Warren Buffett on Insurance

 

All the passages below are taken from Berkshire Hathaway 2006 Annual report.

 

                  www.berkshirehathaway.com

 

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of our entrance into the insurance business. It was on March 9, 1967, that Berkshire purchased National Indemnity and its companion company, National Fire & Marine, from Jack Ringwalt for $8.6 million.

 

Jack was a long-time friend of mine and an excellent, but somewhat eccentric, businessman. For about ten minutes every year he would get the urge to sell his company. But those moods – perhaps brought on by a tiff with regulators or an unfavorable jury verdict – quickly vanished.

 

In the mid-1960s, I asked investment banker Charlie Heider, a mutual friend of mine and Jack’s, to alert me the next time Jack was “in heat.” When Charlie’s call came, I sped to meet Jack. We made a deal in a few minutes, with me waiving an audit, “due diligence” or anything else that would give Jack an opportunity to reconsider. We just shook hands, and that was that.

 

When we were due to close the purchase at Charlie’s office, Jack was late. Finally arriving, he explained that he had been driving around looking for a parking meter with some unexpired time. That was a magic moment for me. I knew then that Jack was going to be my kind of manager.

 

When Berkshire purchased Jack’s two insurers, they had “float” of $17 million. We’ve regularly offered a long explanation of float in earlier reports, which you can read on our website. Simply put, float is money we hold that is not ours but which we get to invest.

 

At the end of 2006, our float had grown to $50.9 billion, and we have since written a huge retroactive reinsurance contract with Equitas – which I will describe in the next section – that boosts float by another $7 billion. Much of the gain we’ve made has come through our acquisition of other insurers, but we’ve also had outstanding internal growth, particularly at Ajit Jain’s amazing reinsurance operation. Naturally, I had no notion in 1967 that our float would develop as it has. There’s much to be said for just putting one foot in front of the other every day.

 

The float from retroactive reinsurance contracts, of which we have many, automatically drifts down over time. Therefore, it will be difficult for us to increase float in the future unless we make new acquisitions in the insurance field. Whatever its size, however, the all-important cost of Berkshire’s float over time is likely to be significantly below that of the industry, perhaps even falling to less than zero. Note the words “over time.” There will be bad years periodically. You can be sure of that.

 

In 2006, though, everything went right in insurance – really right. Our managers – Tony Nicely (GEICO), Ajit Jain (B-H Reinsurance), Joe Brandon and Tad Montross (General Re), Don Wurster (National Indemnity Primary), Tom Nerney (U.S. Liability), Tim Kenesey (Medical Protective), Rod Eldred (Homestate Companies and Cypress), Sid Ferenc and Steve Menzies (Applied Underwriters), John Kizer (Central States) and Don Towle (Kansas Bankers Surety) – simply shot the lights out. When I recite their names, I feel as if I’m at Cooperstown, reading from the Hall of Fame roster. Of course, the overall insurance industry also had a terrific year in 2006. But our managers delivered results generally superior to those of their competitors.

 

Below is the tally on our underwriting and float for each major sector of insurance. Enjoy the view, because you won’t soon see another like it.

 

 

Underwriting Profit (Loss) (in $ millions)

Yearend Float

(in $ millions)

Insurance Operations

2006

2005

2006

2005

General Re

$ 526

$( 334)

$22,827

$22,920

B-H Reinsurance

1,658

(1,069)

16,860

16,233

GEICO

1,314

1,221

7,171

6,692

Other Primary

340**

235*

4,029

3,442

Total

$3,838

$ 53

$50,887

$49,287

 

* Includes MedPro from June 30, 2005.

** Includes Applied Underwriters from May 19, 2006.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

In 2007, our results from the bread-and-butter lines of insurance will deteriorate, though I think they will remain satisfactory. The big unknown is super-cat insurance. Were the terrible hurricane seasons of 2004-05 aberrations? Or were they our planet’s first warning that the climate of the 21st Century will differ materially from what we’ve seen in the past? If the answer to the second question is yes, 2006 will soon be perceived as a misleading period of calm preceding a series of devastating storms. These could rock the insurance industry. It’s naïve to think of Katrina as anything close to a worst-case event.

