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Berkshire swings to big profit; Buffett laments Kraft Heinz

Stock MarketsMay 04, 2019 11:38AM ET
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© Reuters. Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett walks through the exhibit hall as shareholders gather to hear from the billionaire investor at Berkshire Hathaway Inc's annual shareholder meeting in Omaha

By Jonathan Stempel and Trevor Hunnicutt

OMAHA, Neb. (Reuters) - Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa) Inc on Saturday said gains in its stock investments fueled a big first-quarter profit, while improved results from its Geico auto insurer and BNSF railroad units boosted operating results.

Berkshire also said it repurchased $1.7 billion of its stock in the quarter, reflecting Buffett's troubles to find better uses for the Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate's cash hoard, which now totals $114.2 billion.

Results were released as Buffett, 88, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 95, prepared to answer more than five hours of questions from shareholders and analysts at Berkshire's annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, which draws tens of thousands of people.

The $21.66-billion overall profit, or $13,209 per Class A share, compared with a year-earlier net loss of $1.14 billion, or $692 per share, and a fourth-quarter net loss of $25.39 billion.

These results illustrate what Buffett has called the "wild and capricious" and, in his view, meaningless swings caused by an accounting rule requiring the reporting of unrealized stock gains with earnings, regardless of Berkshire's plans to sell. Berkshire had $15.1 billion of these gains in the first quarter.

Operating profit, which Buffett considers a better performance measure, rose 5 percent to $5.56 billion, or about $3,388 per Class A share, from $5.29 billion, or $3,215 per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average expected operating profit of about $3,399 per Class A share, according to Refinitiv data.

Results excluded operating earnings tied to Berkshire's 26.7 percent stake in Kraft Heinz (NASDAQ:KHC) Co because the food company has not released its own audited quarterly results, Buffett told reporters before the annual meeting.

Buffett also maintained that "we paid too much" for Kraft Heinz, which was created in a 2015 merger between Kraft Foods and H.J. Heinz, which Berkshire and Brazil's 3G Capital controlled.

In last year's fourth quarter, Berkshire took a $3-billion writedown on Kraft.

GEICO, BNSF

Geico saw pre-tax underwriting profit rise 14 percent as rising rates and premiums offset higher accident claims.

BNSF's profit rose 9 percent to $1.25 billion as higher demand from the energy and industrial sectors offset lower volumes attributed to severe winter weather and flooding.

Among other businesses, the Berkshire Hathaway Energy unit posted a 3-percent profit increase, while earnings from retailing and services units increased 16 percent, despite a 19 percent revenue drop at See's Candies because Easter fell late.

Berkshire owns more than 90 companies.

Last month, Berkshire committed $10 billion to Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) Corp's cash-and-stock bid for Anadarko Petroleum Corp (NYSE:APC), which Chevron Corp (NYSE:CVX) also wants to buy.

The Berkshire investment is contingent on Occidental completing its proposed purchase of Anadarko.

Berkshire's Class A shares closed Friday at $327,765.61, and its Class B shares closed at $218.60.

Berkshire swings to big profit; Buffett laments Kraft Heinz
 

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