Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders has become a capitalist cult classic, eagerly awaited each year not only by Berkshire shareholders but also by a broader audience of readers keen to read Buffett’s observations about both his company and the larger business and economic environment. This year’s letter (here), issued after market close on February 29, 2008, does not disappoint, as it brims with commentary on a variety of matters, as well as about the performance of Berkshire itself. But to an unusual extent, this year’s letter may be as noteworthy for what it omits as for what it includes, as I discuss further below. (Full disclosure: I own BRK.B shares, although not nearly as many as I wish I did.)

Buffett’s letter is of course a part of the Berkshire 2007 annual report, and the letter does contain quite a few interesting nuggets about Berkshire. Even though Buffett seemingly goes out of his way to detail his past investing errors (particularly emphasizing his failed Dexter Shoes investment as well as his failure to buy a Dallas TV station), the overall effect is to reinforce Buffett’s astonishing investing success. For example, after documenting his lapses at length, he almost parenthetically mentions the company’s 2007 sale of its 1.3% interest in PetroChina, acquired during 2002 and 2003 for $488 million, for which Berkshire received $4 billion – a staggering 820% gain in approximately five years.

On the other hand, Buffett’s letter also emphasizes that although Berkshire’s insurance businesses had another “excellent year” in 2007 (producing underwriting profit of $3.37 billion, on top of $3.8 billion in 2006), it is “a certainty that insurance industry profit margins, including ours, will fall significantly in 2008.” Buffett’s bases for this conclusion are that “prices are down and exposures inexorably rise.” If natural catastrophes occur, “results could be far worse.” Buffett warns Berkshire’s shareholders “to be prepared for lower insurance earnings during the next few years.”

Buffett also provides a detailed explanation of Berkshire’s growing derivatives exposure. The existence of these contracts in Berkshire’s portfolio may strike some as contradictory, as Buffett has for years railed against derivatives as, among other things, “financial weapons of mass destruction” (as he called them in his 2002 shareholders’ letter). He has bemoaned for years the losses Berkshire sustained in winding down Gen Re Securities derivatives operation (on which Buffett reported in his 2006 letter that Berkshire had sustained a cumulative pre-tax loss of $409 million).

Buffett nevertheless reports in this year’s letter that Berkshire had entered a total of 94 derivative contracts (up from 62 in 2006), apparently in the form of credit default swaps and futures put options on four stock indices. (The stock indices put represents a bet that these indices will close at far-forward dates at levels above where they stood when Berkshire entered the contracts.) While Buffett’s willingness to enter these contracts seems surprising given his long-standing and often-expressed hostility to derivatives generally, he emphasizes that with respect to each of the contracts, Berkshire is holding the cash – which means not only that Berkshire has no counterparty risk, but also that Berkshire has the opportunity to earn investment income in the interim. It is also important to contrast Berkshire’s current portfolio of 94 derivative contracts with the 23,318 contracts that were formerly held by Gen Re Securities. 

Buffett does warn that the mark-to-market accounting required on the derivative contracts “will sometimes cause large swings in reported earnings.” Buffett compares this exposure to Berkshire’s catastrophe insurance exposure and Berkshire’s long-standing willingness to “trade volatility in reported earnings in the short run for greater gains in net worth in the long run.” I have more to say below about Buffett’s comparison between the derivatives portfolio and Berkshire’s catastrophe reinsurance business.

Buffett’s commentaries about Berkshire’s performance are interesting, but Buffett’s letters are valued for far more than their observations on Berkshire’s own performance. Most readers scour Buffett’s letters for his discourse on larger topics, and his most recent letter has much to offer in that regard. In this year’s letter, Buffett returns to some of his familiar themes and also launches into some new topics.

The first familiar theme Buffett sounds relates to problems in the residential mortgage sector. Buffett commented on this topic in last year’s letter, where he decried “weakened lending practices” and mortgage loan structures that subjected borrowers to potentially escalating repayment obligations. In this year’s letter, Buffett has a “told-you-so” tone when he references the “staggering problems” that “major financial institutions” have recently experienced. He comments that “our country is experiencing widespread pain” because of the “erroneous belief” that “house price appreciation” would “cure all problems.” Buffett notes that

As house prices fall, a huge amount of financial folly is being exposed. You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide does out – and what we are witnessing at some of our largest financial institutions is an ugly sight.

