Berkshire Hathaway 4th-quarter profit up 32 per cent

OMAHA, Neb. – Berkshire Hathaway reported a 32 per cent jump in fourth-quarter earnings on Saturday, as its eclectic collection of subsidiaries mostly performed well.

The conglomerate based in Omaha, Nebraska, that Warren Buffett leads earned $5.48 billion, or $3,333 per Class A share. That’s up from $4.16 billion, or $2,529 per Class A share, a year earlier.

The three analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Berkshire to report earnings per Class A share of $3,129.58 in the fourth quarter.

Berkshire’s insurance companies, which include Geico and General Reinsurance, recorded a $306 million underwriting profit, up from $191 million. The company’s BNSF railroad and utility businesses also performed well, and Berkshire’s revenue grew 7 per cent to $51.8 billion.

Berkshire also released Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders Saturday, in which he discussed the company’s overall results.

Buffett said BNSF significantly improved its service in 2015 after investing $5.8 billion in upgrades to its rail network and equipment. BNSF delivered $4.2 billion in net income last year, up from $3.9 billion in 2014.

“I think these results are pretty good,” Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan said.

Berkshire’s profits provide interesting insights into the way the current low oil prices are affecting different businesses, Shanahan said.

The collapse in crude oil prices reduced railroad shipments of oil and mining supplies, such as sand, and encouraged more driving — and thus, more accidents — which drove up costs for Berkshire’s Geico, Shanahan said.

But Shanahan said it also put more cash in consumers’ pockets, which helps Berkshire’s retail businesses, such as See’s Candy, the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Helzberg jewelry.

In the fourth quarter, Berkshire recorded an $805 million paper gain on its investments and derivative contracts. That was much better than the previous year’s $192 million gain on investments and derivatives.

Buffett has said operating earnings offer a better view of quarterly performance because they exclude investments and derivatives, which can vary widely. By that measure, Berkshire reported $4.7 billion operating profit, or $2,843 per Class A share. That’s up from $4 billion operating profit, or $2,412 per Class A share the previous year.

Going forward, Berkshire’s profits will be helped by its $32.36 billion acquisition of Precision Castparts, an aircraft parts manufacturer. The deal, which was completed last month, is Berkshire’s biggest ever.

Berkshire also expects to take ownership of Duracell next week when it trades roughly $3.8 billion worth of Procter & Gamble stock for the battery maker and about $1.7 billion cash.

Those will be added to the more than 90 companies Berkshire already owns. The company owns clothing, furniture, jewelry, specialty chemical and ice cream firms, and it holds major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co., IBM and Wells Fargo & Co.