Giant Berkshire Hathaway, which makes much of its money on insurance and investing insurance premiums, does not provide liability insurance for its own directors.
Warren Buffett, the 80-year-old chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and billionaire investor, issued his annual letter to shareholders on Saturday. The “Oracle of Omaha” had things to say about opportunity in America, investing, corporate culture and insurance, or the lack of it in the case of the firm’s directors.
Buffett believes that corporate culture matters. At Berkshire, directors are expected to act like owners. They are not treated like rock stars. They do not get fancy Wall Street-like perks. And if they screw up, they must bear the consequences without insurance protection. Buffett explains:
“They receive token compensation: no options, no restricted stock and, for that matter, virtually no cash. We do not provide them directors and officers liability insurance, a given at almost every other large public company. If they mess up with your money, they will lose their money as well. Leaving my holdings aside, directors and their families own Berkshire shares worth more than $3 billion. Our directors, therefore, monitor Berkshire’s actions and results with keen interest and an owner’s eye.”
Berkshire Hathaway is parent to GEICO, General Reinsurance and other insurance firms. The otherwise modest Buffett does not skimp in his praise of Berkshire’s insurance operations. “Among large insurance operations, Berkshire’s impresses me as the best in the world,” he wrote.
He is also bullish on America:
“Throughout my lifetime, politicians and pundits have constantly moaned about terrifying problems facing America. Yet our citizens now live an astonishing six times better than when I was born. The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential – a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War – remains alive and effective.
“We are not natively smarter than we were when our country was founded nor do we work harder. But look around you and see a world beyond the dreams of any colonial citizen. Now, as in 1776, 1861, 1932 and 1941, America’s best days lie ahead.”
The following are additional insurance-related excerpts from Buffet’s annual letter:
“Yearly figures, it should be noted, are neither to be ignored nor viewed as all-important. The pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit. At GEICO, for example, we enthusiastically spent $900 million last year on advertising to obtain policyholders who deliver us no immediate profits. If we could spend twice that amount productively, we would happily do so though short-term results would be further penalized. Many large investments at our railroad and utility operations are also made with an eye to payoffs well down the road.”
“Today, premium volume is $14.3 billion and growing. Yet we carry the goodwill of GEICO on our books at only $1.4 billion, an amount that will remain unchanged no matter how much the value of GEICO increases. (Under accounting rules, you write down the carrying value of goodwill if its economic value decreases, but leave it unchanged if economic value increases.) Using the 97%-of-premium-volume yardstick we applied to our 1996 purchase, the real value today of GEICO’s economic goodwill is about $14 billion. And this value is likely to be much higher ten and twenty years from now. GEICO – off to a strong start in 2011 – is the gift that keeps giving.”
“One not-so-small footnote: … GEICO has developed one of the country’s largest personal lines insurance agencies, which primarily sells homeowners policies to our GEICO auto insurance customers. In this business, we represent a number of insurers that are not affiliated with us. They take the risk; we simply sign up the customers. Last year we sold 769,898 new policies at this agency operation, up 34% from the year before.
The obvious way this activity aids us is that it produces commission revenue; equally important is the fact that it further strengthens our relationship with our policyholders, helping us retain them.”
“At Berkshire, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for eight consecutive years, our total underwriting gain for the period having been $17 billion. I believe it likely that we will continue to underwrite profitably in most – though certainly not all – future years. If we accomplish that, our float will be better than cost-free. We will benefit just as we would if some party deposited $66 billion with us, paid us a fee for holding its money and then let us invest its funds for our own benefit.
“Let me emphasize again that cost-free float is not an outcome to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole: In most years, industry premiums have been inadequate to cover claims plus expenses. Consequently, the industry’s overall return on tangible equity has for many decades fallen far short of the average return realized by American industry, a sorry performance almost certain to continue. Berkshire’s outstanding economics exist only because we have some terrific managers running some unusual businesses.”
“At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines: (1) An understanding of all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) A conservative evaluation of the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) The setting of a premium that will deliver a profit, on average, after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.
“Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. ‘The other guy is doing it so we must as well’ spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.”
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