Is Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.B) a Buy?

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Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A)Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B) reported first quarter earnings on May 3, and what a quarter it was. Earnings consist of earnings for wholly owned companies, including Geico Insurance, General Re, and See’s Candies. Then add to that the many companies in which Berkshire Hathaway has a majority stake, such as leading renewable energy company Mid-American Energy, along with stock price changes of the companies that Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B) simply holds equity positions in, such as International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM) and The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO). Can Berkshire keep churning out these earnings?

Conglomerate earnings

Led by hefty profits in insurance operations, along with gains from a rising stock market, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B) recorded profits of $4.89 billion, up a stout 52% from $3.25 billion in the first quarter of 2012. The resulting $1.98 per share in the quarter was well above the analysts’ projections of $1.35 per share.

Insurance operating profits rose to $1.7 billion in the quarter from $845 million a year ago. The growth in insurance income was almost exclusively underwriting income, as the claims history in the quarter was the best in recent memory. Other income sources generated an additional $2.245 in operating income, which was about 12% higher than was reported a year earlier. Gains were broad based, as everything from railroad income to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B)’s derivative portfolio performed well.

It is not realistic to expect this sort of quarterly profit bonanza to continue. A nice chunk of Berkshire’s $49.1 billion in cash is going to its partial purchase of H.J. Heinz Company (NYSE:HNZ). But given Berkshire’s cash generation, more sizable investments or purchases can never be ruled out. As for earnings and valuation, Mr. Buffett prefers to use book value as the more accurate measure of the company’s health than earnings. In that vein, Berkshire Hathaway’s book value increased by 5.5% since Dec. 31, 2012, to $80.35. At the stock’s current price, the company will not be buying back its own stock. I believe the stock price has gotten ahead of itself. I am a long time bull on Berkshire Hathaway, but would rather see an entry point no higher than the mid $90s given today’s book value.

As a company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.B) is unique in that it can either be looked at as a large insurance holding company with many interests outside of insurance, or as a true conglomerate that happens to own several of the nation’s largest insurance companies. I prefer the latter. While no company has the size and scope, several other companies bear some similarities. Chief among them is Loews Corporation (NYSE:L). Loews Corporation (NYSE:L) owns 89% of Cna Financial Corp (NYSE:CNA), a fully integrated property and casualty carrier. Loews also owns interests in oil and gas drilling and pipelines, and owns nearly 20 upscale hotel properties.

In the first quarter of 2013, Loews Corporation (NYSE:L) reported consolidated profits of $242 million, or $0.67 per share, down sharply from the $367 million, or $0.92 posted in the first quarter of 2012. Analysts had been expecting earnings of $0.71 per share. Revenues were essentially flat with the year ago quarter at $3.73 billion, but a large asset impairment charge at the company’s oil drilling unit drove down the bottom line. The offshore drilling and Cna Financial Corp (NYSE:CNA) units both performed well.

Cna Financial Corp (NYSE:CNA) had a solid first quarter of 2013, despite any residual impacts from superstorm Sandy. Net income was flat with the first quarter of 2012, at $250 million. Modest improvements in the firm’s combined ratio were offset by lowered investment yields. I look for strong pricing to persist throughout 2013, helping to drive the combined ratio under 100%. There is little reason to buy this equity, as only 11% of it is in free float.

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