth mode. You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.
2003 letter:
A far less pleasant unwinding operation is taking place at Gen Re Securities, the trading and derivatives operation we inherited when we purchased General Reinsurance.

When we began to liquidate Gen Re Securities in early 2002, it had 23,218 outstanding tickets with 884 counterparties (some having names I couldn’t pronounce, much less creditworthiness I could evaluate). Since then, the unit’s managers have been skillful and diligent in unwinding positions. Yet, at yearend – nearly two years later – we still had 7,580 tickets outstanding with 453 counterparties. (As the country song laments, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”)

The shrinking of this business has been costly. We’ve had pre-tax losses of $173 million in 2002 and $99 million in 2003. These losses, it should be noted, came from a portfolio of contracts that – in full compliance with GAAP – had been regularly marked-to-market with standard allowances for future credit-loss and administrative costs. Moreover, our liquidation has taken place both in a benign market – we’ve had no credit losses of significance – and in an orderly manner. This is just the opposite of what might be expected if a financial crisis forced a number of derivatives dealers to cease operations simultaneously.

If our derivatives experience – and the Freddie Mac shenanigans of mind-blowing size and audacity that were revealed last year – makes you suspicious of accounting in this arena, consider yourself wised up. No matter how financially sophisticated you are, you can’t possibly learn from reading the disclosure documents of a derivatives-intensive company what risks lurk in its positions. Indeed, the more you know about derivatives, the less you will feel you can learn from the disclosures normally proffered you. In Darwin’s words, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And now it’s confession time: I’m sure I could have saved you $100 million or so, pre-tax, if I had acted more promptly to shut down Gen Re Securities. Both Charlie and I knew at the time of the General Reinsurance merger that its derivatives business was unattractive. Reported profits struck us as illusory, and we felt that the business carried sizable risks that could not effectively be measured or limited. Moreover, we knew that any major problems the operation might experience would likely correlate with troubles in the financial or insurance world that would affect Berkshire elsewhere. In other words, if the derivatives business were ever to need shoring up, it would commandeer the capital and credit of Berkshire at just the time we could otherwise deploy those resources to huge advantage. (A historical note: We had just such an experience in 1974 when we were the victim of a major insurance fraud. We could not determine for some time how much the fraud would ultimately cost us and therefore kept more funds in cash-equivalents than we normally would have. Absent this precaution, we would have made larger purchases of stocks that were then extraordinarily cheap.)

Charlie would have moved swiftly to close down Gen Re Securities – no question about that. I, however, dithered. As a consequence, our shareholders are paying a far higher price than was necessary to exit this business.
2002 letter:
On the minus side, the Finance line also includes the operations of General Re Securities, a derivatives and trading business. This entity lost $173 million pre-tax last year, a result that, in part, is a belated acknowledgment of faulty, albeit standard, accounting it used in earlier periods. Derivatives, in fact, deserve an extensive look, both in respect to the accounting their users employ and to the problems they may pose for both individual companies and our economy.


Charlie and I are of one mind in how we feel about derivatives and the trading activities that go with them: We view them as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system.

Having delivered that thought, which I’ll get back to, let me retreat to explaining derivatives, though the explanation must be general because the word covers an extraordinarily wide range of financial contracts. Essentially, these instruments call for money to change hands at some future date, with the amount to be determined by one or more reference items, such as interest rates, stock prices or currency values. If, for
example, you are either long or short an S&P 500 futures contract, you are a party to a very simple derivatives transaction – with your gain or loss derived from movements in the index. Derivatives contracts are of varying duration (running sometimes to 20 or more years) and their value is often tied to several variables.

Unless derivatives contracts are collateralized or guaranteed, their ultimate value also depends on the creditworthiness of the counterparties to them. In the meantime, though, before a contract is settled, the counterparties record profits and losses – often huge in amount – in their current earnings statements without so much as a penny changing hands.

The range of derivatives contracts is limited only by the imagination of man (or sometimes, so it seems, madmen). At Enron, for example, newsprint and broadband derivatives, due to be settled many years in the future, were put on the books. Or say you want to write a contract speculating on the number of twins to be born in Nebraska in 2020. No problem – at a price, you will easily find an obliging counterparty.

When we purchased Gen Re, it came with General Re Securities, a derivatives dealer that Charlie and I didn’t want, judging it to be dangerous. We failed in our attempts to sell the operation, however, and are now terminating it.

But closing down a derivatives business is easier said than done. It will be a great many years before we are totally out of this operation (though we reduce our exposure daily). In fact, the reinsurance and derivatives businesses are similar: Like Hell, both are easy to enter and almost impossible to exit. In either industry, once you write a contract – which may require a large payment decades later – you are usually stuck with it. True, there are methods by which the risk can be laid off with others. But most strategies of that kind
leave you with residual liability.

Another commonality of reinsurance and derivatives is that both generate reported earnings that are often wildly overstated. That’s true because today’s earnings are in a significant way based on estimates whose inaccuracy may not be exposed for many years.

Errors will usually be honest, reflecting only the human tendency to take an optimistic view of one’s commitments. But the parties to derivatives also have enormous incentives to cheat in accounting for them. Those who trade derivatives are usually paid (in whole or part) on “earnings” calculated by mark-to-market accounting. But often there is no real market (think about our contract involving twins) and “mark-to-model”
is utilized. This substitution can bring on large-scale mischief. As a general rule, contracts involving multiple reference items and distant settlement dates increase the opportunities for counterparties to use fanciful assumptions. In the twins scenario, for example, the two parties to the contract might well use differing models allowing both to show substantial profits for many years. In extreme cases, mark-to-model degenerates into what I would call mark-to-myth.

