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Buffett's Berkshire tops profit forecasts despite trade drag, record cash

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11/02/2019 | 09:29am EST
FILE PHOTO:  Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, takes his seat to speak at the Fortune's Most Powerful Women's Summit in Washington

(Reuters) - Berkshire Hathaway Inc on Saturday said its quarterly operating profit rose more than analysts expected, as growth in several business lines offset the drag from trade tensions and tariffs and billionaire Warren Buffett's inability to deploy the conglomerate's cash.

Berkshire benefited as resilience in consumer spending helped cause U.S. economic growth to slow less than expected, offsetting a contraction in business investment.

But rising stock prices are still impeding Buffett's efforts to find places to invest.

Berkshire ended September with a record $128.2 billion of cash, despite repurchasing $700 million of stock in the quarter.

Buffett has gone nearly four years since making a major acquisition for Berkshire, whose stock price has lagged the broader market by the most since 2009.

"There is a growing frustration among investors that the cash hoard is not being effectively deployed," Cathy Seifert, an equity analyst at CFRA Research in New York, said after Berkshire released its results. "The flip side is that Berkshire's stock tends to do well when the economy softens."

Seifert also said Berkshire's sprawl means results will often mirror macroeconomic trends. "It's not surprising that tariffs had a negative impact on its consumer and industrial businesses," she said. Seifert rates Berkshire "hold."

Berkshire said third-quarter operating income rose 14% to $7.86 billion, or roughly $4,816 per Class A share, from $6.88 billion, or roughly $4,189 per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average expected operating profit of $4,405.16 per share, according to Refinitiv IBES.

Net income fell 11% to $16.52 billion, or $10,119 per Class A share, from $18.54 billion, or $11,280 per share, reflecting fewer gains from Berkshire's investments.

A U.S. accounting rule requires earnings to reflect unrealized gains, including on Berkshire's respective $57 billion and $27.8 billion stakes in Apple Inc and Bank of America Corp. Buffett said the resulting volatility can mislead investors.

Berkshire is based in Omaha, Nebraska, and operates more than 90 businesses including the Geico auto insurer, BNSF railroad, Dairy Queen ice cream, Fruit of the Loom underwear, and its namesake energy company and real estate brokerage.

Class A shares of Berkshire closed Friday at $323,400, up 5.7% in 2019, lagging the 22.3% gain in the Standard & Poor's 500. Class B shares closed at $215.83, also up 5.7%.

TARIFFS WEIGH

U.S. gross domestic product increased at a 1.9% annualized rate in the third quarter, the Department of Commerce said on Wednesday in its advance estimate of economic growth.

But the Federal Reserve on the same day nevertheless lowered interest rates for the third time this year amid uncertainty over trade policy, slowing global growth and Great Britain's proposed exit from the European Union.

BNSF, one of Berkshire's largest businesses, was able to boost profit 5% to $1.47 billion.

The railroad's cost-cutting helped offset lower revenue as demand for consumer, coal, industrial and agricultural products declined, the latter in part because of new trade policies.

Berkshire also blamed U.S. tariffs for cutting into sales of gas turbine and pipe products by its Precision Castparts unit.

Insurance underwriting profit was essentially unchanged at $440 million, as improved results from reinsurance offset higher loss claims at Geico.

Berkshire warned that Typhoon Hagibis, which caused widespread damage in Japan last month, will likely hurt fourth-quarter underwriting results.

Nevertheless, float, a major driver of Berkshire's growth that reflects insurance premiums collected before claims are paid, rose about $2 billion in the quarter to $127 billion.

Profit from manufacturing, services and retailing rose 2%, to $2.46 billion, as higher sales from Berkshire's auto dealer and Clayton Homes mobile home units offset lower revenue from the Duracell battery, Forest River RV, and apparel and footwear businesses.

Tax credits, meanwhile, helped Berkshire Hathaway Energy boost profit 8%, to $1.18 billion.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Shubham Kalia in Bangalore; Additional reporting by Megan Davies in New York, Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Franklin Paul)

By Jonathan Stempel and Shubham Kalia

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