Suppose we had seven guys in the room, an economist, a guy from a ratings agency, an actuary, a guy who does capital structure arbitrage, a derivatives trader, A CDO manager, and a guy who does nonlinear dynamic modeling, and we asked them what the spread on a corporate bond should be.

  • The economist might say whatever spread it trades at at any given moment is the right spread; no one can foretell the future.
  • The guy from the ratings agency would scratch his head, tell you spreads aren’t his job, but then volunteers that spreads are correlated with bond credit ratings on average.
  • The actuary might say that you estimate the default loss rate over the life of the bond, and the required incremental yield that the marginal holder of the bond needs to fund the incremental capital employed. Add those two spreads together, and that is what the spread should be.
  • The capital structure arb would say that he would view the bondholders as short a put from the equityholders, estimate the value of that option using the stock price, equity option implied volatility, and capital structure, and would back into the spread using that data. Higher implied volatility, higher leverage, and lower stock prices lead to higher spreads.
  • The derivatives trader would say, “Look, I sit next to the cash trader. After adjusting for a deliverability option, if cash is sufficiently cheap to to the credit default swap spread, we buy the bond and receive protection through CDS. Vice-versa if the cash bond is sufficiently rich. In general, the bond spread should be near the CDS spread.”
  • The CDO manager would say that it depends on the amount of leverage he and his competitors can employ in buying bonds for his deals, and how dearly he can sell his equity and subordinate tranches.
  • The guy into nonlinear dynamics says, “This is not a good question. There are multiple players in the market with differing goals, funding structures, and regulatory constraints. All of my friends here have the right answer under certain conditions… but at any given point in the market, each has differing levels of influence.”

After we tell the guy into nonlinear dynamics that he didn’t answer the question, he says, “Fine. Look at the high yield market today. Why were spreads so low nine months ago, and so high now? Did likely default costs have something to do with it? Yes, a sophisticated actuarial model would have looked at the quality of originations and seasoning, and would conclude that default costs would rise. But spreads have moved out far more than that. Have costs of holding high yield debt risen? Capital charges have risen as more downgrades have happened, and as anticipated. That’s still not enough. The loss of the bid for high yield bonds from CDOs is significant, but that is still not enough. As the credit cycle turns down, who is willing to make a bid? Who has the spare capital, and the guts to say, ‘This is the right time.’ Even if it will turn out all right in the end (the actuarial argument), I could lose my job, or get a lower bonus if I don’t time my purchases right. Hey, Actuary, do you want to increase your allocation to high yield at these levels?”

Actuary: “The ratings agencies have told us we only have limited room to do that. Besides, our CIO is a ‘fraidy cat; he wants his bonus in 2008. But in theory it would make sense to do so; we have a long liability structure. We should do it, but there are institutional constraints that fight the correct long-term decision.”

Nonlinear Dynamics Guy: “Okay, then, who does want to take more credit risk here?”

Derivatives Trader: “We are always net flat.”

CDO manager: “Can’t kick a deal out the door.”

Capital Structure Arb: “We’re doing a little more here, but our credit lines aren’t big. Some friends of mine that run credit hedge funds are finding that they can’t lever up as much during the crisis.”

The economist and the guy from the rating agency give blank stares. The Nonlinear Dynamics Guy says, “Look, high yield buyers took too much risk in the past, and now their ability to buy is impaired by increasing capital charges, and unwillingness to resist momentum. Now levered buyers of high yield credit have been killed, and there is excess supply at current levels. Rationality will return when unlevered and lightly levered buyers, or buyers with long liability structures (looks at the actuary) hold their nose, and step up and buy with real money, not short term debt.”

The actuary nods, and makes a mental note to discuss the idea with the CIO of the life insurance company. The economist and ratings agency guy both shrug. The CDO manager asks how long it will be before he can do his next deal. No one answers. The derivatives trader says “Whatever, I make my money in all markets” and the capital structure arb smiles and nods.

Nonlinear Dynamics Guy [NDG] says to the latter two, “Good for you. But what if your financing gets pulled? Many places are finding they can’t borrow as easily as they used to.” The two of them blink, grimace, and say “Our lines won’t get pulled.” Nonlinear Dynamics Guy says, “Have it your way. I hope you all do well.” At that the actuary smiles, and asks if NDG would be willing to speak at the next Society of Actuaries meeting. NDG hands him his card, and says, “Let’s talk about it later. Who knows, by the time of your meeting, things could be very different.”

