The contrarian insurance play — Fairfax Financials 2014 Letter

Fairfax Financials, run by the contrarian CEO, Prem Watsa, continues to be bearish on the prospects for the world economy and Fairfax is backing his conviction with a very big bet on CPI linked contracts. While the world continues to be riveted on the statements of the Fed and is expecting a rate hike in the near future, Fairfax bets seem to question the sustainability of the hikes. Recent comments from Bridgewater chief, Ray Dalio, seems to the only other prominent voice echoing similar sentiments.

Fairfax had a good 2014, as is the case with most insurers, primarily driven by lack of catastrophes. Book value increased 16% to $395.  Combined ratio was 90.8% and the company ended with $11.7B of float. Unrealized gains from bonds held in the investment portfolio contributed $1.1B of gains and drove the net earnings number higher in 2014. A closer look at the performance of the investment portfolio shows a mixed picture. The equity hedges has cost the company a pretty penny and almost all of the gains have come from the bonds portfolio.


Fairfax’s bet on bonds has spectacularly paid off while its equities have severely underperformed the market primarily driven by hedging. Prem Watsa and his team seem to be very confident about the market unravelling due to the grand disconnect between fundamentals and stock prices. It is worth noting that ten years ago, Prem Watsa had placed a similar bet on the housing market and suffered through initial years of losses before spectacularly reversing the losses during 2007 and 2008 as seen below. Only time can tell whether Fairfax will gain spectacularly on these CPI linked hedges.


If one digs a little deeper into this, the cost of these contracts seem to be only 7% of equity. On the surface, it looks like a bet where the payoff is huge with minimal downside risk. Currently, they have a string of loses to show for the bet between the CPI linked contracts and the equity hedges. Cumulatively, it has cost Fairfax Shareholders close to $4B to keep this bet on.


Furthermore, Fairfax is increasing the size of the CPI linked bet on deflation. The notional amount is now $111B. CPI seems close to the strike price and for the first time, the bets looks like having any chance of making money for shareholders.


So far so good. However, if inflation does occur like the rest of the investment community believes in, Fairfax stands to suffer from a triple whammy. Firstly, the loss from the CPI indexed contract. Secondly, the gain on equity will be minimal due to the hedges involved if the market does not unravel. Thirdly and most importantly, the bond portfolio might come under attack. Fairfax would still retain the option on holding the bonds to maturity and redeeming them but will have to announce mark to market losses in the meantime.

In net, Fairfax seems to be riding the wave of good underwriting profit along with most of the good insurers. The future seems to be hinged on the great disconnect in the stock markets. Only time will tell whether there the grand strategy will pay off or will it result in a lost decade for the insurer.

Disclosure: Long Fairfax