Berkshire Rises in Reinsurance Ranks Even as Business Softens

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Berkshire has jumped ahead of SCOR SE into fourth place among the top 50 insurers in A. M. Best’s Global Reinsurance Segment Review.

Ahead of Berkshire are Munich Reinsurance Company, Swiss Re Ltd., and Hannover Rueckversicherung AG, in that order.

Lloyd’s of London’s international casualty reinsurance market dropped from fourth place to sixth. The rankings are based on premiums written in 2014.

Berkshire’s gross written premiums rose from $12.776 billion in 2013 to $14.919 billion in 2014.

Profits Harder to Come By

Through its Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, Berkshire provides reinsurance to Suncorp and Insurance Australia Group, and in the 2nd quarter of 2015 reported $155 million in losses from April and May storm damage on Australia’s east coast.

Buffett, Munger and Jain Cool on Reinsurance

Storms or no storms, Berkshire is not generating the profits it used to from reinsurance.

“The reinsurance business not as good as it once was and is unlikely to get better,” Charlie Munger said at the 2015 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. “Money has come in, not because they want to be in reinsurance, but because it’s an uncorrelated asset class. We’re in it for the long haul.”

“It’s a business whose prospects have turned for the worse and there’s not much we can do about it,” Warren Buffett said.

Uncorrelated (also called non-correlated) asset classes are assets that move in the opposite direction of a particular asset class, thus helping investors reduce risk in exchange for lower upside performance.

Buffett’s and Munger’s words were echoed by Ajit Jain, who is the head of Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance.

“What was a very lucrative business is no longer a very lucrative business going forward,” Jain was quoted in early July in The Wall Street Journal.

Remaining Disciplined

Traditionally Berkshire has been a disciplined underwriter. Warren Buffett has always stressed that it is better to write fewer premiums in a given year than to give in to chasing short-term revenues that lead to long-term losses.

A recent survey of the Lloyd’s Market Association’s reinsurers found that 95% of survey respondents indicated a relaxation of reinsurance contract terms and conditions in the international casualty market. Additionally, 39% felt the loosening of contract terms was having a material impact on the amount of underwriter’s exposure.

Hopefully, Berkshire will remain disciplined and not fall into that trap.

© 2015 David Mazor

Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.