Tags: buffett | moodys | berkshire hathaway | insur

Moody's: Buffett Guards Berkshire From Rising Rates

Thursday, 05 April 2012 03:33 PM

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is better positioned than rival property-casualty insurers to sidestep a decline in the value of fixed-income securities if interest rates rise, Moody’s Investors Service said.

Berkshire’s capital losses as a percentage of shareholder’s equity would be the lowest among 27 property-casualty and multi-line insurers if interest rates climb 100 basis points, or one full percentage point, according to a Moody’s report. The ratings firm projects an increase of at least that much over the next 12 months and as much as a 300-basis-point rise over the next two years.

“Investment diversification away from fixed-income assets is generally likely to be a benefit during a period of rising interest rates,” Moody’s analysts, led by Paul Bauer, wrote in the report dated Wednesday.

Buffett, 81, built Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire into a $200 billion firm through acquisitions and by accumulating equity stakes in companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and American Express Co. In February, he reiterated his company’s strategy of buying companies and investing in stocks to increase shareholder returns. He shunned investments including bonds, mortgages and money-market funds.

“They are among the most dangerous of assets,” Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire shareholders published Feb. 25. “Over the past century these instruments have destroyed the purchasing power of investors in many countries, even as these holders continued to receive timely payments of interest and principal.”

Capital Losses

Moody’s projected capital losses of about $60 billion for the property-casualty industry if rates rise by 150 basis points, or 1.5 percentage points. Insurers often hold fixed-income investments to maturity, which means they may not have to realize the losses, the ratings firm said.

Declines in Berkshire’s $32 billion of bonds would be less than those of rivals, as a portion of shareholders’ equity, in part because Buffett’s firm has a shorter-duration portfolio and a smaller percentage of its investments dedicated to fixed-income, Bauer said. Horace Mann Educators Corp., the seller of insurance to public school employees, would fare the worst if rates rise, because of its longer portfolio duration and higher allocation to bonds, Moody’s said.

Carrie Kizer, an assistant to Buffett, and Paul Wappel, a spokesman for Horace Mann, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Aside from capital losses, an increase in interest rates would benefit insurers by boosting investment income, Moody’s said. Firms with a shorter duration would be better positioned to gain from the higher yields, said Bauer.

“For companies that don’t have a lot of bond investments now, or they are just focused in short-term debt, they will be able to take advantage of higher rates easier than a company that has their investments locked up in long-term bonds,” he said Thursday in a phone interview.

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