Berkshire Hathaway Earnings: 1 Critical Thing You May Have Missed

Berkshire Hathaway delivered impressive results in the third quarter, but investors may have missed one critical reality about its bottom line results.

Aug 18, 2014 at 4:04PM

The latest results from Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) are in, and the second quarter delivered remarkable growth that grabbed headline attention. Yet one thing is critical for investors to see as they asses the true bottom line results of Warren Buffett's company.

Impressive growth
Things couldn't have been much better for Berkshire Hathaway in the second quarter.

G

A quick glance at its release reveals its bottom line net earnings available to shareholders stood at $6.4 billion, a staggering 41% gain over the $4.5 billion posted in the second quarter of 2013.

Total operating profit per share stood at $2,634, well above the $2,482 expected by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. In addition it also saw impressive top-line growth of 11% relative to the second quarter of last year, as its revenue came in at $49.8 billion.

Yet if you're anything like me, the 41% growth and nearly $2 billion gain in bottom line profits is absolutely stunning. But it turns out, that number really doesn't tell the whole story, and at first glance it's indeed deceiving.

A bit of a misnomer
In the second quarter Berkshire Hathaway completed a small -- if you can consider $1.1 billion small -- acquisition of WLPG, a television studio based in Miami from Graham Holdings Company (NYSE:GHC). In the transaction Berkshire didn't pay cash, but instead swapped an equivalent value of the shares in Graham Holdings Company it owned.

This move allowed it to be considered a "tax-free reorganization," and therefore "no income taxes were provided on the excess of the fair value of the businesses received over the tax-basis cost of the common stock of ... Graham Holdings Company exchanged."

All of this is to say, it made sense from a tax perspective to make such a move.

But as a result of the exchange, Berkshire Hathaway recognized remarkable growth in its "investment and derivative gains/losses," which leapt from $622 million in the second quarter of last year to $2.1 billion in the most recent quarter.

In fact an exclusion of those gains shows the operating income -- which was highlighted in the earnings release, but easy to skip over -- is up 11%:

Business

2Q 2013

2Q 2014

Change $

Change %

Insurance – underwriting

$530

$411

-$119

-22%

Insurance – investment income

$1,144

$1,131

-$13

-1%

Railroad

$884

$916

$32

4%

Utilities and energy

$279

$375

$96

34%

Manufacturing, service and retailing

$978

$1,264

$286

29%

Finance and financial products

$231

$280

$49

21%

Other

-$127

-$46

$81

-64%

Total

$3,919

$4,331

$412

11%

So does that mean Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway is attempting to use funny accounting quirks to make the results appear better than they actually are?

Of course not.

In the SEC filing discussing the second quarter, Berkshire notes plainly:

We believe the amount of investment gains/losses included in earnings in any given period typically has little analytical or predictive value.

In other words, while those are real gains from an accounting perspective, Buffett himself doesn't laud them as being a predictor of Berkshire's future success, and are just a necessary procedure.

The Foolish bottom line
The reality is the 11% gain in earnings at Berkshire is undeniably impressive. And the 22% dip in insurance underwriting profits came entirely from Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance, which often has sizable fluctuations in how its results are accounted for. So investors needn't be worried about that.

While the 41% gain is more impressive than 11%, investors should see this as another great quarter by Berkshire Hathaway, and one that provided no reason to think its immense success has any sign of slowing down.

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Patrick Morris owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool recommends Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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