I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of rationality in economics, at least, if rationality is defined as maximizing or minimizing a certain function, largely because maximizing and minimizing take effort, and people avoid effort (it is a bad not a good).  So when I read jive about information cascades, I roll my eyes.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Dr. Schiller; he’s a clever guy.  What is meant by information cascades is a sudden acknowledgment of things that were obvious, but ignored, because economic actors decided to follow the crowd.

Now, in the equity markets, momentum players can make money, but they have to cut their losses, and not stay at the game too long on any individual stock that is falling.  Houses are far less liquid than stocks, so the threshold to act is that much higher, plus for those that have mortgages, the leverage magnifies the pain when prices fall.  Thus people delay acting, and when they act, because a pain threshold has been crossed, they act all at once.

Is this an “information cascade?”  I think not.  It is more akin to “gunning the stops” in an equity market.  As prices fall, more people decide to sell to preserve some value, and prices go down more than anticipated.  It is not so much a question of information, but fear that drives the trade.

Information takes a different form.  Those who analyze their borrowings such that they know that it is unlikely that they will ever be forced to sell have genuine information.  They have sized their borrowings appropriately.  They are relying on the table model of stability, rather than the bicycle model (stable so long as you keep moving).

We don’t get dramatic moves in markets from information cascades, but from levered borrowers that are forced to sell for one reason or another.  These are borrowers that lacked information.  They became “informed” because of price moves that they did not anticipate.

Disclaimer: David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent “due diligence” on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, or in my writings at RealMoney is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, “The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you,” and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves.

Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here or on RealMoney is meant to be formal “advice” in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

My disclaimer dates back five years.  It’s at the bottom of my blog, and is there for a reason: I get things wrong.  Now, I like to think that I get things right more often, but let’s just look at the gritty downside for a moment.  I wrote a series of articles at RealMoney on using investment advice.

Using Investment Advice, Part 1
Using Investment Advice, Part 2
Using Investment Advice, Part 3
Tread Warily on Media Stock Tips

I wrote these with Jim Cramer in mind.  Now, I like Jim Cramer; he says a lot of bright things.  But when you talk about so many things, and put out so much content, particularly on TV, you have to be careful.

I don’t have 0.1% of the exposure that Mr. Cramer has, but I care what happens to my readers.  (I think Jim does too, but the shell has to get hard when one is that exposed, or, you’ll give up speaking and writing.)  So, when I make notable errors, it hurts me double.  I usually have my cash on the line when I write, or at least, my reputation, which is more valuable (you only get one of those).

Today was my worst relative performance day in a long time.  Deerfield Capital, National Atlantic, and Gehl, all did badly.  I bought more Deerfield today, and I’ll put out a post on my thoughts soon.  That said, March is off to a bad start with me, after a tremendous first two months of the year.

So, I am eating my crow, lightly seasoned, and with humility.   Always do your own due diligence when you read me, because I get it wrong now and then, at least in the short run.

Full disclosure: long DFR NAHC GEHL

Now, don’t take me too seriously here, but there is an easy way to solve the housing crisis.  We have too many homes for people with the means to buy them to occupy them.  We also have too much debt to foreigners that they don’t know what to do with.  Well, let’s kill two birds with one stone:  Make a one-time offer of green cards to any foreigner who is willing to buy a house in the US worth $250,000 or more, free and clear.

There are many advantages to this proposal:

  • The foreigners that come will be wealthy, and will contribute even more to the US economy.
  • They will appreciate the stability and freedom of the US, and will send back positive signal to their powerful friends back in the “old country.”
  • Many will want a home in the US for vacations.  Others for a place to flee if politics turns against them in the “old country.”  Either way, we get more of their money.
  • If we want foreigners as citizens, we will be skimming the cream, rather than Emma Lazarus’ comments on the Statue of Liberty.  (Now, if you want to know my heart, I like immigrants, especially poor ones… they work hard to make America great.)
  • It solves problems in mortgage lending and the current account deficit in one fell swoop.

