Berkshire Hathaway Misses Profit Estimates

The conglomerate's first-quarter results reflect a 25% drop in profit at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, its largest unit.
Matthew HellerMay 6, 2016

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate confirmed Friday that its operating profits fell 12% in the first quarter as a decline in freight volumes drove down results at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, its largest unit.

Operating profit dropped to $3.74 billion, or $2,274 per Class A share, from $4.24 billion, or $2,583 per share, while revenue from Berkshire’s businesses totaled $52.4 billion, up from $48.65 billion in last year’s first quarter. Analysts had predicted earnings of $2,761 a share.

Book value per share, which is Buffett’s preferred measure of growth, rose 1.2% from year end to $157,369 as of March 31. Buffett had released preliminary results at Berkshire’s annual meeting on April 30.

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“Results suffered as falling oil prices and lower demand for coal contributed to a 25% drop in profit at BNSF to $784 million, as overall [shipping] volume fell 5.5%,” Reuters said.

Freight revenue from industrial products such as petroleum was down 18%, and from coal tumbled 39%. Operating expenses for BNSF fell 12%, largely due to lower fuel prices.

“Railroad operators, including Union Pacific Corp. and Canadian National Railway Co., Canada’s largest, have reported similar declines in freight volumes tied to slumping commodity prices,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Earnings at Berkshire’s core insurance business fell 55% to $213 million for the quarter, reflecting lower results at its reinsurance group and payouts related to Texas hailstorms. The conglomerate’s insurance float, which helps fund its expansion, grew to $89 billion from $87.7 billion during the quarter.

Berkshire ended the quarter with $58.34 billion of cash, down from $71.73 billion at year end, largely because of its $32 billion acquisition of airplane parts maker Precision Castparts. BNSF and Precision Castparts are both part of the so-called Powerhouse Six, Berkshire’s most profitable non-insurance businesses.

Buffett said at the annual meeting that railroad carloadings industrywide fell “significantly” in the first quarter, and “almost certainly will continue to be down the balance of the year.”