May 16, 2009

The "Equity Puts" Bet of Berkshire Hathaway

The 2008 and Q1 2009 reports of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, NYSE:BRK.B) has showcased many of the downsides of investing in derivatives. Many things remain unclear for most people so I thought it would be important to transmit the message, as clearly as Warren Buffett wanted it to be, about the phenomenal derivative position currently held by Berkshire.

I provide here an excerpt of Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders, in the 2008 annual report of Berkshire Hathaway, where he explains why he got into that derivative position and explains what are his plans regarding it. I chose to show it because there is now way I could have but it in better words than he did. It is pretty hefty, mostly due to the amount of details regarding how equity puts work:

Considering the ruin I’ve pictured, you may wonder why Berkshire is a party to 251 derivatives contracts (other than those used for operational purposes at MidAmerican and the few left over at GenRe). The answer is simple: I believe each contract we own was mispriced at inception, sometimes dramatically so. I both initiated these positions and monitor them, a set of responsibilities consistent with my belief that the CEO of any large financial organization must be the Chief Risk Officer as well. If we lose money on our derivatives, it will be my fault.

Our derivatives dealings require our counterparties to make payments to us when contracts are initiated. Berkshire therefore always holds the money, which leaves us assuming no meaningful counterparty risk. As of yearend, the payments made to us less losses we have paid – our derivatives “float,” so to speak – totaled $8.1 billion. This float is similar to insurance float: If we break even on an underlying transaction, we will have enjoyed the use of free money for a long time. Our expectation, though it is far from a sure thing, is that we will do better than break even and that the substantial investment income we earn on the funds will be frosting on the cake.

Only a small percentage of our contracts call for any posting of collateral when the market moves against us. Even under the chaotic conditions existing in last year’s fourth quarter, we had to post less than 1% of our securities portfolio. (When we post collateral, we deposit it with third parties, meanwhile retaining the investment earnings on the deposited securities.) In our 2002 annual report, we warned of the lethal threat that posting requirements create, real-life illustrations of which we witnessed last year at a variety of financial institutions (and, for that matter, at Constellation Energy, which was within hours of bankruptcy when MidAmerican arrived to effect a rescue).

Our contracts fall into four major categories. With apologies to those who are not fascinated by financial instruments, I will explain them in excruciating detail.

• We have added modestly to the “equity put” portfolio I described in last year’s report. Some of our contracts come due in 15 years, others in 20. We must make a payment to our counterparty at maturity if the reference index to which the put is tied is then below what it was at the inception of the contract. Neither party can elect to settle early; it’s only the price on the final day that counts.

To illustrate, we might sell a $1 billion 15-year put contract on the S&P 500 when that index is at, say, 1300. If the index is at 1170 – down 10% – on the day of maturity, we would pay $100 million. If it is above 1300, we owe nothing. For us to lose $1 billion, the index would have to go to zero. In the meantime, the sale of the put would have delivered us a premium – perhaps $100 million to $150 million – that we would be free to invest as we wish.

Our put contracts total $37.1 billion (at current exchange rates) and are spread among four major indices: the S&P 500 in the U.S., the FTSE 100 in the U.K., the Euro Stoxx 50 in Europe, and the Nikkei 225 in Japan. Our first contract comes due on September 9, 2019 and our last on January 24,2028. We have received premiums of $4.9 billion, money we have invested. We, meanwhile, have paid nothing, since all expiration dates are far in the future. Nonetheless, we have used Black-Scholes valuation methods to record a yearend liability of $10 billion, an amount that will change on every reporting date. The two financial items – this estimated loss of $10 billion minus the $4.9 billion in premiums we have received – means that we have so far reported a mark-to-market loss of $5.1 billion from these contracts.

We endorse mark-to-market accounting. I will explain later, however, why I believe the Black-Scholes formula, even though it is the standard for establishing the dollar liability for options, produces strange results when the long-term variety are being valued.

One point about our contracts that is sometimes not understood: For us to lose the full $37.1 billion we have at risk, all stocks in all four indices would have to go to zero on their various termination dates. If, however – as an example – all indices fell 25% from their value at the inception of each contract, and foreign-exchange rates remained as they are today, we would owe about $9 billion, payable between 2019 and 2028. Between the inception of the contract and those dates, we would have held the $4.9 billion premium and earned investment income on it.

• The second category we described in last year’s report concerns derivatives requiring us to pay when credit losses occur at companies that are included in various high-yield indices. Our standard contract covers a five-year period and involves 100 companies. We modestly expanded our position last year in this category. But, of course, the contracts on the books at the end of 2007 moved one year closer to their maturity. Overall, our contracts now have an average life of 2 1/3 years, with the first expiration due to occur on September 20, 2009 and the last on December 20, 2013.

By yearend we had received premiums of $3.4 billion on these contracts and paid losses of $542 million. Using mark-to-market principles, we also set up a liability for future losses that at yearend totaled $3.0 billion. Thus we had to that point recorded a loss of about $100 million, derived from our $3.5 billion total in paid and estimated future losses minus the $3.4 billion of premiums we received. In our quarterly reports, however, the amount of gain or loss has swung wildly from a profit of $327 million in the second quarter of 2008 to a loss of $693 million in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Surprisingly, we made payments on these contracts of only $97 million last year, far below the estimate I used when I decided to enter into them. This year, however, losses have accelerated sharply with the mushrooming of large bankruptcies. In last year’s letter, I told you I expected these contracts to show a profit at expiration. Now, with the recession deepening at a rapid rate, the possibility of an eventual loss has increased. Whatever the result, I will keep you posted.

• In 2008 we began to write “credit default swaps” on individual companies. This is simply credit insurance, similar to what we write in BHAC, except that here we bear the credit risk of corporations rather than of tax-exempt issuers.

If, say, the XYZ company goes bankrupt, and we have written a $100 million contract, we are obligated to pay an amount that reflects the shrinkage in value of a comparable amount of XYZ’s debt. (If, for example, the company’s bonds are selling for 30 after default, we would owe $70 million.) For the typical contract, we receive quarterly payments for five years, after which our insurance expires.

At yearend we had written $4 billion of contracts covering 42 corporations, for which we receive annual premiums of $93 million. This is the only derivatives business we write that has any counterparty risk; the party that buys the contract from us must be good for the quarterly premiums it will owe us over the five years. We are unlikely to expand this business to any extent because most buyers of this protection now insist that the seller post collateral, and we will not enter into such an arrangement.

• At the request of our customers, we write a few tax-exempt bond insurance contracts that are similar to those written at BHAC, but that are structured as derivatives. The only meaningful difference between the two contracts is that mark-to-market accounting is required for derivatives whereas standard accrual accounting is required at BHAC.

But this difference can produce some strange results. The bonds covered – in effect, insured – by these derivatives are largely general obligations of states, and we feel good about them. At yearend, however, mark-to-market accounting required us to record a loss of $631 million on these derivatives contracts. Had we instead insured the same bonds at the same price in BHAC, and used the accrual accounting required at insurance companies, we would have recorded a small profit for the year. The two methods by which we insure the bonds will eventually produce the same accounting result. In the short term, however, the variance in reported profits can be substantial.

We have told you before that our derivative contracts, subject as they are to mark-to-market accounting, will produce wild swings in the earnings we report. The ups and downs neither cheer nor bother Charlie and me. Indeed, the “downs” can be helpful in that they give us an opportunity to expand a position on favorable terms. I hope this explanation of our dealings will lead you to think similarly.

You can also read the full 2008 annual report of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A, NYSE:BRK.B) on the annual report section of the company’s website.

Full Disclosure: The author does not have a position in BRK.A or BRK.B.

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