By Chairman Warren Buffett’s own admission, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. did not have one of its best years in 2004. Last year, Berkshire’s book-value gain of 10.5% fell short of the S&P 500 Index’s 10.9% return. In his annual letter to shareholders, Buffett took the blame.
“Our lackluster performance was not due to any stumbles by the CEOs of our operating businesses: As always, they pulled more than their share of the load. My message to them is simple: Run your business as if it were the only asset your family will own over the next hundred years. Almost invariably they do just that and, after taking care of the needs of their business, send excess cash to Omaha for me to deploy.
“I didn’t do that job very well last year. My hope was to make several multi-billion dollar acquisitions that would add new and significant streams of earnings to the many we already have. But I struck out. Additionally, I found very few attractive securities to buy. Berkshire therefore ended the year with $43 billion of cash equivalents, not a happy position.”
Insurance has been Berkshire’s core operating business since it purchased National Indemnity, a commercial auto and general liability insurer, in 1967. Insurance has supplied the “fountain of funds” Buffett uses to buy other businesses and securities. Among Berkshire’s other insurance holdings today are GEICO, a direct provider of auto insurance, and General Reinsurance. In the same shareholder letter where Buffett discusses the performance of these insurance units in 2004, he also provides a glimpse into his view of the economics of the insurance industry. He explains how Berkshire manages to “overcome the dismal economics of the industry and achieve some measure of enduring competitive advantage.” The following are excerpts on insurance from Buffett’s letter.
The Power of Float
The source of our insurance funds is “float,” which is money that doesn’t belong to us but that we temporarily hold. Most of our float arises because (1) premiums are paid upfront though the service we provide – insurance protection – is delivered over a period that usually covers a year and; (2) loss events that occur today do not always result in our immediately paying claims, because it sometimes takes many years for losses to be reported (asbestos losses would be an example), negotiated and settled. The $20 million of float that came with our 1967 purchase (National Indemnity- NICO) has now increased – both by way of internal growth and acquisitions – to $46.1 billion.
Float is wonderful – if it doesn’t come at a high price. Its cost is determined by underwriting results, meaning how the expenses and losses we will ultimately pay compare with the premiums we have received. When an underwriting profit is achieved – as has been the case at Berkshire in about half of the 38 years we have been in the insurance business – float is better than free. In such years, we are actually paid for holding other people’s money. For most insurers, however, life has been far more difficult: In aggregate, the property-casualty industry almost invariably operates at an underwriting loss. When that loss is large, float becomes expensive, sometimes devastatingly so.
Insurers have generally earned poor returns for a simple reason: They sell a commodity-like product. Policy forms are standard, and the product is available from many suppliers, some of whom are mutual companies (“owned” by policyholders rather than stockholders) with profit goals that are limited.
Moreover, most insureds don’t care from whom they buy. Customers by the millions say “I need some Gillette blades” or “I’ll have a Coke” but we wait in vain for “I’d like a National Indemnity policy, please.”
Consequently, price competition in insurance is usually fierce. Think airline seats.
NICO’s Strategy: Pricing Discipline
When we purchased the company NICO – a specialist in commercial auto and general liability insurance – it did not appear to have any attributes that would overcome the industry’s chronic troubles. It was not well-known, had no informational advantage (the company has never had an actuary), was not a low-cost operator, and sold through general agents, a method many people thought outdated.
Nevertheless, for almost all of the past 38 years, NICO has been a star performer. Indeed, had we not made this acquisition, Berkshire would be lucky to be worth half of what it is today.
What we’ve had going for us is a managerial mindset that most insurers find impossible to replicate.
Can you imagine any public company embracing a business model that would lead to the decline in revenue that we experienced from 1986 through 1999? That colossal slide, it should be emphasized, did not occur because business was unobtainable. Many billions of premium dollars were readily available to NICO had we only been willing to cut prices. But we instead consistently priced to make a profit, not to match our most optimistic competitor. We never left customers – but they left us.
Most American businesses harbor an “institutional imperative” that rejects extended decreases in volume. What CEO wants to report to his shareholders that not only did business contract last year but that it will continue to drop? In insurance, the urge to keep writing business is also intensified because the consequences of foolishly-priced policies may not become apparent for some time. If an insurer is optimistic in its reserving, reported earnings will be overstated, and years may pass before true loss costs are revealed (a form of self-deception that nearly destroyed GEICO in the early 1970s).
Finally, there is a fear factor at work, in that a shrinking business usually leads to layoffs. To avoid pink slips, employees will rationalize inadequate pricing, telling themselves that poorly-priced business must be tolerated in order to keep the organization intact and the distribution system happy. If this course isn’t followed, these employees will argue, the company will not participate in the recovery that they invariably feel is just around the corner.
