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April 28 (Bloomberg) -- Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders have a chance this year to do something that’s rare among the Sage of Omaha’s followers: count their losses.
One reason: Chief Executive Officer Warren Buffett’s increasing use of derivatives [...] Buffett once called derivatives “time bombs” doesn’t calm investors.
Buffett himself has warned of an increasing possibility he might have a loss from one type of contract on Berkshire’s books. Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service have lowered their credit ratings on Berkshire, partly because of the derivatives.
Berkshire’s derivatives fall into four categories. Because they carry the greatest notional value, at $37.1 billion, most attention is on put options that Buffett sold on stock indexes in the U.S., U.K., euro zone and Japan that expire from September 2019 to January 2028. Berkshire has to pay at expiration if any of the indexes are lower than they were when the puts were written.
While analysis of these bets shows big losses are unlikely, Buffett, 78, hasn’t provided sufficient information on the derivatives to keep some investors from hitting the sell button.
Some economists compare today with the Great Depression, and some of the puts may have been written near the U.S. market’s all-time high in late 2007, according to information Buffett has disclosed. The S&P 500 in March was down 57 percent from its peak.
Berkshire hasn’t disclosed sufficient information to fully analyze its other derivatives, Shanker says. One category is simply municipal bond insurance structured as derivatives; the risks here are similar to those for his municipal bond insurer. Another type consists of credit-default swaps through which Berkshire guarantees payment of individual corporate bonds. Those bets were relatively small, totaling $3.9 billion in notional value at the end of last year.
The final category is the most worrisome, Shanker says. Berkshire has sold contracts that require it to pay when credit losses occur at companies that are included in certain unnamed high-yield-bond indexes. The notional value is $7.9 billion.
Losses on these contracts are accelerating as bankruptcies grow, Buffett said in his shareholder letter in February. “Now with the recession deepening at a rapid rate, the possibility of an eventual loss has increased,” he wrote.