 

Neither Ajit Jain, who manages our super-cat operation, nor I know what lies ahead. We do know that it would be a huge mistake to bet that evolving atmospheric changes are benign in their implications for insurers.

 

Don’t think, however, that we have lost our taste for risk. We remain prepared to lose $6 billion in a single event, if we have been paid appropriately for assuming that risk. We are not willing, though, to take on even very small exposures at prices that don’t reflect our evaluation of loss probabilities. Appropriate prices don’t guarantee profits in any given year, but inappropriate prices most certainly guarantee eventual losses. Rates have recently fallen because a flood of capital has entered the super-cat field. We have therefore sharply reduced our wind exposures. Our behavior here parallels that which we employ in financial markets: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.

 

Lloyd’s, Equitas and Retroactive Reinsurance

 

Last year – we are getting now to Equitas – Berkshire agreed to enter into a huge retroactive reinsurance contract, a policy that protects an insurer against losses that have already happened, but whose cost is not yet known. I’ll give you details of the agreement shortly. But let’s first take a journey through insurance history, following the route that led to our deal.

 

Our tale begins around 1688, when Edward Lloyd opened a small coffee house in London. Though no Starbucks, his shop was destined to achieve worldwide fame because of the commercial activities of its clientele – shipowners, merchants and venturesome British capitalists. As these parties sipped Edward’s brew, they began to write contracts transferring the risk of a disaster at sea from the owners of ships and their cargo to the capitalists, who wagered that a given voyage would be completed without incident. These capitalists eventually became known as “underwriters at Lloyd’s.”

 

Though many people believe Lloyd’s to be an insurance company, that is not the case. It is instead a place where many member-insurers transact business, just as they did centuries ago.

 

Over time, the underwriters solicited passive investors to join in syndicates. Additionally, the business broadened beyond marine risks into every imaginable form of insurance, including exotic coverages that spread the fame of Lloyd’s far and wide. The underwriters left the coffee house, found grander quarters and formalized some rules of association. And those persons who passively backed the underwriters became known as “names.”

 

Eventually, the names came to include many thousands of people from around the world, who joined expecting to pick up some extra change without effort or serious risk. True, prospective names were always solemnly told that they would have unlimited and everlasting liability for the consequences of their syndicate’s underwriting – “down to the last cufflink,” as the quaint description went. But that warning came to be viewed as perfunctory. Three hundred years of retained cufflinks acted as a powerful sedative to the names poised to sign up.

 

Then came asbestos. When its prospective costs were added to the tidal wave of environmental and product claims that surfaced in the 1980s, Lloyd’s began to implode. Policies written decades earlier – and largely forgotten about – were developing huge losses. No one could intelligently estimate their total, but it was certain to be many tens of billions of dollars. The specter of unending and unlimited losses terrified existing names and scared away prospects. Many names opted for bankruptcy; some even chose suicide.

 

From these shambles, there came a desperate effort to resuscitate Lloyd’s. In 1996, the powers that be at the institution allotted £11.1 billion to a new company, Equitas, and made it responsible for paying all claims on policies written before 1993. In effect, this plan pooled the misery of the many syndicates in trouble. Of course, the money allotted could prove to be insufficient – and if that happened, the names remained liable for the shortfall.

 

But the new plan, by concentrating all of the liabilities in one place, had the advantage of eliminating much of the costly intramural squabbling that went on among syndicates. Moreover, the pooling allowed claims evaluation, negotiation and litigation to be handled more intelligently than had been the case previously. Equitas embraced Ben Franklin’s thinking: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall hang separately.”

 

From the start, many people predicted Equitas would eventually fail. But as Ajit and I reviewed the facts in the spring of 2006 – 13 years after the last exposed policy had been written and after the payment of £11.3 billion in claims – we concluded that the patient was likely to survive. And so we decided to offer a huge reinsurance policy to Equitas.

