The events of this past week made me scrap the article I was working on to write about the crisis in financial markets.
Warren Buffet first wrote about "Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Berkshire Hathaway's 2002 annual report. When it was published in March of 2003, there was quite a bit of press coverage, as there is every year after he publishes his annual letter to shareholders.
In an article written by the BBC, Buffet warned of "time bombs." It seems like the first of many bombs went off a couple of years ago, with the decline of the housing market (and housing stocks), leading up to many more bombs in the past few weeks.
If you read his words, Buffet is quite vivid. His warning was not about the housing bubble or sub-prime loans or even the trillion dollars in CMOs (Collateralized Mortgage Obligations), the pass-thru assets which helped create the mess in the banking industry. Buffet was criticizing ALL derivatives.
Warren Buffet thought some derivatives contracts must have been devised by "madmen." Charlie Munger would say it was sheer lunacy. Buffet talked about "mass destruction" and "spirals that can lead to corporate meltdowns" such as the one which took down LTCM in 1998. Buffet warned of "huge scale fraud" and compared the ENTIRE derivatives business to "hell...easy to enter but almost impossible to exit."
Despite the simplicity and clarity of Buffet's words, few people listened. Even now, people don't seem to understand the magnitude of the potential problems that lay ahead in the global financial system. The derivatives market has grown exponentially since 1998, the year LTCM blew up. The global derivatives market is now more than $500 TRILLION, up more than 10x since Buffet's initial warnings.
So my question is this: how is a $700B or even a $1 Trillion bailout by the US Government in the mortgage market going to make a dent in the overall $500 TRILLION dollar market of even more complex, esoteric derivatives contracts???
How depressing. This is why, as a VC, I don't usually think about or comment on macroeconomic issues. Entrepreneurs and VCs build one tiny little business at a time...and once in a while some of those turn out to be winners that impact the lives of millions of people.
Believe it or not, I'm still quite optimistic about our future. We will get through this. This is nothing like disease, famine or war (at least, there is no war on our soil). There are many companies that are still growing and generating profits and cashflow here in Silicon Valley and around the world.
Most start-ups have no exposure to derivativew contracts and little exposure to the overall financial markets. Yes, the IPO market is closed (for now) but if you have a company which generates cash, you will be fine.
For example, one of our companies - one which has been private for more than 10 years - recently issued a cash dividend which paid out more than our entire investment, just as they did last year. They generate multiples of that dividend in free cashflow every year. Every acquisition they've ever made was paid in cash so I'd suspect that they can continue to fuel organic growth as well as future acquisitions. If they continue to generate cash and pay out more than invested capital every year, it would not be so bad, would it?
If you are counting on bubbles or "madmen" to pay crazy prices for your company when you raise capital or when you try to "exit" you will be sorely disappointed in the coming years. You might even wind up in unemployed lines along with those well educated investment bankers. But if you have a real business, one which delivers value to customers who will keep coming back over and over again, I suspect that you will do just fine. Just keep focused on what you are doing and don't get distracted by the macro issues that seem to swing paper valuations wildly day to day.
The macroeconomic problems we face today are issues that even Warren Buffet can't figure out. That hasn't stopped him from going about his business every day. Those hedgehogs just keep moving forward one step at a time. Since that BBC article in 2003, Buffet has increased his net worth by more than 50% to overtake Bill Gates as the wealthiest person in the world.