For those who care what the man whose corporate existence is intimately tied to the government's bailout of the financial system, has to say, below we present Buffett's 2010 letter to shareholders.
The only section that is relevant to us, and which continues to demonstrate why Berkshire is a walking moral hazard (contrary to his conedmnation of financial weapons of mass destruction), is the disclosure on derivatives.
Two years ago, in the 2008 Annual Report, I told you that Berkshire was a party to 251 derivatives contracts (other than those used for operations at our subsidiaries, such as MidAmerican, and the few left over at Gen Re). Today, the comparable number is 203, a figure reflecting both a few additions to our portfolio and the unwinding or expiration of some contracts.
Our continuing positions, all of which I am personally responsible for, fall largely into two categories. We view both categories as engaging us in insurance-like activities in which we receive premiums for assuming risks that others wish to shed. Indeed, the thought processes we employ in these derivatives transactions are identical to those we use in our insurance business. You should also understand that we get paid up-front when we enter into the contracts and therefore run no counterparty risk. That’s important.
Our first category of derivatives consists of a number of contracts, written in 2004-2008, that required payments by us if there were bond defaults by companies included in certain high-yield indices. With minor exceptions, we were exposed to these risks for five years, with each contract covering 100 companies. In aggregate, we received premiums of $3.4 billion for these contracts. When I originally told you in our 2007 Annual Report about them, I said that I expected the contracts would deliver us an “underwriting profit,” meaning that our losses would be less than the premiums we received. In addition, I said we would benefit from the use of float.
Subsequently, as you know too well, we encountered both a financial panic and a severe recession. A number of the companies in the high-yield indices failed, which required us to pay losses of $2.5 billion. Today, however, our exposure is largely behind us because most of our higher-risk contracts have expired. Consequently, it appears almost certain that we will earn an underwriting profit as we originally anticipated. In addition, we have had the use of interest-free float that averaged about $2 billion over the life of the contracts. In short, we charged the right premium, and that protected us when business conditions turned terrible three years ago.
Our other large derivatives position – whose contracts go by the name of “equity puts” – involves insurance we wrote for parties wishing to protect themselves against a possible decline in equity prices in the U.S., U.K., Europe and Japan. These contracts are tied to various equity indices, such as the S&P 500 in the U.S. and the FTSE 100 in the U.K. In the 2004-2008 period, we received $4.8 billion of premiums for 47 of these contracts, most of which ran for 15 years. On these contracts, only the price of the indices on the termination date counts: No payments can be required before then.
As a first step in updating you about these contracts, I can report that late in 2010, at the instigation of our counterparty, we unwound eight contracts, all of them due between 2021 and 2028. We had originally received $647 million in premiums for these contracts, and the unwinding required us to pay $425 million. Consequently, we realized a gain of $222 million and also had the interest-free and unrestricted use of that $647 million for about three years.
Those 2010 transactions left us with 39 equity put contracts remaining on our books at yearend. On these, at their initiation, we received premiums of $4.2 billion.
The future of these contracts is, of course, uncertain. But here is one perspective on them. If the prices of the relevant indices are the same at the contract expiration dates as these prices were on December 31, 2010 – and foreign exchange rates are unchanged – we would owe $3.8 billion on expirations occurring from 2018 to 2026. You can call this amount “settlement value.”
On our yearend balance sheet, however, we carry the liability for those remaining equity puts at $6.7 billion. In other words, if the prices of the relevant indices remain unchanged from that date, we will record a $2.9 billion gain in the years to come, that being the difference between the liability figure of $6.7 billion and the settlement value of $3.8 billion. I believe that equity prices will very likely increase and that our liability will fall significantly between now and settlement date. If so, our gain from this point will be even greater. But that, of course, is far from a sure thing.
What is sure is that we will have the use of our remaining “float” of $4.2 billion for an average of about 10 more years. (Neither this float nor that arising from the high-yield contracts is included in the insurance float figure of $66 billion.) Since money is fungible, think of a portion of these funds as contributing to the purchase of BNSF.
As I have told you before, almost all of our derivatives contracts are free of any obligation to post collateral – a fact that cut the premiums we could otherwise have charged. But that fact also left us feeling comfortable during the financial crisis, allowing us in those days to commit to some advantageous purchases. Foregoing some additional derivatives premiums proved to be well worth it.
Some other soundbites via the Wall Street Journal:
Discussing why Berkshire keeps so much cash on hand:
Borrowers then learn that credit is like oxygen. When either is abundant, its presence goes unnoticed. When either is missing, that’s all that is noticed.
“Money will always flow toward opportunity, and there is an abundance of that in America.”
John Kenneth Galbraith once slyly observed that economists were most economical with ideas: They made the ones learned in graduate school last a lifetime. University finance departments often behave similarly. Witness the tenacity with which almost all clung to the theory of efficient markets throughout the 1970s and 1980s, dismissively calling powerful facts that refuted it “anomalies.” (I always love explanations of that kind: The Flat Earth Society probably views a ship’s circling of the globe as an annoying, but inconsequential, anomaly.)
One footnote: When we issued a press release about Todd [Comb's] joining us, a number of commentators pointed out that he was “little-known” and expressed puzzlement that we didn’t seek a “big-name.” I wonder how many of them would have known of Lou in 1979, Ajit in 1985, or, for that matter, Charlie in 1959. Our goal was to find a 2-year-old Secretariat, not a 10-year-old Seabiscuit. (Whoops–that may not be the smartest metaphor for an 80-year-old CEO to use.)
On hedge funds:
The hedge-fund world has witnessed some terrible behavior by general partners who have
received huge payouts on the upside and who then, when bad results occurred, have walked away rich, with their limited partners losing back their earlier gains. Sometimes these same general partners thereafter quickly started another fund so that they could immediately participate in future profits without having to overcome their past losses. Investors who put money with such managers should be labeled patsies, not partners.
Berkshire and the housing/mortgage crisis:
Our borrowers get in trouble when they lose their jobs, have health problems, get divorced, etc. The recession has hit them hard. But they want to stay in their homes, and generally they borrowed sensible amounts in relation to their income. In addition, we were keeping the originated mortgages for our own account, which means we were not securitizing or otherwise reselling them. If we were stupid in our lending, we were going to pay the price. That concentrates the mind. If home buyers throughout the country had behaved like our buyers, America would not have had the crisis that it did.
On the worst of the global financial crisis:
As one investor said in 2009: “This is worse than divorce. I’ve lost half my net worth–and I still have my wife.”
In discussing the bazaar that is the coming annual meeting:
Remember: Anyone who says money can’t buy happiness simply hasn’t learned where to shop.