This is the third and final post of "Lessons from the Legends: Why Buffett Loves Investing in Insurance Companies" (find Part 1, & Part 2 here)
As I mentioned in "5 Steps to Successful Equity Investing" GEICO was a dear of Buffett's (if I remember correctly, it was one of his first investments as an analyst for Benjamin Graham). I also mentioned reinsurance. It's one of the most significant parts of Berkshire Hathaway, and he talks about it here!
Once again, I want to stress that the below are the wise words of Mr. Buffet, NOT mine. He can explain things far better than I could ever dream to.
GEICO’s Strategy: Foot-to-the-Floor
Another way to prosper in a commodity-type business is to be the low-cost operator. Among auto insurers operating on a broad scale, GEICO holds that cherished title. For NICO, as we have seen, an ebb-and-flow business model makes sense. But a company holding a low-cost advantage must pursue an unrelenting foot-to-the-floor strategy. And that’s just what we do at GEICO.
Originally, GEICO mailed its low-cost message to a limited audience of government employees. Later, it widened its horizons and shifted its marketing emphasis to the phone, working inquiries that came from broadcast and print advertising. And today the Internet is coming on strong. Between 1936 and 1975, GEICO grew from a standing start to a 4% market share, becoming the country’s fourth largest auto insurer. During most of this period, the company was superbly managed, achieving both excellent volume gains and high profits. It looked unstoppable. But after my friend and hero Lorimer Davidson retired as CEO in 1970, his successors soon made a huge mistake by underreserving for losses. This produced faulty cost information, which in turn produced inadequate pricing. By 1976, GEICO was on the brink of failure.
Jack Byrne then joined GEICO as CEO and, almost single-handedly, saved the company by heroic efforts that included major price increases. Though GEICO’s survival required these, policyholders fled the company, and by 1980 its market share had fallen to 1.8%. Subsequently, the company embarked on some unwise diversification moves. This shift of emphasis away from its extraordinary core business stunted GEICO’s growth, and by 1993 its market share had grown only fractionally, to 1.9%. Then Tony Nicely took charge. And what a difference that’s made: In 2005 GEICO will probably secure a 6% market share.
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General Reinsurance: Quality not Commodity
Reinsurance – insurance sold to other insurers who wish to lay off part of the risks they have assumed – should not be a commodity product. At bottom, any insurance policy is simply a promise, and as everyone knows, promises vary enormously in their quality.
At the primary insurance level, nevertheless, just who makes the promise is often of minor importance. In personal-lines insurance, for example, states levy assessments on solvent companies to pay the policyholders of companies that go broke. In the business-insurance field, the same arrangement applies to workers’ compensation policies. “Protected” policies of these types account for about 60% of the property-casualty industry’s volume. Prudently-run insurers are irritated by the need to subsidize poor or reckless management elsewhere, but that’s the way it is.
Other forms of business insurance at the primary level involve promises that carry greater risks for the insured. When Reliance Insurance and Home Insurance were run into the ground, for example, their promises proved to be worthless. Consequently, many holders of their business policies (other than those covering workers’ compensation) suffered painful losses.
The solvency risk in primary policies, however, pales in comparison to that lurking in reinsurance policies. When a reinsurer goes broke, staggering losses almost always strike the primary companies it has dealt with. This risk is far from minor: GEICO has suffered tens of millions in losses from its careless selection of reinsurers in the early 1980s.
Were a true mega-catastrophe to occur in the next decade or two – and that’s a real possibility – some reinsurers would not survive. The largest insured loss to date is the World Trade Center disaster, which cost the insurance industry an estimated $35 billion. Hurricane Andrew cost insurers about $15.5 billion in 1992 (though that loss would be far higher in today’s dollars). Both events rocked the insurance and reinsurance world. But a $100 billion event, or even a larger catastrophe, remains a possibility if either a particularly severe earthquake or hurricane hits just the wrong place. Four significant hurricanes struck Florida during 2004, causing an aggregate of $25 billion or so in insured losses. Two of these – Charley and Ivan – could have done at least three times the damage they did had they entered the U.S. not far from their actual landing points.
Many insurers regard a $100 billion industry loss as “unthinkable” and won’t even plan for it. But at Berkshire, we are fully prepared. Our share of the loss would probably be 3% to 5%, and earnings from our investments and other businesses would comfortably exceed that cost. When “the day after” arrives, Berkshire’s checks will clear.
Though the hurricanes hit us with a $1.25 billion loss, our reinsurance operations did well last year. At General Re, Joe Brandon has restored a long-admired culture of underwriting discipline that, for a time, had lost its way. The excellent results he realized in 2004 on current business, however, were offset by adverse developments from the years before he took the helm.