August 3, 2019 / 12:21 PM / 20 days ago

Insurance, economy, tariffs weigh on Berkshire Hathaway

(Reuters) - Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N) on Saturday said its quarterly operating profit fell more than analysts expected, as weakness in insurance underwriting, a slowing economy and trade woes weighed on the conglomerate run by billionaire Warren Buffett.

FILE PHOTO: Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett walks through the exhibit hall as shareholders gather to hear from the billionaire investor at Berkshire Hathaway Inc's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Berkshire’s auto insurer Geico suffered a larger number of accident claims, while competition from foreign producers, lower imports and “trade policy” dampened cargo volumes for consumer and agricultural products at its BNSF railroad.

Earnings also barely budged at Berkshire’s manufacturing businesses, where U.S. tariffs hurt sales of gas turbine and pipe products at its Precision Castparts unit, and its service and retailing businesses.

Second-quarter operating profit declined 11% to $6.14 billion (5 billion pounds), or roughly $3,757 per Class A share, from $6.89 billion, or roughly $4,190 per Class A share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average expected operating profit of $3,851.28 per share, according to Refinitiv IBES.

Berkshire also said quarterly net income rose 17% to $14.07 billion, or $8,608 per Class A share, from $12.01 billion, or $7,301 per Class A share, a year earlier, reflecting higher unrealized gains on Berkshire’s investments.

A U.S. accounting rule requires Berkshire to report such gains with earnings. That rule adds volatility to Berkshire’s net results, and Buffett says it can mislead investors.

The U.S. economy’s annualised growth rate slowed to 2.1% in the second quarter from 3.1% in the first quarter, as an acceleration in consumer spending was partially offset by declining exports, manufacturing and business investment, reflecting the trade war between the United States and China.

Buffett told CNBC in May that a U.S.-China trade war would be “bad for the whole world,” and a full-scale trade war would be “bad for everything Berkshire owns.”

MORE CASH

Berkshire ended June with $122.4 billion of cash and equivalents, reflecting Buffett’s 3-1/2-year drought in finding big acquisitions since buying Precision Castparts.

He has instead invested elsewhere, building a $50.5 billion stake in iPhone maker Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and committing $10 billion in April to help Occidental Petroleum Corp (OXY.N) buy rival Anardako Petroleum Corp (APC.N). Berkshire has also bought back $2.1 billion of its stock this year.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate operates more than 90 businesses that also include Dairy Queen ice cream, Fruit of the Loom underwear, and its namesake energy company and real estate brokerage.

It also owns dozens of stocks, including Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) and Coca-Cola Co (KO.N).

Class A shares of Berkshire closed Friday at $306,000, about 9% below their peak last October. Class B shares closed at $202.67, closer to 10% below their peak.

CONSUMER DRAG

Insurance underwriting profit dropped 63% to $353 million, with declines in several businesses.

Geico’s pre-tax underwriting gain fell 42%, as a higher ratio of loss claims to premiums earned more than offset growth in policies written.

Underwriting at Berkshire’s reinsurance, property/casualty and commercial insurance units also weakened, reflecting higher claims payouts, changes in the expected timing of future payouts, and currency fluctuations, among other factors.

Berkshire was nonetheless able to boost float, or insurance premiums collected before claims are paid and which help fund growth, by another $1 billion in the quarter, to $125 billion.

BNSF’s profit rose 2% to $1.34 billion, while revenue was essentially unchanged.

Profit was also flat in Berkshire’s manufacturing, services and retailing businesses, totalling $2.49 billion.

While Berkshire said more people flew NetJets corporate jets, “soft consumer demand” weighed on sales at home furnishings businesses, which include Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy saw profit rise 4%.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alistair Bell

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