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Insurance dampens Berkshire Hathaway results

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(Reuters) — Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the conglomerate run by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, reported a 27% decline in first-quarter profit on Friday, and said a loss from insurance underwriting contributed to operating results that fell short of forecasts.

Net income fell to $4.06 billion from $5.59 billion a year earlier, when Berkshire had a $1.9 billion gain from its swap of its Procter & Gamble Co stock for the Duracell battery business.

Quarterly operating profit, which excludes investment and derivative gains and losses, fell 5% to a three-year low of $3.56 billion.

Berkshire said its insurance businesses swung to a $267 million underwriting loss from a year-earlier profit of $213 million.

This reflected higher losses from catastrophes in 2017, including an Australian cyclone in March; unexpectedly high losses related to hurricanes and earthquakes in 2016, and weaker results at the auto insurer GEICO and the reinsurer General Re.

It also reflected the amortization of deferred charges from Berkshire’s January agreement to take on many long-term risks in American International Group Inc.’s property/casualty portfolio, in exchange for $10.2 billion upfront.

That payment helped boost float, or the amount of insurance premiums collected before claims are paid and which helps fund Berkshire’s growth, to about $105 billion from $91 billion at the end of 2016. It also helped boost quarterly revenue 25% to $65.19 billion.

Quarter-to-quarter swings “are about the mix of business and what is coming due, and what is being renewed,” said Cole Smead, portfolio manager at Smead Capital Management in Seattle. “This is not a disaster.”

In other businesses, the BNSF railroad saw profit rise 7% to $838 million, helped by higher revenue from fuel surcharges and increased shipments of consumer products.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a utility unit mostly owned by Berkshire, saw profit rise 14% to $501 million, helped by lower pension and maintenance costs at the PacifiCorp electric utility and a better rate structure for natural gas pipeline operator Kern River.