The Bottom Line

Investment Manager's Letter February 2002

I, as investment manager, suspect that a hard market in the insurance business is in some ways similar to a bear market in stocks. In either case it is the price we pay for irrational exuberance. Granted the popping of a bubble in the insurance market is not near as much fun as a good bear market. No Enron, no Global Crossings, no dot bombs, no Congressional investigations. Just a few boring bankruptcies, lots of downgrades by Bests; and the quiet retreat of many marginal players. But in it's way the insurance business is now going through a period of enlightenment similar to what occurs at the bottom of a bear market.

Lots of insurance capital has been destroyed in the last three years. A big chunk disappeared on September 11, but the industry has also lost capital in the declining equity market, low interest rates, and operating losses in the last few years. Berkshire Hathaway just announced a large increase in reserves at Gen Re for claims unrelated to 9/11. If Gen Re was under reserving what was everybody else doing? In reality the capital situation in the industry may be worse than people think.

The problem with insurance reserves is there is a lot of room for creative expression.

"In a given year, it is possible for an insurer to show almost any profit number it. Wishes, particularly if it (1) writes “long-tail” business (coverage where current costs can be only estimated, because claim payments are long delayed), (2) has been adequately reserved in the past, or (3) is growing very rapidly." - Warren Buffett 1982 annual report.

If other companies have been doing the same things that General Re is guilty of. Then the fourth quarter is likely to bring us some nasty surprises, and lot more capital (capacity) is going to disappear as companies adjust there reserve accounts. There will be a strong tendency to dump all of the bad news into 2001. Demand is increasing, capacity is disappearing; it is the best of all possible worlds if you are a well capitalized reinsurance company.

Stories from insurance industry journals in January give us strong hints. We see an insurance market in chaos, were rates were the hardest in memory, and it is basically impossible for large commercial property owners to buy enough insurance to cover their risks. Risk is being transferred out of the insurance business a back to property owners, banks, and other lenders. It is a condition that I have never witnessed in my life time. Warren Buffett has said many times that if the prices were good he would write a lot of insurance. Well prices are good now, and he has the capital to write all the insurance he wants, at rates that should guarantee underwriting profits. It is in fact difficult to conceive of circumstances that would produce better insurance prices.

Underwriting losses for the insurance industry are the result of too much capacity, and capacity is measured by capital. The great bull market of the 1990's created a lot of capital. With too much capacity insurance rates dropped and underwriting profits disappeared. In his 1982 letter the Chairman explained how the insurance cycle works. For profits to improve Capital has to be withdrawn (destroyed).

"This contraction will not happen because of generally poor profit levels. Bad profits produce much hand-wringing and finger-pointing. But they do not lead major sources of insurance capacity to turn their backs on very large chunks of business, thereby sacrificing market share and industry significance. Instead, major capacity withdrawals require a shock factor such as a natural or financial “megadisaster”. One might occur tomorrow - or many years from now. The insurance business - even taking investment income into account - will not be particularly profitable in the meantime. When supply ultimately contracts, large amounts of business will be available for the few with large capital capacity, a willingness to commit it, and an in-place distribution system. We would expect great opportunities for our insurance Subsidiaries at such a time."

How Much Insurance business will Berkshire Hathaway write in 2002?

Berkshire Hathaway wrote $19 Billion in insurance in 2000 (13.3 billion of that was reinsurance). We will not know the figures for 2001 till next month when the annual report is released, but industry wide, rates were increasing at double digit rates prior to 9/11, and then accelerated rapidly in the fourth quarter. Premiums should increase even faster 2002.

Berkshire Hathaway has the capital to write a lot more business, because they write a very low level of insurance relative to their book value.

Berkshire Hathaway

Year

Book Value (billion)

Premiums (billion)

Premium as a % (Book Value)

Net Insurance Earnings (million)

Net Insurance Income As % of Premiums

2000 $61,724 $19,343 31.3% $934 4.83%
1999 $57,761 $14,306 24.8% $867 6.06%
1998 $57,403 $5,481 9.5% $902 16.46%
1997 $31,455 $4,761 15.1% $1,002 21.05%
1996 $23,426 $4,118 17.6% $689 16.73%
1995 $16,738 $2,756 16.5% $496 18.00%
1994 $11,874 $923 7.8% $487 52.76%
1993 $10,428 $650 6.2% $340 52.31%
1992 $8,896 $664 7.5% $235 35.39%
1991 $7,379 $776 10.5% $208 26.80%
1990 $5,287 $591 11.2% $267 45.18%
1989 $4,925 $394 8.0% $201 51.02%
1988 $3,410 $584 17.1% $196 33.56%
1987 $2,841 $824 29.0% $115 13.96%
Average     15.2%   31.93%

Compare these figures with the two tables that follow.