Now, this comes close to selling citizenship.  I don’t want that; they would still have to take the citizenship test, and  have the residency requirement.  Personally, I would like all new citizens to know English as well as  the 25th percentile in the US does now.  (low bar)

This is only partially serious; there are cultural aspects to immigration that are unpopular today.  I would only say to those that don’t like an idea like this, is that your great-grandparents (or so) were openly welcomed here a century ago.  Should we not welcome political, economic, and other migrants looking for a better life, even as our great-grandparents did?  Or are we more stingy than a generation that welcomed our great-grandparents, even if they had stronger negative views against those of different ethnic groups?

There are times where I feel the intellectual well is dry, and I come to my keyboard and say, “What do I write tonight?” This is not one of those times. I have too many things to write about, and not enough time. I’ll see how much I can say that is worth reading.

1) Jimmy Rogers (I’ve met him once – a nice guy) tends toward the sensational. There is a grain of truth in what he says, but the demographic situation in China is worse than that in Japan, which is why they Communist leadership there is considering eliminating the one-child policy:

I gave a talk last October, which included a lot on the effects of demographics on the global economy:

http://alephblog.com/society-of-actuaries-presentation/ (pages 15-23) (non-PDF versions have my lecture notes)

Now, eliminating the one-child policy won’t do that much, because most non-religious women in China don’t want to have kids. In developed societies, once women don’t want children or marriage, no level of economic incentive succeeds in changing their minds.

This isn’t meant to be social commentary. The point is that there is a global demographic shift of massive proportions happening where there will be huge social pressures on retirement/eldercare systems, because the ratio of workers to retirees will fall globally. China will be affected more than most, and the US less than most (if we can straighten out Medicare).

The economic effect will feel a little stagflationary, with wage rates improving in nominal terms, taxes rising to cover transfer payments, and assets being sold (to whom?) to fund retirements and healthcare. There need not be a crisis, like a war over resources, in all of this, but it won’t be an easy next 30 years. One thing for certain, when you look at labor, capital, and resources at present, the scarcest of all is resources. Again, resource price inflation. At present, capital is scarcer than labor, but that will flip in the next 30 years.

2) A few e-mailers asked for more data on how I view monetary aggregates. On monetary aggregates, my view of it is a little different than most, and I take a little heat for it. Ideally, the lower level monetary aggregates indicate a higher degree of liquidity; greater ease and shorter time of achieving transactions. The other way to view it is how sticky the liability structure is for the banks. Demand deposits, not sticky. Savings accounts, stickier. Money market funds, stickier still. CDs, even stickier.

As the Fed changes monetary policy, there are tradeoffs. Willingness of the public to hold cash, versus opportunity at the banks to make money from borrowing short and lending longer, versus banking regulators trying to assure solvency.

That’s why I look at the full spectrum of monetary measures. They tell a greater story as a group.

3) No such thing as a bad asset, only a bad price? No such thing as a bad asset, only a mis-financed asset? Both can be true. What we are experiencing today in many markets is that many assets were financed with too much debt and too little equity. In the process, because of the over-leverage allowed for high returns on equity to be generated from low returns on assets, the buyers of risky assets overpaid for their interests.

This has taken many forms, whether it was Subprime ABS, CDOs, SIVs, Tender Option Bonds, the correlation trade, etc. Also the borrow short, lend long inherent in Auction Rate Securities, TOBs, and other speculations that make wondeful sense occasionally, but players stay too long.

Rationality comes back to these markets when “real money buyers” appear (pension plans, insurance companies, wealthy dudes with nose for value), and these non-traditional buyers soak up the excess supply of investments that are out of favor, and do it with equity, at prices that make the unlevered return look pretty sweet. This is how excess leverage gets purged from the system, and how pricing normalizes, with losses delivered to the overlevered.

4) As I said in my post last night, there is value in the tax-free muni market for non-traditional buyers. Is this the bottom? Probably not, but who can tell? Smart buyers will put a portion of a full position on now, and add if things get worse. Don’t put a full position on yet. I eschew heroism in trading, in favor of a risk-controlled style, where one makes more on average, but protects the downside. It is possible that the drop in prices will bring out more sellers, but I think that there will be more buyers in the next week. That said, the leveraged buyers need to get purged out of the muni markets.