 

Because plenty of imponderables continue to exist, Berkshire could not provide Equitas, and its 27,972 names, unlimited protection. But we said – and I’m simplifying – that if Equitas would give us $7.12 billion in cash and securities (this is the float I spoke about), we would pay all of its future claims and expenses up to $13.9 billion. That amount was $5.7 billion above what Equitas had recently guessed its ultimate liabilities to be. Thus the names received a huge – and almost certainly sufficient – amount of future protection against unpleasant surprises. Indeed the protection is so large that Equitas plans a cash payment to its thousands of names, an event few of them had ever dreamed possible.

 

And how will Berkshire fare? That depends on how much “known” claims will end up costing us, how many yet-to-be-presented claims will surface and what they will cost, how soon claim payments will be made and how much we earn on the cash we receive before it must be paid out. Ajit and I think the odds are in our favor. And should we be wrong, Berkshire can handle it.

 

Scott Moser, the CEO of Equitas, summarized the transaction neatly: “Names wanted to sleep easy at night, and we think we’ve just bought them the world’s best mattress.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

Warning: It’s time to eat your broccoli – I am now going to talk about accounting matters. I owe this to those Berkshire shareholders who love reading about debits and credits. I hope both of you find this discussion helpful. All others can skip this section; there will be no quiz.

 

Berkshire has done many retroactive transactions – in both number and amount a multiple of such policies entered into by any other insurer. We are the reinsurer of choice for these coverages because the obligations that are transferred to us – for example, lifetime indemnity and medical payments to be made to injured workers – may not be fully satisfied for 50 years or more. No other company can offer the certainty that Berkshire can, in terms of guaranteeing the full and fair settlement of these obligations. This fact is important to the original insurer, policyholders and regulators.

 

The accounting procedure for retroactive transactions is neither well known nor intuitive. The best way for shareholders to understand it, therefore, is for us to simply lay out the debits and credits. Charlie and I would like to see this done more often. We sometimes encounter accounting footnotes about important transactions that leave us baffled, and we go away suspicious that the reporting company wished it that way. (For example, try  comprehending transactions “described” in the old 10-Ks of Enron, even after you know how the movie ended.)

 

So let us summarize our accounting for the Equitas transaction. The major debits will be to Cash and Investments, Reinsurance Recoverable, and Deferred Charges for Reinsurance Assumed (“DCRA”). The major credit will be to Reserve for Losses and Loss Adjustment Expense. No profit or loss will be recorded at the inception of the transaction, but underwriting losses will thereafter be incurred annually as the DCRA asset is amortized downward. The amount of the annual amortization charge will be primarily determined by how our end-of-the-year estimates as to the timing and amount of future loss payments compare to the estimates made at the beginning of the year. Eventually, when the last claim has been paid, the DCRA account will be reduced to zero. That day is 50 years or more away.

 

What’s important to remember is that retroactive insurance contracts always produce underwriting losses for us. Whether these losses are worth experiencing depends on whether the cash we have received produces investment income that exceeds the losses. Recently our DCRA charges have annually delivered $300 million or so of underwriting losses, which have been more than offset by the income we have realized through use of the cash we received as a premium. Absent new retroactive contracts, the amount of the annual charge would normally decline over time. After the Equitas transaction, however, the annual DCRA cost will initially increase to about $450 million a year. This means that our other insurance operations must generate at least that much underwriting gain for our overall float to be cost-free. That amount is quite a hurdle but one that I believe we will clear in many, if not most, years.

 

Aren’t you glad that I promised you there would be no quiz?  [7-10]

 

February 28, 2007                     Warren E. Buffett

Chairman of the Board

 

 

                           *********************

 

All the passages below are taken from Berkshire Hathaway 2007 Annual report.

 

Insurance

 

The best anecdote I’ve heard during the current presidential campaign came from Mitt Romney, who asked his wife, Ann, “When we were young, did you ever in your wildest dreams think I might be president?” To which she replied, “Honey, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.”

 

When we first entered the property/casualty insurance business in 1967, my wildest dreams did not envision our current operation. Here’s how we did in the first five years after purchasing National Indemnity:

 

        

Year

Underwriting Profit (Loss)                 (in millions)

Float (in millions)

1967

$ 0.4

$18.5

1968

0.6

21.3

1969

0.1

25.4

1970

(0.4)

39.4

1971

1.4

65.6

 

To put it charitably, we were a slow starter. But things changed. Here’s the record of the last five years:

 

        

Year

Underwriting Profit (Loss)

(in millions)

Float  (in millions)

 

2003

$1,718

$44,220

2004

1,551

46,094

2005

53

49,287

2006

3,838

50,887

2007

3,374

58,698

 

This metamorphosis has been accomplished by some extraordinary managers. Let’s look at what each has achieved.

