Buffett on Reinsurance

Just a post to keep some notes on reinsurance to self.

The Berkshire Shareholders meeting had little in terms on new content though it was good to see that both Charlie and Warren razor sharp as ever.

Probably one of the most interesting insights came in the initial parts of the Q&A. Reinsurance. Berkshire Hathaway had sold down its position in Munich Re and Swiss Re in 2015. When asked a pointed question about it, Buffett was very articulate and gave two key reasons for it: a. Low to negative yields in Europe b. Surplus capacity in reinsurance industry.

In a way, Buffett was alluding to the fact that with hedge funds like Greenlight Re and Thirdpoint Re entering the reinsurance business and being hungry for float, it is likely that too much competition will make (or has made) pricing softer in the market. Supply up, demand is the same. This should raise two questions: a. Buffett is reducing exposure to the reinsurance business by reducing his stake, Greenlight Re and Thirdpoint Re are going long at the same time. One must thoroughly consider the consequences of betting against the man who built the most profitable reinsurance business in the world and has constantly reminded us that the insurance industry is survived the longest by those who walk away when pricing is not adequate to the risks taken. b. If there is going to be softer pricing in the market, investors in companies like Greenlight Re and Third Point re, not only have to tide over the cost of float but also the rich fees that the hedge funds rake in.  The two net cost adders might make the economics very difficult for investors to make meaningful returns unless the reinsurance companies have many home runs on the investment side.

With the low to negative yields, float becomes less valuable as the capital structure of many of the reinsurance business like Swiss Re and Munich Re allows them to invest float in only certain types of securities. Buffett is essentially betting that it will be tough for reinsurance companies to invest float in positive returns instruments for quite sometime to come. Unless of course, you are Prem Watsa and assume that deflation is going to take over in which case the bonds become very useful. Time will tell. Time to increase watch on the insurance holdings.

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