5) In late 2004, I wrote a piece called Default Cycle Will Turn Nasty in 2007. Later I added the following comment:


David Merkel
A Low Quality Post by David
3/27/2006 3:54 PM EST

Interesting to note on Barry’s blog that he has noted that the “low quality” trade has been so stunning over the past three years. I thought Richard Bernstein at Merrill and I were the only ones who cared about this stuff. But now for the bad news: the trade won’t be over until high yield spreads start blowing out, and presently, they show no sign of doing that. Why? There haven’t been many defaults, for one reason. The few defaults have been for the most part in auto parts and airlines. There’s no systemic panic.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of capital to finance speculative ventures, and to catch bad ones when they fall. That means that marginal ideas are getting forgiveness as they get refinanced.

The demand for yield is huge, which drives the offering of protection in the credit default swap market. Fund of funds encourage hedge funds to seek steady income, which makes them tend to be insurers against default risk, rather than speculators on possible default.

I know that I wrote “Default Cycle Will Turn Nasty in 2007;” I take my calls seriously, because I have money on the line, and many of you do too. I think the low quality trade, absent a market blow-up, won’t outperform by a lot in 2006, but will still outperform. Something needs to happen to make credit spreads not look like a free lunch.

My best guess of what will do that is the seasoning of aggressive corporate bond issuance in 2004 and 2005. Bad credit be revealed for what it is, and even the stocks of low quality companies that eventually survive will get marked down for a time, as strong balance sheets get rewarded once again.

Position: none

Then later, in early 2007, I wrote: I was wrong on underperformance of junk bonds. Tight levels got even tighter, with an absence of significant defaults. Junk bonds led the bond market in 2006. In 2007, I don’t expect a repeat, but I do expect defaults to start rising by the end of 2007, leading to a widening in spreads and some underperformance of junk bonds. The real fun will come in 2008-2009. Corporate credit cycles last four to seven years, and the last bear phase was 2000-2002. We’re due for a correction here.

Well, I got it close to right. Timing is tough.

6) Would you pay a high enough price to buy a short-dated TIPS with a negative real yield? Yes you might, if you were hedging against nominal Treasuries, with the CPI running ahead at 4%, and short-dated (5 years and in) nominal bonds at 2 1/2% and lower. As it is, the market seems to be hesitating at going negative, but in my opinion it will, until the concern of the FOMC changes to price inflation.

7) Wilbur Ross didn’t get rich by being dumb. He didn’t buy stakes in MBIA or Ambac, but in one of the two healthy firms, Assured Guaranty. Better to take a stake in the healthy firm in a tough market; they will survive, and write the business that their impaired competitors can’t. This just puts more pressure on MBIA and Ambac, and provides a lower cost muni insurance competitor to Berky.

8 ) MBIA and Ambac are playing for time, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. They are willing to shrink their balance sheets, and write little if any structured business, pay principal and interest in dribs and drabs, and pray that S&P and Moody’s give them the time to do this, and keep the AAA/Aaa intact. It could be three years, and stronger players (FSA, BHAC, AGO) will absorb their non-structured markets. But it could work. If I were Bill Ackman, I would take off half my positions here. Just a rule of thumb for me, when I am managing institutional assets and I become uncertain as to whether I should buy or sell, I do half, and then wait for more data.

Remember, many P&C insurers have been technically insolvent (in hindsight) during the bear phase of the underwriting cycle. They survived by writing better business when their balance sheet was in worse shape than commonly believed. The financial guarantors have a unique ability to wait out losses.

9) There have been all sorts of articles asking whether XXX institution is “too big to fail?” Well, let me “flip it” (sending my pal Cody a nickel for his trademark 😉 ) and ask, “Is the US too big to fail?” There’s a reason for my madness here. “Too big to fail” means that the government will bail out an entity to avoid a systemic crisis. Nice, maybe, but that means the government raises taxes to do so (nah) or issues debt that the Fed monetizes, leading to price inflation. Either way, the loss gets spread over the whole country.

What would a failure of the US look like? The Great Depression springs to mind. Present day Japan does not. They are not growing, but they aren’t in bad shape. Another failure would be an era like the 1970s, but more intense. That’s not impossible, if the Treasury Fed were to rescue a major GSE via monetary policy.