AIG

Year

Book Value (billion)

Premiums (billion)

Premium as a % (Book Value)

Net Insurance Earnings (million)

Net Insurance Income As % of Premiums

2000 $40,964 $17,407 42.5% $5,636 32.38%
1999 $34,401 $15,544 45.2% $5,055 32.52%
1998 $27,531 $14,498 52.7% $3,766 25.98%
1997 $24,401 $12,692 52.0% $3,332 26.25%
1996 $22,444 $11,855 52.8% $2,897 24.44%
1995 $20,227 $11,406 56.4% $2,510 22.01%
1994 $16,422 $10,287 62.6% $2,176 21.15%
1993 $15,224 $9,566 62.8% $1,939 20.27%
1992 $12,882 $9,209 71.5% $1,625 17.65%
1991 $11,463 $9,104 79.4% $1,525 16.75%
1990 $9,904 $9,149 92.4% $1,395 15.25%
1989 $8,405 $8,529 101.5% $1,307 15.32%
1988 $7,002 $8,154 116.5% $1,074 13.17%
1987 $5,760 $7,120 123.6% $835 11.72%
Average     72.3%   19.16%

Merkel

Year

Book Value (billion)

Premiums (billion)

Premium as a % (Book Value)

Net Insurance Earnings (million)

Net Insurance Income As % of Premiums

2000 $902 $939 104.1% -$27 -2.88%
1999 $533 $437 82.0% $41 9.31%
1998 $575 $333 57.9% $57 17.12%
1997 $516 $333 64.5% $50 15.02%
1996 $268 $307 114.6% $35 11.40%
1995 $213 $285 133.8% $34 11.93%
1994 $139 $243 174.8% $19 7.82%
1993 $150 $193 128.7% $24 12.44%
1992 $109 $153 140.4% $26 16.99%
1991 $84 $152 181.0% $14 9.21%
1990 $56 $34 60.7% $8 23.53%
1989 $66 $24 36.4% $14 58.33%
Average     106.6%   15.85%

For the Last fourteen years Berkshire Hathaway has written premiums that averaged 15.2 percent of their book value. For the twelve years prior to its purchase buy Berkshire Hathaway, General Re averaged 66.9%. GenRe's figure is still conservative, compared to most insurance companies (second table gives figures for AIG and Merkel). If Berkshire Hathaway were to write at this level in 2002 it would amount to about $40 billion in premiums.

For Berkshire Hathaway, any increase in Premium volume will come from two sources. 1. from premium increases on old business, and 2. From an increase in market share (new Business). Robert Miles interviewed Ajit Jain for his excellent book "The Warren Buffett CEO". He Quotes Ajit as estimating that Berkshire Hathaway Re has currently about 10% of the North American Reinsurance Market, but that they could increase their market share by 50% " at the drop of a hat".

S&P has estimated that P&C and reinsurance premiums will increase in 2002 by an average of 25% to 40%. Combine the two figures (market share increase and rate increases on old business) and there is the potential for Berkshire Hathaway's to increase premium volume by ten to fifteen billion. This is not a prediction. I, as investment manager, have no idea what Warren Buffett will do. This is meant only to be an exploration of the possibilities.

What about the bottom line?

It remains to be seen, exactly how Berkshire Hathaway will react, but a big jump in Reinsurance premiums next year will eventually have a much larger incremental impact on the bottom line. Not only are rates increasing, but new policies are carrying much higher deductibles, much lower limits on exposure, and more limitations on what the policy will cover. So even as premiums increase, it is likely that losses will not increase as fast premiums, because the company is writing policies with less exposure.

As you can see from the GenRe's table, their average return on premiums in the twelve years prior to the merger was 22%. On this basis they were more profitable that AIG or Merkel for that period. Also I suspect they were one of the most profitable companies in the insurance industry. Conditions that would help explain why Warren Buffett found the company attractive. There is of coarse no guarantee that they can match these returns now. But with market conditions are better now, than they where when Gen Re was bringing that 22% of the premiums down to the bottom line, I, as investment manager, would guess that Warren Buffett expects this kind of return, and I further suspect he will do what he has too, to realize the returns he expects. Even if it requires further personal intervention.

While Zack's is predicting earnings increases of 200% to 400% for some insurance companies in 2002, they have not published an estimate for Berkshire Hathaway. But a little math applied to the above data raises some tantalizing possibilities. For instance, a $40 billion premium base at 22% would yield an $8 billion bottom line for Berkshire Hathaway's insurance operations. It is not my, as investment manager, contention that this is a rational estimate for future profitability. I point out merely because it appears to me that bad news from the insurance business for the last three years has obscured the real earnings potential of Berkshire Hathaway's insurance operations, and that there is now a very real potential for some positive surprises in the next two or three years.

How long these conditions will last is the next question. But early indications from the insurance market seems to be telling us that there is a lot less capacity than people think there is. This may be because more capital has disappeared than analysts realize, and if this is indeed the case the insurance market may stay tight for a good while.

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by
WeebPal.