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Warren Buffett had a good, bad, and ugly earnings report with Berkshire Hathaway—but not as ugly as it looks

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Berkshire Hathaway stock sank more than 1.5% on Monday as investors digested the famous conglomerate reporting a nearly $13 billion net loss for the third quarter. Despite the painful headline number, however, the diverse array of businesses Berkshire owns actually outperformed in the third quarter. To paraphrase Sergio Leone, it was a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly—but maybe not as ugly as it looks.

A $24.1 billion drop in the value of the firm’s stock portfolio did the most damage, with Warren Buffett’s favorite name, Apple, losing more than $20 billion on its own. If you judge Buffett’s performance the way he prefers to judge things, that is just a number, though.

The good

Berkshire owns a wide range of businesses, including insurance and fast-food companies as well railroads, utilities, and more. And, as a whole, the group did quite well in the third quarter. The conglomerate’s operating earnings figure measures the profits it makes from its owned businesses, and it surged 41% year-over-year to $10.8 billion by the end of September. Geico, the largest of Berkshire’s insurance holdings, was a particular bright spot, reporting its third straight profitable quarter as its turnaround continues after losing market share to competitors in previous years.

UBS analysts led by Brian Meredith maintained their “buy” rating for Berkshire shares after earnings, arguing “GEICO’s results can improve quicker than expected, driving upside to estimates.” The UBS team wrote in a note to clients that they believe Berkshire’s stock trades at a roughly 12% discount to the conglomerate’s true “intrinsic value.”

“We continue to believe BRK’s shares are an attractive stock in an uncertain macro environment,” they added.

Berkshire also increased its cash pile to a record $157.2 billion by the end of September. And the firm has now earned roughly $5.1 billion in interest income from its cash over the past 12 months due to rising interest rates. 

The bad

There were some undeniable sore spots in Berkshire’s portfolio of owned businesses in the third quarter. BNSF Railway, which Buffett finished acquiring in 2009, saw its profits drop roughly 15% year-over-year to $1.2 billion. BNSF hauled almost 5% fewer shipments, leading freight revenues to drop 12% from a year ago.

Berkshire’s utility unit also saw its operating expenses soar 55% in the third quarter to $3.7 billion due to a $1.3 billion wildfire related loss at PacifiCorp, an electric utility that serves Oregon, northern California, and southeastern Washington. Overall the utility segment of Berkshire added just $498 million in operating profits in the quarter, compared to $1.6 billion in the same period a year ago.

And finally, Berkshire’s management warned that the economic environment remains uncertain. The impact of higher interest rates, geopolitical tensions, and fiscal policies has yet to be determined. In fact, “the economic effects from these events over longer terms cannot be reasonably estimated at this time,” the company said in a statement.

And the not so ugly?

Now to the (somewhat) ugly. 

Berkshire had an investment loss of $24.1 billion in the third quarter due in large part to the more than $20 billion decline in the value of its Apple stake, which was valued at $177.6 billion in June. Shares of the big tech giant sank 11.7% in the third quarter, but have since recovered more than 3%.

Still, due to the big investment loss, Berkshire’s “net loss” for the quarter totaled $12.77 billion, up from $2.8 billion in the same period a year ago.

But Buffett would put that “net loss” figure in quotes, too. Due to a change in the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) in 2018, Berkshire must mark the value of its securities holdings to market, and report both unrealized gains and losses. This means that Berkshire’s earnings can fluctuate based on the stock prices of its holdings, even if it has no plans to sell them and actually realize those gains or losses.

Here’s what Buffett had to say about the change to GAAP in 2019:

With “the new GAAP rules … The bottom line figures are going to be totally capricious. I really regard these bottom line figures … as potentially being harmful to our shareholders and really not being helpful.”

Buffett argued investors should “focus on what we call our operating earnings,” which, as described above, are a measure of the profits of the conglomerate’s owned businesses.

Berkshire put out a statement reiterating Buffett’s message over the weekend: “The amount of investment gains/losses in any given quarter is usually meaningless and delivers figures for net earnings (losses) per share that can be extremely misleading to investors who have little or no knowledge of accounting rules,” it reads.

The company might have a point—even if the market didn’t like its third quarter earnings report, Wall Street analysts certainly seemed to.

Cathy Seifert, vice president at CFRA Research, maintained her “buy” rating on Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares on Monday and lifted her 12-month price target $10 to $405 per share. 

Seifert said rising operating revenues, insurance premiums, a “70% surge in interest and dividend income” will help Berkshire outperform moving forward. “Strong top-line growth and improved margins will provide the shares with a catalyst, in our view,” she wrote in a note to clients.



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