10) I have had an excellent 4Q07 earnings season. As of the end of February, I am still in the plus column for my equity portfolio. But, into every life a little rain must fall… after the close on Friday. 🙁 Deerfield Capital reported lousy GAAP earnings, and I expect the price to fall on Monday. Now, to their credit:

  • They reduced leverage proactively, and sold Alt-A assets before Thornburg blew.
  • They moved to a more conservative balance sheet. It is usually a good sign when a company sells its bad assets in a crisis.

I would expect the dividend to fall to around 30 cents per quarter. I should have more to say after the earnings call. They are becoming a little Annaly with a CDO manager on board (might not be worth much until 2010).

I may be a buyer on Monday. Depends on the market action.

That’s all for this evening. Good night, and here’s to a more profitable week next week.

Full disclosure: long DFR

I try in my writings to be low hype, so I avoid brash headlines.  Every now and then, though, one has to pound the table.  With muni bonds today, there are some screaming bargains out there, even if you can’t benefit from the tax deduction.  When have we ever seen muni yields at significant premiums to taxable Treasury yields?  I can’t think of such a time in my investment lifetime.

Should life insurance companies, which can’t fully benefit from the tax deduction buy here?  Yes.  Banks?  Yes.  Pension plans? Yes. Endowments? Yes.  Pretend that they are taxable securities for a moment, and buy them on a spread basis.  When the need for tax avoidance reappears, you will be more than rewarded.

For institutional investors, hedge with Treasuries or Swaps if you are worried about the long end of the yield curve rising.  Beyond tha, I would simply say, stay diversified, and make sure that the munis that you buy have an unshakable economic purpose behind them.

I’ve commented on Buffett’s Shareholder letter now for the past five years.  Those who know me well know that I admire Buffett and Berky, but not uncritically.   Also, I view Berky as primarily an insurance company, secondarily as an industrial conglomerate, and thirdly as an investment company.

Onto the letter:

From page 3:

You may recall a 2003 Silicon Valley bumper sticker that implored, “Please, God, Just One More Bubble.” Unfortunately, this wish was promptly granted, as just about all Americans came to believe that house prices would forever rise. That conviction made a borrower’s income and cash equity seem unimportant to lenders, who shoveled out money, confident that HPA – house price appreciation – would cure all problems. Today, our country is experiencing widespread pain because of that erroneous belief. As house prices fall, a huge amount of financial folly is being exposed. You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out – and what we are witnessing at some of our largest financial institutions is an ugly sight.

Buffett starts out with the cause behind most of our current problems in financial companies.   There are too many houses chasing too few people, and inadequate underwriting of the financing, because of a misplaced trust in the rise of housing prices.

From page 4:

Though these tables may help you gain historical perspective and be useful in valuation, they are completely misleading in predicting future possibilities. Berkshire’s past record can’t be duplicated or even approached. Our base of assets and earnings is now far too large for us to make outsized gains in the future.  (emphasis his)

Buffett has been honest on this point for years.  As the business grows, it is unlikely to find opportunities as good in percentage terms as it did when it was smaller.  That’s normal, even for the best investors.

In our efforts, we will be aided enormously by the managers who have joined Berkshire. This is an unusual group in several ways. First, most of them have no financial need to work. Many sold us their businesses for large sums and run them because they love doing so, not because they need the money. Naturally they wish to be paid fairly, but money alone is not the reason they work hard and productively.

Buffett hits on what I think is one of the great secrets of good capitalism.  The best capitalists are not purely money-motivated, but are idealists, aiming for excellence as they serve others though their businesses.  In the best businesses that I have worked in, we did it because we loved what we did.  That’s a key for all good businesses, from the CEO down to the clerk.

From page 7:

Long-term competitive advantage in a stable industry is what we seek in a business. If that comes with rapid organic growth, great. But even without organic growth, such a business is rewarding. We will simply take the lush earnings of the business and use them to buy similar businesses elsewhere. There’s no rule that you have to invest money where you’ve earned it. Indeed, it’s often a mistake to do so: Truly great businesses, earning huge returns on tangible assets, can’t for any extended period reinvest a large portion of their earnings internally at high rates of return.

This is the core of Buffett the businessman.  He understands the need to redirect free cash flow to the opportunities that offer the best returns.  He knows that certain businesses will never be more than niches, and like a good farmer would, harvests his specialty crop each year, but doesn’t plant much more the next year.

