A Buffett Put Trade Refresher

It’s been a while since I first wrote about Berkshire Hathaway selling put options on broad based indexes.  The following is a refresher or introduction to the trade if this is new to you.

Back in 2008, as the financial world was falling apart, the business media loved to quote Warren Buffett’s comment about derivatives from Berkshire Hathaway’s 2002 annual letter. However, that line has been taken completely out of context to fit the needs of market commentators or derivative critics. The specific line appears below –

“In our view, however, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal”

The same letter contained the next quote, which may be a startling to many readers.

“Indeed, at Berkshire, I sometimes engage in large-scale derivatives transactions in order to facilitate certain investment strategies”

That’s right, Warren Buffett is a big user of those weapons of mass destruction. The full story is much too long to put in this space, but the short version is Buffett’s comments about derivatives stemmed from Berkshire Hathaway inheriting positions through the purchase of General Re®. They had a book of derivative positions that had come along with their acquisition and his comments were a reflection on an inability to properly determine the value of many positions or the strength of the counterpart of each position. Both of these issues are unique to Over The Counter (OTC) derivatives and not the listed market. For example, if you buy an option that trades at CBOE you can find the value by using a quote machine and the counterparty risk component is well managed by The Options Clearing Corporation (OCC).

So how does Berkshire Hathaway use the derivatives market? A little detective work a few years ago led to the discovery of some very large OTC derivatives trades. It turns out that just a couple of years after the worn out quote from above showed up in Warren Buffett’s annual letter Berkshire Hathaway started selling put options on four broad based equity indexes (S&P 500, FTSE 100, EuroStoxx 50 and Nikkei 225). From 2004 – 2007 (note the bad timing) $4.5 billion in premiums were received for long dated put options that expire between 2019 and 2027.   Buffett notes that premiums were paid up front and that this effectively negates the counterparty risk associated with an OTC derivative trade. This chart shows each broad based index mentioned as the underlying on these trades. To have an apples to apples comparison each index is adjusted to a price of 100 on December 31, 2003.


Some adjustments were made to these positions.  In 2008 $400 million more of these puts were sold.  Also the terms had changed on about 10% of the contracts (shortened maturities and lower strike prices – they rolled in and down). Also, in 2010 at the instigation of a counterparty, a handful of the contract positions were closed out resulting in a profit of $222 million and the this also reduced the running initial income from the puts sold to around $4.2 billion.

The table below shows the running intrinsic and fair value for these short puts since the beginning of 2008 in billions of dollars. The source is Berkshire’s annual reports in which Buffett makes a point to note the intrinsic value of the options as well as the fair market value (which is the required value for accounting purposes). Note at the end of 2008 the unrealized losses for these positions was pretty substantial, but as the markets have recovered, the positions have improved dramatically.

Put PL

In the next few years several of these options will start to expire and we may learn more about the specifics behind these trades.  For now, each quarterly filing by Berkshire Hathaway has me checking in on the big short equity index option trade.