Just Another Quarter for Berkshire

Those who aren't used to the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) philosophy may notice that the company's earnings press release is notably sparse. Missing is an overview of the third quarter, as is a tidy quote from the CEO giving encouraging words about the business. The spartan release leaves you with the unmistakable message that this is just one quarter.

Of course, those looking for more color can always pull up Berkshire's 10-Q filing, which offers a much closer look at the quarter.

There, we find that total revenue for the period was $29.9 billion, up 18% from the same quarter last year. Of that increase, $3.1 billion came form realized investment gains, compared with $267 million last year. Total net earnings rose more than 60% from the prior year, though they were down slightly after backing out the large investment gains.

Along with competitors such as XL Capital (NYSE: XL  ) , Allstate (NYSE: ALL  ) , and Markel (NYSE: MKL  ) , Berkshire is heading into a softer underwriting environment on the insurance side. While the premium revenue that it earned during the quarter held up across most of its insurance businesses, the softness showed up in underwriting profits, which were down from last year across the board. Berkshire's largest insurance business, GEICO, experienced a year-over-year profit decline of 18%, while the combined ratio in that business increased from 85.6% to 88.8%.

The largest decline on the insurance side came from the Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, whose pre-tax underwriting was 75% lower than last year's showing. However, this showing, along with the results from Berkshire's other insurance segments, needs to be taken in context. Part of the reason Berkshire has managed to build such a great insurance business is its underwriting discipline. When the pricing environment gets soft, Berkshire cuts back on how many policies it writes, rather than continuing to pen just as many policies that may prove to be costly later. While the cutback shows up as declining earnings during down cycles in the industry, it keeps underwriting results in the black and benefits Berkshire in the up cycles that follow.

On the upside, investment income in the insurance businesses -- which does not include the gains from investment sales -- climbed more than 20% from the prior year.

Berkshire enjoyed solid, if not exciting, growth in its other business lines. In its utilities and energy segment, which includes its MidAmerican and PacifiCorp businesses, revenue and earnings rose 11% and 41%, respectively. Manufacturing, service, and retailing revenue, almost half of which comes from McLane, was also up 11%, while earnings grew even more rapidly, at 21%. Finally, the finance and financial products segment, which includes Berkshire's manufactured-homes business and related financing activities, suffered slightly lower net income on slightly higher revenue -- not great, but certainly not bad, given the current environment.

When it comes to a solid group of businesses like those under the Berkshire umbrella, a single quarter is indeed just a drop in the bucket. So if long-term Berkshire shareholders are yawning, well, that's what's so great about owning Berkshire Hathaway stock.

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