He goes on for two pages on how he distinguishes between businesses, considering their long-term competitive advantage, return on investment, and capital intensiveness.    It’s a good read, and very basic.  If it weren’t for the fact that many companies operate more for the good of management than shareholders, you might see this in operation more broadly.  (And you would see opportunities diminish for private equity as far as big deals go.  Private equity keeps public management teams on their toes, for the bigger deals.)

From pages 9-11, Buffett discusses his insurance businesses, and spends much less time on them than in prior years.  It is not as if there isn’t a good story to tell.  Are underwriting profits down?  Yes, but only by 10%.  The rest of the P&C insurance industry is struggling with the same problems, and is likely doing worse in aggregate.  I think that some major disasters will have to happen to re-energize earnings here.  Berky is an anti-volatility asset, and always does relatively better when the rest of the insurance industry is hurting.

On page 11, Buffett comments on his utility businesses.  Earnings are up in this line.  These are a natural fit for Berky, with their earnings yield considerably above Berky’s cost of float, and earnings that tend to do well when inflation is higher.  Expect Buffett to buy more here, but only during some significant pullback in utility stock prices.

From that page:

Somewhat incongruously, MidAmerican also owns the second largest real estate brokerage firm in the U.S., HomeServices of America. This company operates through 20 locally-branded firms with 18,800 agents. Last year was a slow year for residential sales, and 2008 will probably be slower. We will continue, however, to acquire quality brokerage operations when they are available at sensible prices.

From page 13:

Last year, Shaw, MiTek and Acme contracted for tuck-in acquisitions that will help future earnings. You can be sure they will be looking for more of these.

and

At Borsheims, sales increased 15.1%, helped by a 27% gain during Shareholder Weekend. Two years ago, Susan Jacques suggested that we remodel and expand the store. I was skeptical, but Susan was right.

 

From page 15:

Clayton, XTRA and CORT are all good businesses, very ably run by Kevin Clayton, Bill Franz and Paul Arnold. Each has made tuck-in acquisitions during Berkshire’s ownership. More will come.

Buffett understands that most good acquisitions are little ones that can be used to increase organic growth of the subsidiary.  Same thing for intelligent capital spending, as at Borsheim’s.  He may keep a tight hold on free cash flow, but he listens to his subsidiary CEOs, and usually gives them enough to invest to improve the businesses.

Also look at the countercyclical nature of Buffett’s acquisitions.  He is willing to buy real estate sales franchises in this environment, if they come at the right price.  Much as I am a bear on housing, this is the right strategy, if you have a strong enough balance sheet behind it.

On pages 12 and 14, net operating income improved in Manufacturing, Service, and Retailing Operations, and fell in Finance and Finance Products.  He doesn’t discuss it, but there was a loss in life and annuity.  Berky mainly does life settlements there, a business I regard as somewhat malodorous because it undermines the life insurance industry, by weakening the concept of insurable interest.  Also, leasing didn’t do that well, as Buffett points out.

On page 15, I don’t have a strong opinion on his stock positions… they are a little more expensive than I like to buy, but he has to deploy a lot more money than I do, and has a longer time horizon.  His focus on long term competitive advantage is exactly right for his position in the market.

On page 16, Buffett discusses his derivative book:

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.

 

Okay, so Buffett is long high yield credit, and seemingly receiving a pretty reward for it (the numbers seem too good, what is he doing?), and is long the US and other equity markets by writing long-dated European puts.  Sounds pretty good to me on both, though I’d love to see the details on the high yield, and on the equity index puts, Berky will be vulnerable in a depression scenario (it would be interesting to know the details there also).

 

Buffett is behaving like a long-tail P&C insurer, and he is willing to take on volatility if it offers better returns.  Berky is almost always willing to take on catastrophe risks, if they are more than adequately compensated.  If you are uncertain about this, ask the financial guarantors, they will tell you.

 

On page 17:

 

There’s been much talk recently of sovereign wealth funds and how they are buying large pieces of American businesses. This is our doing, not some nefarious plot by foreign governments. Our trade equation guarantees massive foreign investment in the U.S. When we force-feed $2 billion daily to the rest of the world, they must invest in something here. Why should we complain when they choose stocks over bonds?