 

·       GEICO possesses the widest moat of any of our insurers, one carefully protected and expanded by Tony Nicely, its CEO. Last year – again – GEICO had the best growth record among major auto insurers, increasing its market share to 7.2%. When Berkshire acquired control in 1995, that share was 2.5%. Not coincidentally, annual ad expenditures by GEICO have increased from $31 million to $751 million during the same period.

 

Tony, now 64, joined GEICO at 18. Every day since, he has been passionate about the company – proud of how it could both save money for its customers and provide growth opportunities for its associates. Even now, with sales at $12 billion, Tony feels GEICO is just getting started. So do I.

 

Here’s some evidence. In the last three years, GEICO has increased its share of the motorcycle market from 2.1% to 6%. We’ve also recently begun writing policies on ATVs and RVs. And in November we wrote our first commercial auto policy. GEICO and National Indemnity are working together in the commercial field, and early results are very encouraging.

 

Even in aggregate, these lines will remain a small fraction of our personal auto volume. Nevertheless, they should deliver a growing stream of underwriting profits and float.

 

·       General Re, our international reinsurer, is by far our largest source of “home-grown” float – $23 billion at yearend. This operation is now a huge asset for Berkshire. Our ownership, however, had a shaky start.

 

For decades, General Re was the Tiffany of reinsurers, admired by all for its underwriting skills and discipline. This reputation, unfortunately, outlived its factual underpinnings, a flaw that I completely missed when I made the decision in 1998 to merge with General Re. The General Re of 1998 was not operated as the General Re of 1968 or 1978.

 

Now, thanks to Joe Brandon, General Re’s CEO, and his partner, Tad Montross, the luster of the company has been restored. Joe and Tad have been running the business for six years and have been doing first-class business in a first-class way, to use the words of J. P. Morgan. They have restored discipline to underwriting, reserving and the selection of clients.

 

Their job was made more difficult by costly and time-consuming legacy problems, both in the U.S. and abroad. Despite that diversion, Joe and Tad have delivered excellent underwriting results while skillfully repositioning the company for the future.

 

·       Since joining Berkshire in 1986, Ajit Jain has built a truly great specialty reinsurance operation from scratch. For one-of-a-kind mammoth transactions, the world now turns to him.

 

Last year I told you in detail about the Equitas transfer of huge, but capped, liabilities to Berkshire for a single premium of $7.1 billion. At this very early date, our experience has been good. But this doesn’t tell us much because it’s just one straw in a fifty-year-or-more wind. What we know for sure, however, is that the London team who joined us, headed by Scott Moser, is first-rate and has become a valuable asset for our insurance business.

 

·       Finally, we have our smaller operations, which serve specialized segments of the insurance market. In aggregate, these companies have performed extraordinarily well, earning above average underwriting profits and delivering valuable float for investment.

 

Last year Boat U.S., headed by Bill Oakerson, was added to the group. This company manages an association of about 650,000 boat owners, providing them services similar to those offered by AAA auto clubs to drivers. Among the association’s offerings is boat insurance. Learn more about this operation by visiting its display at the annual meeting.

 

Below we show the record of our four categories of property/casualty insurance.

 

        

 

Underwriting Profit

(in millions)

 

Yearend Float

(in millions)

 

Insurance Operations

2007

2006

2007

2006

General Re

$ 555

$ 526

$23,009

$22,827

BH Reinsurance

1,427

1,658

23,692

16,860

GEICO

1,113

1,314

7,768

7,171

Other Primary

279

340*

4,229

4,029*

         Total

$3,374

$3,838

$58,698

$50,887

 

* Includes Applied Underwriters from May 19, 2006.  [Pg 9-11]

 

February 2008

Warren E. Buffett

Chairman of the Board