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Buffett's Berkshire suffers in pandemic even as Apple boosts profit

Warren Buffett

(Reuters) — Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. reported lower quarterly operating results on Saturday and said the coronavirus pandemic may cause further damage, even as gains in stocks such as Apple Inc. fueled a more than $30 billion overall profit.

Some Berkshire operating businesses have rebounded from their spring depths, and analysts were encouraged that revenue fell just 3% from a year earlier.

But COVID-19, hurricanes and low interest rates hurt profit from insurance businesses, which include the Geico auto insurer, and the Precision Castparts aircraft parts unit projected thousands of additional job losses.

Berkshire also repurchased a record $9.3 billion of its underperforming stock in the third quarter, as Mr. Buffett remained unable to find the huge acquisitions the 90-year-old billionaire wants to spur growth.

Buybacks totaled $16 billion from January to September, and appeared to total at least $2.3 billion in October because Berkshire's share count dropped.

“The market will be encouraged by the buybacks,” said Cathy Seifert, an analyst at CFRA Research with a “hold” rating on Berkshire. “Many companies halted buybacks to preserve resources during the pandemic, though because Berkshire doesn't pay a dividend the amount it is returning to shareholders pales a bit.”

Third-quarter operating profit fell 32% to $5.48 billion, or about $3,488 per Class A share, from $8.07 billion a year earlier.

Net income rose 82% to $30.1 billion, or $18,994 per Class A share, from $16.5 billion, or $10,119 per share. Revenue totaled $63 billion.

New uses for cash

Berkshire reported $24.8 billion of gains from investments such as Apple, whose stock rose 27% in the quarter and at $111.7 billion is by far Berkshire's biggest stock holding, comprising 46% of its portfolio.

Nevertheless, it appears Berkshire may have sold some Apple stock because the stake should have been a few billion dollars higher, based on previously disclosed stakes, if none was sold.

Net results are volatile because an accounting rule requires Berkshire to report unrealized gains and losses on its stocks. The company posted a $26.3 billion second-quarter profit, but lost nearly $50 billion in the first quarter.

Despite the buybacks, Berkshire ended the quarter with $145.7 billion of cash and equivalents.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based company has also found new ways to spend cash, investing $6 billion in five Japanese trading houses and backing the initial public offering of data storage company Snowflake Inc.

“It's a good quarter, and I'm pleased by the level of cash deployment,” said Jim Shanahan, an Edward Jones analyst with a “buy” rating on Berkshire. “If we have a second wave of the pandemic, Buffett is still positioned to take advantage.”

Job losses

Precision, which Berkshire bought in 2016 for $32.1 billion in its largest-ever acquisition, has been hit hard by the downturn in the aerospace industry, including in the second quarter when Berkshire took a $9.8 billion write-down.

Third-quarter pretax profit fell 80%, and Berkshire expects the unit will by year end have shed 40% of its workforce from the end of 2019.

That equates to roughly 13,400 jobs, or 3,400 more than Berkshire previously disclosed had been lost.

While Berkshire took no major third-quarter write-downs, it said the pandemic could force additional write-downs.

Insurance profit fell 58% to $802 million, reflecting lower premiums at Geico, COVID-19, Hurricanes Laura and Sally, and lower income from investments as interest rates tumble.

Geico awarded drivers $2.5 billion of credits on policy renewals this year, and Berkshire said its accounting for those credits should hurt underwriting results through March 2021.

Profit fell just 8% at the BNSF railroad, as cost-cutting helped offset lower shipping volumes. “That positions it well for when revenue and volumes recover,” Mr. Shanahan said.

Results improved in Berkshire's energy businesses, and profit at its real-estate brokerage more than doubled as low interest rates drove more people to buy homes.

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here.