Another recurring theme Buffett revisits in this year’s letter is the U.S. trade deficit and its impact on the dollar’s valuation. In last year’s letter, while reporting on Berkshire’s direct foreign exchange gains, he bemoaned the U.S.’s transformation into a net debtor country as a result of which the country is now shipping “tribute” overseas in the form of an interest income burden that finances what he called U.S. “over-consumption.” Buffett returns to this topic in this year’s letter, specifically commenting on how these circumstances have led to the emergence of sovereign wealth funds:

There has 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 of 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?

In last year’s letter, Buffett did note that Berkshire had “come close to eliminating our direct foreign exchange position,” on which Berkshire had earned roughly $2.2 billion between 2002 and 2006 in investments in 14 different currencies. In this year’s letter, Buffett notes that in 2007 Berkshire had only one direct currency position, in the Brazilian real. Buffett also noted that Berkshire had invested in bonds denominated in currencies other than dollars, citing as a specific example euro-denominated Amazon.com bonds Berkshire purchased in 2002 for $162 million, that were redeemed in 2007 for $253 million (having paid 6 7/8 % interest in the interim).

Yet, Buffett emphasizes, Berkshire’s assets “will always be concentrated in the U.S.,” citing as justification “America’s rule of law, market-responsive economic system, and belief in meritocracy,” which Buffett contends, “are almost certain to produce ever-growing prosperity for its citizens.”

One standard feature of Buffett’s annual letter is a penultimate portion in which he skewers some particular foible of the financial scene. Last year, Buffett targeted the “2-and-20 crowd” of hedge fund “helpers” whose fees enrich themselves at their clients’ expense. This year, in a section of the letter captioned “Fanciful Figures – How Public Companies Juice Earning,” Buffett targets “the investment return assumption a company uses in calculating pension expense.”

Buffett notes that the 2006 average assumed pension return among the 363 S & P companies that have pensions is 8%. Buffett compares this assumed 8% return to the 5.3% average annual increase in the Dow Jones average during the 20th century. In order for the Dow Jones average to continue to grow at just a continued 5.3% annual rate in the 21st century, the Dow Jones average would have to close at 2,000,000 on December 31, 2099. And the companies that are projecting a 10% return “are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100.” Buffett characterizes the “helpers” who make these kinds of assumptions as “direct descendants of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland” who has “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The reason for these high investment return assumptions, Buffett notes, “is no puzzle,” as they allow CEOS to “report higher earnings,” securing the knowledge that “the chickens won’t come home to roost until long after they retire.”

Having disparaged corporate pension fund accounting, Buffett then moves on to “public pension promises” for which “funding is woefully inadequate.” The “fuse on this time bomb is long,” but the promises that politicians find so easy to make “will be anything but easy to keep.”

Buffett’s annual letter is always entertaining and informative, and this year’s letter is no exception. But it strikes me that there are omissions from this year’s letter, some of which seem to me to be particularly conspicuous.

First, Buffett’s letter makes absolutely no reference to the recent “finite reinsurance” criminal trial that resulted in guilty verdicts against four former Gen Re officials (as well as one former AIG officer). Buffett’s silence on this matter is at one level understandable, as his name did arise in trial testimony, and as news reports suggest (here) that the criminal investigation is continuing. But given the fact that the former CEO and former CFO of Berkshire’s largest subsidiary were found guilty of criminal wrongdoing, Buffett’s lack of any reference to the verdicts (even to say that he could not comment) seems like a significant omission.

Buffett did implicitly draw a seeming contrast between prior Gen Re management (the ones on trial) and current Gen Re management; Buffett said that current management is doing “first-class business in a first-class way” despite “costly and time consuming legacy problems.” Buffett also commented that he learned to his regret that when he acquired Gen Re in 1998, it was no longer the “Tiffany of reinsurers” as it had been previously. Buffett made similar comments in the 2001 and 2002 Berkshire annual reports. (Full disclosure: I was for ten years an employee of a Gen Re operating subsidiary, and for that reason I feel obliged to forebear from any further commentary on these circumstances.)

