Hurricanes, earthquake drag down Q3 profit at Buffett's Berkshire

[NEW YORK] Bad weather hurt Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc in the third quarter, as insurance losses tied to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and an earthquake in Mexico contributed to a 43 per cent drop in profit.

Berkshire on Friday said it lost US$3 billion before taxes, or US$1.95 billion after-tax, from the disasters, leaving its Geico auto insurance, General Re reinsurance and Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance units with underwriting losses for the year.

Insurance typically accounts for about one-fourth of Berkshire's overall profit. Berkshire has roughly 90 businesses in such sectors as chemicals, energy, food and retail and industrial products. It also owns the BNSF railroad.

Jim Shanahan, a senior analyst at Edward Jones & Co, said the disaster losses were higher than he had expected, given how pricing pressures had caused Berkshire to retrench from some business, but said shareholders should remain comfortable with the company over the long term.

Overall net income fell to US$4.07 billion, or US$2,473 per Class A share, from US$7.2 billion, or US$4,379 per share, a year earlier.

Operating profit, which excludes investment and derivative gains and losses and which Mr Buffett says better reflects company performance, fell 29 per cent to US$3.44 billion, or US$2,094 per Class A share, from US$4.85 billion, or US$2,951 per share a year earlier.

That missed analysts' average operating profit forecast of US$2,402.47 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate's diversification helped cushion the earnings decline, as profit rose at the Berkshire Hathaway Energy unit, while "improving economic conditions" helped boost shipping and profit at BNSF.

A better economy may also have persuaded more people to buy cars and trucks, as higher financing activity at the Berkshire Hathaway Automotive car dealership unit helped boost pre-tax retail profit by 22 per cent.

Book value per Class A share, measuring assets minus liabilities, rose 2.5 per cent in the quarter to US$187,435, and was up 8.9 per cent from January to September.

Berkshire also ended September with US$109.3 billion of cash and equivalents, more than five times the US$20 billion minimum Mr Buffett has said he prefers, and investors are waiting to see what he does with it.

Mr Buffett, 87, has run Berkshire since 1965, and investors have remained confident in his leadership, as the company's share price has risen 15 per cent this year.

The Class A shares closed Friday down US$2,963.99, or 1 per cent, at US$280,470.01, while Class B shares fell US$1.34, or 0.7 per cent, to US$187.27. Both were about 2 per cent below their Oct 24 record highs.

Berkshire lost US$1.44 billion from insurance underwriting in the quarter and US$1.73 billion from January to September, putting it on pace for its first full-year underwriting loss since 2002.

It had even eked out a small underwriting profit in 2005, the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, Rita and Dennis.

But investment income from insurance operations cushioned the blow, rising 23 per cent in the quarter to US$1.04 billion.

Other insurers and reinsurers, such as Allstate Corp, American International Group Inc and Swiss Re AG, also suffered larger quarterly storm losses, and like Berkshire are hoping to boost rates.

Berkshire's results also reflected an accounting charge tied to its January agreement to assume many of AIG's policies in exchange for US$10.2 billion upfront.

But that and other premiums that Berkshire receives before paying claims have helped boost its insurance "float" to US$113 billion, giving Mr Buffett more money to invest.

Mr Shanahan, who rates Berkshire a "buy", said he was encouraged at how Geico is adding market share, reflected in a 16.5 per cent jump in premiums and 9.9 per cent year-over-year growth in policies.

Some of Berkshire's cash hoard will eventually be used to buy 80 per cent of Pilot Flying J, the largest US truck stop operator. Mr Buffett announced that investment on Oct 3.

Berkshire also owns shares in dozens of companies including Apple Inc, Coca-Cola Co and Wells Fargo & Co , and has a 26.7 per cent stake in food company Kraft Heinz Co.


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to