Berkshire Hathaway Shows a Rebound From the Pandemic



Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger did not discuss succession plans, but they were joined in the question-and-answer session by Ajit Jain, the head of Berkshire’s insurance operations, and Gregory Abel, head of non-insurance operations, in an apparent nod to the company’s leadership in the future.

Mr. Abel offered a description of Berkshire’s energy operations, and Mr. Jain said he had a very simple response to a question on whether it would insure efforts by Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX and Tesla, to colonize other planets: “No.”

At one point in the meeting, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger called attention to an essay in The Washington Post by a former Treasury secretary, Lawrence H. Summers, on the risk that President Biden’s $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus would overheat the economy and fuel inflation. They did not go so far as to say they agreed with Mr. Summers, but said they thought he was “very smart.”

Berkshire’s earnings report came out early in the day. Using Berkshire’s preferred financial metric, operating earnings, the company showed a nearly 19 percent year-on-year gain as its wide array of subsidiaries — from energy production to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to consumer brands — improved their performances.

Among its businesses that saw the biggest improvements in the first quarter was the railroad, which benefited from higher freight volumes as the American economy rebounded from the pandemic. Berkshire’s building products and consumer subsidiaries also posted higher sales, as housing construction and retail buying picked up.

Other parts of Mr. Buffett’s empire continued to show strain, however, particularly industrial manufacturers like Precision Castparts, whose aerospace parts were in lower demand because of the Covid-related drop in travel. Mr. Buffett stressed that he thought Precision Castparts’ management had been doing a good job at a time when aviation was under pressure.

Berkshire’s vast insurance operations reflected a mixed picture. Auto insurance claims at Geico were down in the quarter, though other parts of the insurance business were hurt by increased claims tied to the destructive North American winter storm in February.


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