Charlie Munger Cools on Reinsurance Business

(BRK.A), (BRK.B)

Charlie Munger is less than excited about the reinsurance business these days, as Berkshire Hathaway’s reinsurance business, Gen Re, suffered an aggregate pretax underwriting losses of $14 million in the first quarter of 2015. The loss compares to a $101 million gain during the first quarter of 2014.

The company’s combined ratio deteriorated to 103.0% from 94.6%, and the total underwriting losses included $9 million in workers’ compensation.

Gen Re has $14 billion in capital and $6 billion in premiums.

More Competition Brings Lower Returns

The losses reflect increased competition for reinsurance underwriting.

“It’s a business whose prospects have turned for the worse and there’s not much we can do about it,” Warren Buffett said at the 2015 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

“The reinsurance business not as good as it once was and is unlikely to get better,” Charlie Munger noted. “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.”

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.

Munger’s words were in line with those of 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 recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Meyer Shields, managing director at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., is also pessimistic about Gen Re’s near-term prospects.

“We expect Gen Re and (Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group’s) premium volumes and margins to generally decline in the remainder of 2015 and beyond, reflecting enduring reinsurance price competition and some fallout from Berkshire’s increasing pursuit of primary premium volumes at the likely expense of some former cedents.”

© 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.