Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Deep in the Insurance Weeds at Berkshire Hathaway" (BRK.b)

With a headline like that, I am in hog heaven.
Twas a time when I could spot an under-reserved P&C with one whisk of my slide rule, when the aftermath of Equity Funding, Raymond L. Dirks v. Securities and Exchange Commission, became a cautionary tale for any analyst or manager able to ferret out a scam* and when an actuary was more than just the punchline to a joke.**
From Deal Journal:
The addition of three analysts to the roster of people firing questions at Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting has brought the company’s insurance operations to the fore this year.

With more than an hour still to go, Mr. Buffett and his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger, have already fielded questions on natural disasters, potential insurance acquisitions, advances in car-insurance underwriting, mortality assumptions underlying life-reinsurance deals, and how Berkshire’s insurance units calculate reserves—among other insurance-related inquiries.

They’re the sort of questions that haven’t been asked very often at previous meetings, but shed further light on a part of Berkshire that has historically supplied more than half its earnings. Mr. Buffett has actually answered the questions that were asked—unlike other times where he uses an inquiry as a jumping off point for a discussion he’d prefer to have.

Shareholder Alex Rubalcava of Rubalcava Capital Management, attending his eighth annual meeting, praised the analysts for the quality of their questions, calling them “specific, directed and insightful.”
A question on natural disasters from Cliff Gallant of KBW gave Mr. Buffett a chance to crow about the amount of business Berkshire is now selling in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Thailand following the catastrophes that have struck those countries in the past year and a half.

But he said it’s hard to determine if the increase in catastrophe claims over the past several years is tied to climate change. “Separating out the random from new trends is not easy to do,” Mr. Buffett says. Berkshire’s solution: “We tend to assume the worst.”

Buffett gave a firm “no” to a question from Gary Ransom of Dowling & Partners about whether Berksire’s Geico unit is experimenting with the use of on-board devices to measure driver behavior. Among large auto-insurers, that leaves Geico as an outlier. Progressive, Geico’s most direct competitor, leads the field in the use of so-called telematic devices and crows about the advantages it gives them in understanding drivers. Allstate, State Farm, Travelers and Hartford are also experimenting with telematics....MORE
*Dirks v. SEC worked out for Ray (via NY Law School):
Supreme Court of the United States
Raymond L. DIRKS, Petitioner
No. 82-276.
Argued March 21, 1983.
Decided July 1, 1983.
It cost a lot of money though. Dirks is now making market calls and pitching Bulletin Board stock at Ray Dirks Research.

**When does a person become a CPA?
When they don't have enough charisma to be an actuary.
(substitute statistician, reverse the order, etc.)

James Woods played the actuary in the movie version of the Equity Funding story,  The Billion Dollar Bubble.