First, let’s acknowledge that if your house, car or business is struck by a natural disaster, an insurance check helps put your life back together.
But insurance isn’t a charity, and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., along with other competent insurance companies, will make money in the long run despite — or even because of — Hurricane Florence’s slosh across the East Coast.
We’re not talking about the loss of life, which no insurance can remedy. But property insurance is designed to spread out the risk of damage and, in the process, make a profit for insurance companies.
You might think that the $3 billion hurricane loss Berkshire suffered last fall was such a big blow that its insurance operation is a big loser. Actually, Berkshire reported a $28.3 billion profit on that business over the preceding 14 years.
That’s just the difference between the premiums collected from customers and the amount Berkshire paid out. It doesn’t count money Berkshire made investing those premium dollars while wanting to pay claims.
When catastrophic damage is low, as it was in 2015, demand and rates for the insurance drops, too. Berkshire’s insurance gurus, headed by Vice Chairman Ajit Jain, decided the insurance was too cheap and cut way back on accepting that risk.
But over the past week people have been watching Florence’s crashing-wave videos and giant-Frisbee satellite portraits. Reinvestment News and other sources estimate insured losses between $20 billion and $40 billion, with Berkshire one of the seven most-exposed companies.
When the clouds clear, demand for homeowners insurance will rise, rates will rise and companies like Berkshire will begin collecting lots of premium dollars. Nothing like seeing real misery to send folks the message that they need protection.
As insurance companies pay their claims from Florence, their customers will restore their homes and businesses and buy replacement vehicles, all of which will have to be insured yet again. They’ll be paying premiums for years, even though hurricanes might not be back for years.
There’s another factor: Some insurance companies likely mispriced their homeowner policies and will suffer huge claims from Florence that they can’t pay. They’ll end up going out of business, which cuts down the supply of insurance and pushes up rates some more.
So Berkshire’s Geico auto insurer and property insurance companies might report substantial losses from Hurricane Florence. But the long-range forecast is for insurance profits.
Warren Buffett quickly decided against bailing out banks
One of the participants in my weekly live chats about Buffett and Berkshire (11:30 a.m. Tuesdays, plus replays, at Omaha.com/buffett) observed that the videos Buffett has made lately about the 2008 financial crisis show something amazing.
Buffett, without in-depth research and legions of analysts, quickly decided that Berkshire couldn’t bail out Lehman Brothers, American International Group or other financial companies that found themselves in trouble.
Executives from those companies were hoping that Buffett would come forward with enough cash, or pledges of cash, that they could make it through until things settled down.
But their vision was skewed by unreasonable hope, and Buffett’s clear-eyed analysis captured the reality of the situation. By November 2008, the federal government had pledged $700 billion to save troubled banks and, arguably, the world’s financial system.
That’s an amount that would swamp Berkshire even today, a decade later.
When he was asked for help, Buffett just studied the faltering companies’ standard financial reports over a weekend and gave his answer. My chat participant, using Berkshire’s ticker symbol, asked, “How will BRK ever replace that kind of expertise and quick and decisive mind?”
Even I know the answer to that question.
Will Berkshire Hathaway make a large buy before I retire?
We have mentioned elsewhere in The World-Herald that I’m retiring at the end of September, and one of my regrets is that there may be no winner in my “pick the elephant” contest.
In January 2013 I had offered a Berkshire/World-Herald messenger bag, plus bragging rights, to the first person who could pick the next big company ($5 billion-plus purchase price) that Buffett decides to acquire.
A combination of high acquisition prices, Berkshire’s short acquisition list and my one-pick-per-person rule has meant no winner so far.
There’s still time to enter, if you want to send your pick to the email address below, or even send me a letter.
But never fear: The entries on file so far are still in effect and can be updated, and maybe Berkshire will pick one of them in the next two weeks. If not, the contest may transfer to one of my successors, unless it just fizzles away.