Of course, both internal and outside auditors review the numbers, but that’s no easy job. For example, General Re Securities at yearend (after ten months of winding down its operation) had 14,384 contracts outstanding, involving 672 counterparties around the world. Each contract had a plus or minus value derived from one or more reference items, including some of mind-boggling complexity. Valuing a portfolio like that, expert auditors could easily and honestly have widely varying opinions.

The valuation problem is far from academic: In recent years, some huge-scale frauds and near-frauds have been facilitated by derivatives trades. In the energy and electric utility sectors, for example, companies used derivatives and trading activities to report great “earnings” – until the roof fell in when they actually tried to convert the derivatives-related receivables on their balance sheets into cash. “Mark-to-market” then turned out to be truly “mark-to-myth.”

I can assure you that the marking errors in the derivatives business have not been symmetrical. Almost invariably, they have favored either the trader who was eyeing a multi-million dollar bonus or the CEO who wanted to report impressive “earnings” (or both). The bonuses were paid, and the CEO profited from his options. Only much later did shareholders learn that the reported earnings were a sham.

Another problem about derivatives is that they can exacerbate trouble that a corporation has run into for completely unrelated reasons. This pile-on effect occurs because many derivatives contracts require that a company suffering a credit downgrade immediately supply collateral to counterparties. Imagine, then, that a company is downgraded because of general adversity and that its derivatives instantly kick in with their requirement, imposing an unexpected and enormous demand for cash collateral on the company. The need to meet this demand can then throw the company into a liquidity crisis that may, in some cases, trigger still more downgrades. It all becomes a spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown.

Derivatives also create a daisy-chain risk that is akin to the risk run by insurers or reinsurers that lay off much of their business with others. In both cases, huge receivables from many counterparties tend to build up over time. (At Gen Re Securities, we still have $6.5 billion of receivables, though we’ve been in a liquidation mode for nearly a year.) A participant may see himself as prudent, believing his large credit exposures to be diversified and therefore not dangerous. Under certain circumstances, though, an exogenous event that causes the receivable from Company A to go bad will also affect those from Companies B through Z. History teaches us that a crisis often causes problems to correlate in a manner undreamed of in more tranquil times.

In banking, the recognition of a “linkage” problem was one of the reasons for the formation of the Federal Reserve System. Before the Fed was established, the failure of weak banks would sometimes put sudden and unanticipated liquidity demands on previously-strong banks, causing them to fail in turn. The
Fed now insulates the strong from the troubles of the weak. But there is no central bank assigned to the job of preventing the dominoes toppling in insurance or derivatives. In these industries, firms that are fundamentally solid can become troubled simply because of the travails of other firms further down the chain. When a “chain reaction” threat exists within an industry, it pays to minimize links of any kind. That’s how we conduct our reinsurance business, and it’s one reason we are exiting derivatives.

Many people argue that derivatives reduce systemic problems, in that participants who can’t bear certain risks are able to transfer them to stronger hands. These people believe that derivatives act to stabilize the economy, facilitate trade, and eliminate bumps for individual participants. And, on a micro level, what they say is often true. Indeed, at Berkshire, I sometimes engage in large-scale derivatives transactions in order to facilitate certain investment strategies.

Charlie and I believe, however, that the macro picture is dangerous and getting more so. Large amounts of risk, particularly credit risk, have become concentrated in the hands of relatively few derivatives dealers, who in addition trade extensively with one other. The troubles of one could quickly infect the others. On top of that, these dealers are owed huge amounts by non-dealer counterparties. Some of these counterparties, as I’ve mentioned, are linked in ways that could cause them to contemporaneously run into a problem because of a single event (such as the implosion of the telecom industry or the precipitous decline in the value of merchant power projects). Linkage, when it suddenly surfaces, can trigger serious systemic problems.

Indeed, in 1998, the leveraged and derivatives-heavy activities of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, caused the Federal Reserve anxieties so severe that it hastily orchestrated a rescue effort. In later Congressional testimony, Fed officials acknowledged that, had they not intervened, the outstanding trades of LTCM – a firm unknown to the general public and employing only a few hundred people – could well have posed a serious threat to the stability of American markets. In other words, the Fed acted because its leaders were fearful of what might have happened to other financial institutions had the LTCM domino toppled. And this affair, though it paralyzed many parts of the fixed-income market for weeks, was far from a worst-case scenario.

One of the derivatives instruments that LTCM used was total-return swaps, contracts that facilitate 100% leverage in various markets, including stocks. For example, Party A to a contract, usually a bank, puts up all of the money for the purchase of a stock while Party B, without putting up any capital, agrees that at a future date it will receive any gain or pay any loss that the bank realizes.

Total-return swaps of this type make a joke of margin requirements. Beyond that, other types of derivatives severely curtail the ability of regulators to curb leverage and generally get their arms around the risk profiles of banks, insurers and other financial institutions. Similarly, even experienced investors and analysts encounter major problems in analyzing the financial condition of firms that are heavily involved with derivatives contracts. When Charlie and I finish reading the long footnotes detailing the derivatives activities of major banks, the only thing we understand is that we don’t understand how much risk the institution is running.

The derivatives genie is now well out of the bottle, and these instruments will almost certainly multiply in variety and number until some event makes their toxicity clear. Knowledge of how dangerous they are has already permeated the electricity and gas businesses, in which the eruption of major troubles caused the use of derivatives to diminish dramatically. Elsewhere, however, the derivatives business continues to expand unchecked. Central banks and governments have so far found no effective way to control, or even monitor, the risks posed by these contracts.

Charlie and I believe Berkshire should be a fortress of financial strength – for the sake of our owners, creditors, policyholders and employees. We try to be alert to any sort of megacatastrophe risk, and that posture may make us unduly apprehensive about the burgeoning quantities of long-term derivatives contracts and the massive amount of uncollateralized receivables that are growing alongside. In our view, however, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.

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