Sunday, June 22, 2008

RE: How Much is General Re Worth, Anyway?

Before I get totally buried in the fog of accounting arcana, lets briefly run through Jeff's post and address the major points, one by one.

He starts out quoting Buffett on the Dexter Shoe acquisition for stock:

What I had assessed as a durable competitive advantage vanished with a few years. But that’s just the beginning: By using Berkshire stock, I compounded this error hugely. That move made the cost to Berkshire shareholders not $400 million, but rather $3.5 billion. In essence, I gave away 1.6% of a wonderful business – one now valued at $220 billion – to buy a worthless business.


In the case of Dexter, he bought the business, it made no money, and became worthless. There are three things to note: Buffett bought a bad business, he used stock instead of cash, and the stock (with no help from Dexter) went from roughly $10k per share in 1993 to over $100k today. Not that different from selling Apple stock in 2000 and buying Enron stock. Two bad decisions, selling a winner and buying a loser.

In the case of Gen Re, he bought a profitable business which contributed to BRK's current share price. He issued stock priced at $80,400 10 years ago, and is now selling for $125,000. The 267,750 shares of stock issued to buy Gen Re at today's price makes the cost $33.5 billion rather then the $40 billion quoted by Jeff. If you stick to the metrics used when Gen Re was purchased, the float over the 10 years has increased from $15 billion to $23 billion, right in line with the 50% increase in the stock price. From this simplistic perspective, everything is a wash.

After making points about the deal being awful in regard to regulatory issues, which I agree with, he then finishes with the assertion that, "It is hard to imagine that for $40 billion, Warren Buffett could not have re-created General Re, with money to spare." I don't know how to answer that except to say that it is hard to imagine creating a global direct reinsurer like General Re period. Gen Re (along with Munich Re and Swiss Re) are franchises of a sort that can't just be created out of thin air.

The real story is classic Buffett. A deal with compelling economics meets with awful luck and becomes just a reasonable deal. The bad luck include awful timing, since reinsurance pricing in 1998 was worse then anyone realized at the time. As a result, Gen Re was under reserved by $2 billion and business on the books was underpriced by another $2 billion. This was followed in 2001 by the September 11th terrorist attacks which cost another $2 billion. And then, two of the worst hurricane years on record, 2004 and 2005 capped off by Hurricane Katrina.

At the time of the acquisition, Gen Re had about $15 billion in float or investable assets from policy holder supplied funds. They also had a tangible book value of $7.5 billion. This is $22 billion in new investment funds amounted to $84,000 in investments per share for each of the newly issued shares. This increased the investments per share of the combined entity, as noted in the 1998 Chairman's Letter, " During 1998, our investments increased by $9,604 per share, or 25.2% [to $47,647]."

And of course, Buffett went from the tailwind of the 1990's equity markets to the headwinds of this decade. Putting $20 billion in investable funds in Buffett's hands seemed compelling in 1998. In 1998 over a third of Berkshire's stock portfolio consisted of 200,000,000 shares of KO (Coke), then valued at over $13 billion ($13.4 billion out of $37.3 billion at 12/98). A decade later, that holding is valued at $11 billion. So the new money had to do some heavy lifting to get Berkshire to its current level of investments per share of $90,000.

As far as the 'bad luck' that Gen Re suffered over the last decade, they are unlikely to suffer from under pricing or under reserving. A reasonable expectation for catastrophes is more like one $2 billion event (for Gen Re) rather then the two they suffered. However, the real benefit of a company like General Re in Berkshire's portfolio is that it will not need additional capital, but will continue to generate investable cash. What's not to like about that?

1 comment:

Dickson Pau said...

Awesome article
Thanks!