 

Indeed, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  Why should the rest of the world buy our depreciating bonds, when they can buy our companies, which in my opinion, often offer much better prospects?  As Buffett puts it later, we are force-feeding dollars to the rest of the world… the decline in value is to be expected.

 

Also on page 17:

 

At Berkshire we held only one direct currency position during 2007. That was in – hold your breath – the Brazilian real. Not long ago, swapping dollars for reals would have been unthinkable. After all, during the past century five versions of Brazilian currency have, in effect, turned into confetti. As has been true in many countries whose currencies have periodically withered and died, wealthy Brazilians sometimes stashed large sums in the U.S. to preserve their wealth.

 

Clever move, and emblematic of the shift happening in our world where resource- and cheap labor-driven nations grow rapidly, and build up trade surpluses against the developed world.  Their currencies have appreciated.

 

Also on page 17:

 

Our direct currency positions have yielded $2.3 billion of pre-tax profits over the past five years, and in addition we have profited by holding bonds of U.S. companies that are denominated in other currencies. For example, in 2001 and 2002 we purchased 310 million Amazon.com, Inc. 6 7/8 of 2010 at 57% of par. At the time, Amazon bonds were priced as “junk” credits, though they were anything but. (Yes, Virginia, you can occasionally find markets that are ridiculously inefficient – or at least you can find them anywhere except at the finance departments of some leading business schools.)

 

The Euro denomination of the Amazon bonds was a further, and important, attraction for us. The Euro was at 95¢ when we bought in 2002. Therefore, our cost in dollars came to only $169 million. Now the bonds sell at 102% of par and the Euro is worth $1.47. In 2005 and 2006 some of our bonds were called and we received $253 million for them. Our remaining bonds were valued at $162 million at yearend. Of our $246 million of realized and unrealized gain, about $118 million is attributable to the fall in the dollar. Currencies do matter.

 

Though Buffett got scared out of many of his foreign currency positions over the last few years, intellectually he was right about the direction of the US dollar, and made decent money off it.  The Amazon position was a home run in bond terms.  Bill Miller benefited from that one as well.  (I also endorse the comment on occasional inefficient markets.)

 

On page 18:

 

At Berkshire, we will attempt to further increase our stream of direct and indirect foreign earnings. Even if we are successful, however, our assets and earnings will always be concentrated in the U.S. Despite our country’s many imperfections and unrelenting problems of one sort or another, America’s rule of law, market-responsive economic system, and belief in meritocracy are almost certain to produce ever-growing prosperity for its citizens.

 

This is one of America’s greatest sustainable competitive advantages.  We allow more flexibility and failure than anywhere else in the world.  We have a relatively open and free system of markets and government.  Woe betide us if we change this.

 

On pages 18-20, Buffett takes on employee stock option accounting and pension accounting.  He believes options should be expensed, and that companies should bring down their assumptions for investment earnings, because they are unrealistically high.  I agree on the latter, and on the former, I think full disclosure is good enough.  Accounting rules are important, but investors (like Buffett) look for long-term free cash flows, which are largely unaffected by accounting rules.

 

I don’t think the market is fooled in either case.  Companies with large stock option grants and high assumed earning on pension plans both tend to trade cheap.  Their earnings quality is light.

 

Finally, on page 20:

Whatever pension-cost surprises are in store for shareholders down the road, these jolts will be surpassed many times over by those experienced by taxpayers. Public pension promises are huge and, in many cases, funding is woefully inadequate. Because the fuse on this time bomb is long, politicians flinch from inflicting tax pain, given that problems will only become apparent long after these officials have departed. Promises involving very early retirement – sometimes to those in their low 40s – and generous cost-of-living adjustments are easy for these officials to make. In a world where people are living longer and inflation is certain, those promises will be anything but easy to keep.

 

Ummm… say it again, Warren.  I’ve been saying this for years.  Hey, throw in multiple employer trusts as well.

 

With that, I would offer two observations about this letter from Warren.  First, it is shorter, and contains less data on the businesses, particularly the insurance businesses, but then, it was a quiet year.  Second, he had less in the way of “soap box” issues this year.

 

In closing, Berky had a good year, and I have little to quibble with in this letter.  Another good job, Warren.