OMAHA, Neb. — Warren Buffett’s company said Friday its first-quarter profit more than doubled because Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s insurance units avoided major disaster losses and the paper value of its derivative contracts improved.
Berkshire said it generated $3.245 billion in net income, or $1,966 per Class A share. That’s up from last year’s net income of $1.511 billion, or $917 per Class A share. The earnings report was released as thousands of Berkshire shareholders were gathering in Omaha for Saturday’s annual meeting.
Last year’s results were hurt by $1.1 billion in insurance losses from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Australian floods and the New Zealand earthquake.
The overall results fell short of what the four analysts surveyed by FactSet expected. They had forecast Berkshire would report earnings per Class A share of $2,297.50 on $39.154 billion in revenue.
Berkshire says its revenue grew 13 percent to $38.1 billion from last year’s $33.7 billion.
Berkshire’s insurance division, which includes Geico and General Reinsurance, contributed $54 million to the Omaha-based company’s profits. That was much better than last year’s $821 million loss, but slower than past years. Two years ago, Berkshire reported a $226 million underwriting gain in the first quarter.
Berkshire said Geico’s expenses grew as it began to comply with new accounting standards for certain policies and losses were slightly higher.
Price competition remained tough in reinsurance, so Berkshire said its companies continued to refuse to write policies when they considered the premiums inadequate.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad contributed $701 million to Berkshire’s net income, up from $607 million a year ago.
BNSF said it hauled three percent more carloads in the first quarter of 2012 than it did last year. The railroad said growth in the number of consumer and industrial products it carried offset decreases in coal and agricultural goods.
Last year’s acquisition of specialty chemical maker Lubrizol boosted Berkshire’s manufacturing, retail and service unit. That diverse group of businesses added $854 million net income, up from $558 million a year ago.
Several of Berkshire’s manufacturing companies, such as Acme brick, Shaw carpeting and Benjamin Moore paint, make building products, so their performance continues to be hurt by the slow pace of housing construction.
Berkshire’s utility unit, MidAmerican Energy, added $338 million, up from last year’s $301 million.
Berkshire estimated that its derivative contracts were worth $650 million at the end of the first quarter, well ahead of last year when they were worth $176 million.
The swing in the value of Berkshire’s derivatives contributed to an overall gain on investments and derivatives of $580 million. A year ago, Berkshire recorded an $82 million loss on its investments and derivatives.
The true value of the derivatives won’t be clear for at least several years, because they don’t mature until at least a decade from now on average. But Berkshire is required to estimate their value every time the company reports earnings. Buffett has told investors he believes the contracts will ultimately be profitable because the premiums are being invested.
Berkshire’s operating earnings were $2.67 billion in the first quarter, up 67 percent over last year’s $1.59 billion. Buffett has said Berkshire’s operating earnings are a better measure of how the company is performing in any given period, because those figures exclude the value of derivatives and investment gains or losses.
Berkshire owns roughly 80 subsidiaries, including clothing, furniture and jewelry firms. Its insurance and utility businesses typically account for more than half of the company’s net income. It also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo &Co.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: www.berkshirehathaway.com