To combat employees’ natural tendency to save their own skins, we have always promised NICO’s workforce that no one will be fired because of declining volume, however severe the contraction. (This is not Donald Trump’s sort of place.) NICO is not labor-intensive, and … can live with excess overhead. It can’t live, however, with underpriced business and the breakdown in underwriting discipline that accompanies it. An insurance organization that doesn’t care deeply about underwriting at a profit this year is unlikely to care next year either.
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GEICO’s Strategy: Foot-to-the-Floor
Another way to prosper in a commodity-type business is to be the low-cost operator. Among auto insurers operating on a broad scale, GEICO holds that cherished title. For NICO, as we have seen, an ebb-and-flow business model makes sense. But a company holding a low-cost advantage must pursue an unrelenting foot-to-the-floor strategy. And that’s just what we do at GEICO.
Originally, GEICO mailed its low-cost message to a limited audience of government employees. Later, it widened its horizons and shifted its marketing emphasis to the phone, working inquiries that came from broadcast and print advertising. And today the Internet is coming on strong. Between 1936 and 1975, GEICO grew from a standing start to a 4% market share, becoming the country’s fourth largest auto insurer. During most of this period, the company was superbly managed, achieving both excellent volume gains and high profits. It looked unstoppable. But after my friend and hero Lorimer Davidson retired as CEO in 1970, his successors soon made a huge mistake by underreserving for losses. This produced faulty cost information, which in turn produced inadequate pricing. By 1976, GEICO was on the brink of failure.
Jack Byrne then joined GEICO as CEO and, almost single-handedly, saved the company by heroic efforts that included major price increases. Though GEICO’s survival required these, policyholders fled the company, and by 1980 its market share had fallen to 1.8%. Subsequently, the company embarked on some unwise diversification moves. This shift of emphasis away from its extraordinary core business stunted GEICO’s growth, and by 1993 its market share had grown only fractionally, to 1.9%. Then Tony Nicely took charge. And what a difference that’s made: In 2005 GEICO will probably secure a 6% market share.
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General Reinsurance: Quality not Commodity
Reinsurance – insurance sold to other insurers who wish to lay off part of the risks they have assumed – should not be a commodity product. At bottom, any insurance policy is simply a promise, and as everyone knows, promises vary enormously in their quality.
At the primary insurance level, nevertheless, just who makes the promise is often of minor importance. In personal-lines insurance, for example, states levy assessments on solvent companies to pay the policyholders of companies that go broke. In the business-insurance field, the same arrangement applies to workers’ compensation policies. “Protected” policies of these types account for about 60% of the property-casualty industry’s volume. Prudently-run insurers are irritated by the need to subsidize poor or reckless management elsewhere, but that’s the way it is.
Other forms of business insurance at the primary level involve promises that carry greater risks for the insured. When Reliance Insurance and Home Insurance were run into the ground, for example, their promises proved to be worthless. Consequently, many holders of their business policies (other than those covering workers’ compensation) suffered painful losses.
The solvency risk in primary policies, however, pales in comparison to that lurking in reinsurance policies. When a reinsurer goes broke, staggering losses almost always strike the primary companies it has dealt with. This risk is far from minor: GEICO has suffered tens of millions in losses from its careless selection of reinsurers in the early 1980s.
Were a true mega-catastrophe to occur in the next decade or two – and that’s a real possibility – some reinsurers would not survive. The largest insured loss to date is the World Trade Center disaster, which cost the insurance industry an estimated $35 billion. Hurricane Andrew cost insurers about $15.5 billion in 1992 (though that loss would be far higher in today’s dollars). Both events rocked the insurance and reinsurance world. But a $100 billion event, or even a larger catastrophe, remains a possibility if either a particularly severe earthquake or hurricane hits just the wrong place. Four significant hurricanes struck Florida during 2004, causing an aggregate of $25 billion or so in insured losses. Two of these – Charley and Ivan – could have done at least three times the damage they did had they entered the U.S. not far from their actual landing points.
Many insurers regard a $100 billion industry loss as “unthinkable” and won’t even plan for it. But at Berkshire, we are fully prepared. Our share of the loss would probably be 3% to 5%, and earnings from our investments and other businesses would comfortably exceed that cost. When “the day after” arrives, Berkshire’s checks will clear.
Though the hurricanes hit us with a $1.25 billion loss, our reinsurance operations did well last year. At General Re, Joe Brandon has restored a long-admired culture of underwriting discipline that, for a time, had lost its way. The excellent results he realized in 2004 on current business, however, were offset by adverse developments from the years before he took the helm.