Second, other than commenting on the mortgage lending industry’s lamentable shortcomings, Buffett provides no further commentary on the subprime crisis. Other insurers reporting their earnings in recent weeks have felt compelled to address both their potential insurance loss exposure to subprime-related liabilities and their companies’ investment portfolio vulnerability to subprime investment losses. On the one hand, Buffett’s credibility is such that if Berkshire had significant exposure in these areas, we would all expect him to have said something about it. On the other hand, given the prominence of these issues, it does not seem too much to have expected him to address these issues, and, again, his failure to comment on these topics seems like an omission.

Third, and related to the topic of subprime, Buffett’s letter makes no reference to Berkshire’s recent high profile entry into the municipal bond insurance business, in the wake of turmoil involving the traditional monoline insurers. While we may perhaps look forward to reading about this development in next year’s letter, this initiative did unfold in late 2007, and I would have expected some commentary about it in this year’s letter, especially given the high profile nature of the move.

But while Buffett did not mention Berkshire’s move into municipal bond insurance, his commentary on the problems public pension funds may face does put Berkshire’s move into providing municipalities with default guarantee protection in an interesting perspective. As Floyd Norris of the New York Times observes on his blog, Notions on High and Low Finance (here), “Why, you might wonder, would Mr. Buffett want to put Berkshire Hathaway into the business of insuring municipal bonds issued by such governments?”

One final apparent omission from Buffett’s letter is that he does not mention Berkshire’s recent acquisition of 3% interest in Swiss Re, or Berkshire’s agreement to assume 20% of Swiss Re’s property and casualty reinsurance business for the next five years. (Refer here for background on these transactions.) On the one hand, the Swiss Re transactions represent 2008 business, and so I suppose we should just be patient and wait until next year’s letter to see what Buffett says about the transactions. But the particular reason that Buffett arguably ought to have discussed the Swiss Re transactions, and in particular the timing of the Swiss Re transactions, is his commentary in this year’s letter about the likely future prospects of the insurance industry. I agree with Buffett that we should all “be prepared for lower insurance earnings over the next few years.” Given these prospects, the timing of the Swiss Re transactions cries out for further explanation.

A Final Observation: Perhaps others might be unwilling to find any relation between the two companies’ respective positions, but I find Berkshire’s increased derivatives exposure somewhat disconcerting in light of AIG’s recent $11.2 billion mark-to-market derivatives portfolio write-down. It may also fairly be argued that Berkshire’s volatility exposure is much smaller than is AIG’s. But after years of Buffett’s lectures about the evils of derivatives, Berkshire’s growing derivatives exposure seem incongruous.

Questions may also be raised about the appropriateness of the analogy Buffett draws between Berkshire’s volatility exposure as a catastrophe reinsurer and the potential volatility from Berkshire’s growing derivatives portfolio. The Wall Street Journal’s March 1, 2008 Breaking Views column (here) put its finger precisely on the problem in its commentary on AIG’s write-down, by pointing out that logical shortcoming of insurers’ putative qualifications to assess and accept risk from these financial instruments:

Insurers say they are experts at managing just this sort of high-severity, low-probability risk. They argue that insuring against floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes has given them peerless expertise in managing it.

But since there’s no market in acts of nature, insuring against them can’t lead to massive mark-to-market write-downs, as financial exposures can. And there’s a big difference between acts of nature, which can be modeled statistically, and the behavior of complex structured-finance instruments packed with assets that have little historical performance data, which frequently confounds statisticians.

The Journal column ends with the observation that “AIG isn’t alone in falling for this false analogy.” 

To be sure, Buffett did not claim that Berkshire’s expertise in underwriting catastrophe reinsurance qualified the company to underwrite derivatives, only that Berkshire’s willingness to accept the volatile results of catastrophe reinsurance was comparable to its willingness to accept volatile impacts from its derivatives portfolio, in exchange for the long run net worth benefits.