Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance (BHSI), part of Omaha, Nebraska-based conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway, has its eyes on overseas expansion, according to BHSI’s top executive.
BHSI’s President Peter Eastwood said BHSI is “working hard at some expansion plans in Asia and in Europe as well” while an expansion in Latin America is “a little bit further down the road.” BHSI expects to make expansion moves outside the U.S. sometime in 2014, Eastwood said at the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS)’s Eastern chapter industry leaders’ luncheon in New York last month.
Eastwood also offered his perspective on BHSI’s recent announcement to acquire two businesses: Insure America LLC, a provider of insurance products to the travel industry, and MyAssist Inc., a live-agent personal concierge and telematics service provider, both from Noel Group.
Insure America LLC is a brokerage operation specializing in the travel agency errors and omissions (E&O) business, Eastwood said, “and we are going to replace the paper that supports it and write that business on our paper.”
And MyAssist offers a personal assistance concierge service for motorists, Eastwood explained. “For example, if you have a contract with Mercedes Benz USA and if you press the call button in your Mercedes Benz, you will likely get somebody from MyAssist on the other end, and you can ask whatever you want to ask them in terms of getting help,” he said.
“Having call center capabilities within our organization will be of a huge value to us on the claims side,” he said. “It has a huge value to us as we think about expanding our business into different areas — including into the consumer space.”
Additionally, Eastwood said he wanted to figure out ways to be more customer-centric and “that acquisition plays into it.”
Eastwood also recounted how BHSI first got off the ground and what he sees as BHSI’s goals. Eastwood said he and three of his colleagues joined Berkshire Hathaway last year with the mandate and an objective to build “hopefully a very large, very successful, very diverse, very profitable commercial property/casualty insurance business.”
“I will start with telling you that — and this is a really important one for me — I was able to walk into an organization that both knows and values the insurance business. Berkshire Hathaway is very, very deep in the insurance space,” Eastwood told the forum attendees.
“So that was important for me, to join an organization that both knew and valued the insurance business and to know that the capital provider, if you will, is going to appreciate what it is that we wanted to build and be supportive of that build in the long term.”
BHSI officially commenced operations last June. “We can build business anywhere in the world that we think is appropriate for us to build in, which means generating acceptable profit for Berkshire Hathaway,” Eastwood said.
BHSI has an opportunity to enter any product lines within the commercial P/C space and arguably the consumer space as well, as long as BHSI can generate an acceptable return for the organization, he said.
In 2014, he said, “you will see us start to stand the business up outside the United States as well, as we look to expand beyond the U.S. borders.”
Eastwood also shared his perspective on Berkshire Hathaway’s balance sheet and the policyholders surplus. Collectively, for Berkshire’s flagship company, National Indemnity and its affiliates, policyholders surplus stands at roughly $110 billion. National Indemnity group of companies hold financial strength ratings of “A++” from A.M. Best and “AA+” from Standard & Poor’s.
“Just for your context and perspective on that, it’s about 15 percent of the total policyholders surplus in all property/casualty insurance industry. It’s a big, big number,” he said. “This is a risk-taking business, so if you want to be in this business, it’s always nice to have a big balance sheet where you can do a lot of things.”
Eastwood said Berkshire Hathaway’s balance sheet happens to be “substantially underutilized, under-leveraged,” and BHSI represents an opportunity to help put that balance sheet to work. “For us, it made us instantly relevant from a risk-taking standpoint,” he said.
Another key attribute of BHSI Eastwood spoke about is the Berkshire Hathaway brand: the recognition of the brand in the marketplace among corporate buyers and what the brand stands for. “I think, first and foremost, it stands for integrity, doing business the right way,” he said.
Eastwood said he also found Berkshire Hathaway’s decentralized environment appealing. “It’s a highly decentralized organization. Eighty-some operating companies, 300,000-plus employees and 24 of the people are at the corporate center. It’s [Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO] Warren Buffett and 23 other people,” he said. “Everyone else gets up every day and drives value into their respective businesses. Ultimately it comes together and drives value for the holding company at the end of the day. To me, that is an appealing environment.”
And, Eastwood said, Warren Buffett likes the insurance business. “He loves what he calls float. He loves collecting premium dollars. He loves to invest it. And so my team and I get up every day and try to write insurance business and ship the premium dollars to Omaha.”
Eastwood also commented on the P/C insurance industry landscape and said the industry’s cyclicality may be changing due to alternative capital. “We have a dynamic is our business today where capital is flowing in from alternative forms, whether it’s hedge fund money, or whether it’s defined pension fund dollars that are coming in the business,” he said.
It is forming in a very different way, so there are consequences for the formation of that capital, he said. One consequence is that it will likely take the peaks off the cyclicality of the business.
For companies operating in a highly opportunistic way — those who think that the time to capture really pronounced returns is when those peaks are at their highest — there is a potential that those peaks won’t be as high as they had once been, he said. Furthermore, those peaks won’t come around as often as they once had either, because the alternative capital starts to flow very quickly. The alternative capital doesn’t necessarily form any permanent basis, and it rushes in and takes the opportunity out of the marketplace.
“Our business is a very tough business,” Eastwood also said. For one thing, at the time of sale, the seller doesn’t know the largest component of cost for the goods sold until many years down the road.
“That largest component of cost for the goods sold, as everybody knows, is losses. We rely on actuaries to give us some perspective on what the true cost is, what it costs us to sell it,” Eastwood said. “But we don’t really know, and we actually had a pretty good history of getting it wrong. So that makes this business very, very challenging.”
Insurers continue to face challenges in achieving healthy investment returns. “So being very disciplined, very focused on underwriting has really become the most important thing for our industry,” he said.
Eastwood also shared his thoughts on the record-high policyholders surplus in the U.S. P/C insurance industry and what insurers might do with it. “The other piece that I would mention to you, which makes this business an interesting business, is that we have the largest amount of capital we’ve ever had in business, estimated to be close to $670 billion in policyholders surplus across the property/casualty insurance industry,” he said.
“So all of us participants in the industry are going to have to figure out. What do we do with that $670 billion of capital?” he said. There are a number of things the insurers can do. But, he advised, “what I would tell you we shouldn’t do with it is use it to drive down rates below technical price. Now, we are not good at that either. But that’s the reality of it.”
Eastwood said discussions about excess capital should take place between managements of insurance companies and all the shareholders, and those two parties should decide what that capital does. What often happened in the business is that “we talk about that excess capital affecting rates, and then we figure out a way — because we don’t know the true cost of goods sold — to drive rates down below the technical price,” he said.
“So I think we’d better figure out what’s the right way to think about it,” he said. “I do think that in ’14 and in ’15, what you will see is more share buybacks, increased dividends from insurance companies for their shareholders, and I actually do think you will see more M&A activity on the carrier side than we’ve seen over the last couple of years.”
He said larger carriers may be willing to do bolt-on types of transactions, and there could be a number of deals by U.S. carriers that are thinking about geographic expansions and growth opportunities outside the U.S. There could also be mid-sized insurance companies seeking to partner up to get more size and scale, he forecast.
However, M&A negotiations can face many hurdles, and one potential challenge involves social issues. “You have two CEOs and when you combine their companies, you can only have one CEO. Can those two CEOs figure out who wants to be the CEO of the new company?” he said. “Deals fall apart because of social issues.”
But the biggest challenge in carrier M&A activity is figuring out the adequacy of the reserves for the companies being considered for acquisition. “Do you really believe that those reserves are truly reflective of the portfolio of business that you are buying? In the event that you get it wrong, then you’ve substantially misvalued the organization. And so I think that would be the biggest challenge,” he said.