Berkshire Hathaway profit falls on Japan quake

By Ben Berkowitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett's conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc reported a smaller profit for the first quarter, as reinsurance losses from the March 11 earthquake in Japan dragged down results.

But the company's quarterly report made no mention at all of David Sokol, the former Berkshire executive whose sudden resignation at the end of the quarter created a scandal for Berkshire and prompted an SEC probe.

Buffett preannounced quarterly results at last Saturday's annual meeting of Berkshire, the ice-cream-to-insurance giant the world's third-richest man controls.

Berkshire reported a net profit of $1.51 billion, or $917 per Class A share, compared with a profit of $3.63 billion, or $2,272 per Class A share, a year earlier.

The company took a provision of $1.7 billion in the first quarter for catastrophe losses, primarily for the Japan earthquake but also from a quake in New Zealand and flooding in Australia. Buffett last weekend said the first quarter was the second worst in the industry's history.

Berkshire also recorded losses of $506 million in the first quarter for stocks where the company's investment was in a loss position and that loss was not considered temporary.

The biggest share of the loss was an impairment on part of Berkshire's stake in Wells Fargo, and the rest came from an impairment on the stake in Kraft Foods.

Berkshire came under pressure from securities regulators last year over the way it accounted for losses on stocks in its portfolio, with the SEC pushing the company to recognize such losses more quickly.


Berkshire said March 30 that Sokol, once presumed to be Buffett's successor, would resign. At that time, in a letter, Buffett said Sokol had bought a huge position in shares of Lubrizol Corp before pushing for Berkshire to acquire the company. That $9 billion deal was announced in mid-March.

Last week, Berkshire's board released a scathing 18-page investigation by its audit committee that said Sokol had deliberately misled people about the nature of his Lubrizol investment and may have violated obligations he had to Berkshire under Delaware law.

Sokol's lawyer has denied his client did anything wrong and has condemned Berkshire for trying to make a scapegoat of Sokol, who was chairman of Berkshire's utility business MidAmerican and plane rental company NetJets.

On a segment basis, MidAmerican's earnings grew in the first quarter, as did all of Berkshire's other businesses aside from the insurance operation. Buffett warned last weekend that Berkshire was likely to take an underwriting loss this year.

Within the insurance segment, though, auto insurer Geico grew profits in the first quarter as sales rose and the business retained more existing customers.

Berkshire's railroad Burlington Northern grew revenue 17 percent, as it recorded stronger pricing and volumes across all of its segments.

NetJets, a business Sokol has been credited with turning around from the brink of insolvency, reported lower profits in the quarter on fees to cancel plane purchases and impairment charges to get rid of other planes.

The conglomerate reported $41.18 billion in cash and cash equivalents at the end of the quarter. Some investors expect Berkshire will have more than $50 billion cash by year's end, an ample war chest for the large acquisitions Buffett has said of late he prefers.

(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz, editing by Bernard Orr)