Buffett On Derivatives: 'A Fool's Game'

Includes: DIA, SPY
by: Michael Panzner

Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and long-time chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A), is a man who speaks his mind. I'm not sure whether he's always been that way, or whether it is his exceptional wealth or his age -- or both -- that emboldens him to cut through Wall Street B.S. like a hot knife and expose the bloody truth about the foibles of modern finance.

Whatever the case, his comments on derivatives, in particular, have been always been especially enlightening -- and entertaining -- because they expose this supposed risk-sharing panacea for the house of cards it has become. In Derivatives Cause 'Mass Destruction', the Wall Street Journal reports on the 'Oracle of Omaha's' latest thoughts on the subject.

Earlier Saturday, Mr. Buffet repeated his warning on the dangers of derivatives, saying that excessive borrowing by traders, investors and corporations will eventually lead to significant dislocation in the financial markets.

In fielding a question about derivatives, which he once referred to as "financial weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Buffett told shareholders that he expects derivatives and borrowing, or leverage, would inevitably end in huge losses for many financial participants.

"The introduction of derivatives has totally made any regulation of margin requirements a joke," said Mr. Buffett, referring to the U.S. government's rules limiting the amount of borrowed money an investor can apply to each trade. "I believe we may not know where exactly the danger begins and at what point it becomes a super danger. We don't know when it will end precisely, but...at some point some very unpleasant things will happen in markets."

Mr. Buffett has expressed similar bearish sentiments about derivatives in previous meetings and in his widely read annual letters to shareholders. He had first-hand experience with the difficulties of derivatives after Berkshire acquired General Re, the reinsurance company, in the late 1990s, and spent several years unwinding its derivatives portfolio at a loss to reduce the subsidiary's exposure to risk. He noted, however, that Berkshire currently has several dozen derivatives positions -- such as futures and options contracts on stock indexes and foreign currencies -- and added that "derivatives aren't evil."

Charlie Munger, Berkshire's 83-year-old vice-chairman and Mr. Buffett's droll sidekick during the six-hour annual meeting, said that the accounting of derivatives contributed to the risks they pose to the financial markets.

"The accounting being deficient enormously contributes to the risk," said Munger, lamenting that executives and shareholders were getting paid on "profits that don't exist."

Mr. Buffett noted that existing accounting conventions allow parties involved in derivative transactions to value the same contract differently, leading to an inadequate or incomplete picture of the contract's risk. "I will guarantee you, if you add up the marks on both side, they don't add up to zero," Mr. Buffett said, referring to the accounting of a single derivative contract.

Exacerbating the problem of derivatives and leverage is the short-term trading mentality and high turnover in the stock and bond markets, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger added. "There is an electronic herd of people around the world managing an amazing amount of money" who make decisions based on minute-by-minute stimuli, said Mr. Buffett, adding, "I think it's a fool's game."

Based on how markets have been acting lately, it would seem that most investors believe it is Mr. Buffet who is the fool. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.