Every now and then, you get a reader response that deserves to be published. Such was this response to my piece, “If Hedge Funds, Then Investment Banks.” I have redacted it to hide his identity.
I read your latest blog entry with interest because I have worked in the derivatives business and as a part of that helped to set up General Re’s financial subsidiary in 19XX – General Re Financial Products (GRFP). I was one of XX people that started that business from the ground up. I left shortly XXX Buffett arrived on the scene but I still knew a large number of people that remained and I have very good information about what happened there. I may be a bit biased so you should consider where I am coming from as you continue to read.
To be short about it, what happened at GRFP after Buffett took over was a complete mess. I can give you more information on that if you like but I will simply say that what Buffett writes about GRFP, has spin on it. Let me give you a somewhat quick example. Of that $104 million loss he refers to, how much of that could be attributed to salaries and operating expenses? How much of it was due to the forced unwinding of trades on the wrong side of the market? We know that there are high operational costs (these people are paid very well with nice offices, technology, etc.) and that one would expect to pay to get out of these transactions even if they are being marked perfectly correctly. It SHOULD cost money to unwind these trades. So why doesn’t Buffett, who normally gives us so much information, tell us how much of the loss was due to mismarking and how much was due to expected costs? I’ll let you guess at that answer. There’s a lot more to this story but let’s move on…
I am sure you felt safe quoting someone like Buffett – meaning he is likely to get things right almost every time, but even Buffett is not perfect and he has his blind spots. I believe that derivatives may be such a blind spot. I could go into detail about where I see holes in Buffett’s arguments however the bottom line is that I believe the vast majority of transactions done in the derivatives market are plain vanilla transactions that are extremely easy to mark. Did you know that the US Treasury market is now quoted as a spread off of swaps? That is how liquid the plain vanilla instrument is these days. These transactions will certainly not have two traders both booking a profit even though they are on opposite sides of a transaction. Bid/ask spreads in the plain vanilla market are less than 1 basis point per year in yield. I am certain there are exotic transactions that are mismarked for all the reasons that Buffett mentions but how many of these are really out there? My suspicion is that the total number is small enough to not be of any huge concern from a systematic standpoint.
Here is something interesting to consider. Why would the leader of a AAA-rated institution (a financial Fort Knox) that competes in many ways with other large financial institutions wish to lead people to believe that those other institutions may be engaged in a business that is particularly risky?
Just thought I would add my two cents (looks more like 25 cents now).
For the record, both he and I are admirers of Buffett, but not uncritical admirers. The initiator of a trade usually has to offer a concession to the party facilitating the trade. Forced sellers or impatient buyers typically don’t get the best execution. What my correspondent suggests here is at least part of the total picture in the liquidation of GRFP. All that said, I still think there are deadweight losses hiding inside that swap books of the major investment banks.