Warren Buffett’s Berkshire posts nearly US$50 billion loss as coronavirus causes pain

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NEW YORK – Buffett’s Hathaway is being hit hard by the pandemic, posting a record quarterly net of nearly US$50 (S$70 billion) on Saturday (May 2) and saying performance is suffering in several major operating businesses.

Berkshire said most of its more than 90 businesses are facing “relatively minor to severe” negative effects from Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus and now punishing the global economy, with revenue slowing considerably in April even at businesses deemed “essential.”

The BNSF railroad saw shipping volumes of consumer products and coal fall, while Geico set aside money for car insurance premiums it no longer expects to collect.

Some businesses cut salaries and furloughed workers, and retailers such as See’s Candies and the Nebraska Furniture Mart closed stores.

Buffett also allowed Berkshire’s cash stake to rise to a record US$137.3 billion from US$128 billion at the end of 2019.

That reflected the 89-year-old billionaire’s inability to make large, “elephant” size acquisitions for his Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate, and caution in buying stocks.

Berkshire said it bought only a net US$1.8 billion of stocks in the first quarter, and sold a net US$6.1 billion in April. It also said it repurchased US$1.7 billion of its own stock in the first quarter, but that was less than the prior quarter.

“Historically, Buffett has been so visible in times of crisis, and encouraged investors to take advantage of market selloffs, but if he doesn’t see opportunities even in his own stock, what are we to think?” said Jim Shanahan, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co in St Louis.

Still, Shanahan said Berkshire is “as well positioned as it can be,” reflecting its diverse businesses and substantial liquidity and access to capital. He rates Berkshire “buy.”

Buffett and vice-chairman Greg Abel will likely discuss the pandemic at Berkshire’s annual meeting on Saturday afternoon, which will be streamed on Yahoo Finance.

The pandemic forced Buffett to cancel “Woodstock for Capitalists,” a weekend of festivities that normally draws tens of thousands of people to Omaha.

BERKSHIRE STOCK UNDERPERFORMS

Berkshire’s first-quarter net loss was US$49.75 billion, or US$30,653 per Class A share, reflecting US$54.52 billion of losses on stock and other investments. Net earnings were US$21.66 billion, or US$13,209 per share, a year earlier.

An accounting rule requires Berkshire to report unrealised stock losses and gains with net results, causing huge swings that Buffett considers meaningless.

Quarterly operating profit, which Buffett considers a better performance measure, rose 6 per cent to US$5.87 billion, or about US$3,624 per Class A share, from US$5.56 billion, or about US$3,388 per share.

But year-earlier results reflected a charge for investments linked to what prosecutors called a Ponzi scheme at a solar company, which Berkshire did not know about.

Operating profit at Berkshire’s businesses fell 3 per cent, with declines at BNSF, utilities and energy units, and manufacturing, service and retailing operations such as Precision Castparts, which Berkshire bought for US$32.1 billion in 2016.

Geico was able to post a 28 per cent gain in pre-tax underwriting profit because people drove less, resulting in fewer claims for crashes. Still, the insurer, like others, is offering relief on premiums to policyholders.

Vice-chairman Charlie Munger told The Wall Street Journal last month that Berkshire might close a few small businesses.

Investors have been disappointed with Berkshire. Its stock price has fallen 19 per cent in 2020, compared with a 12 per cent drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500, despite Buffett’s prediction that Berkshire would outperform in down markets.

The decline came after Berkshire’s stock lagged the index by more than 20 percentage points in 2019, including dividends.

In the first quarter, many Berkshire stock investments fared worse than the S&P, including American Express, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and four US airlines.

Falling stocks also caused a US$1.39 billion pre-tax loss on derivatives contracts, where Berkshire is betting stock prices will rise over the long haul.

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