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Buffett Says India Insurance Ownership Limit Deters Investment

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. CEO Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Photographer: Namas Bhojani/Bloomberg

Warren Buffett, visiting India for the first time, said the country’s 26 percent foreign ownership limit of insurance companies deters his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. from making an investment in the industry.

“India would be more attractive if we could buy more than 26 percent,” Buffett, Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive officer, said at a media conference in Bangalore yesterday. “That is a factor in the decision of not investing.”

Buffett, 80, is seeking deals in the U.S. and abroad as earnings climb at Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire. He agreed this month to pay about $9 billion for engine-additive maker Lubrizol Corp. and last year bought railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $26.5 billion. Berkshire’s cash holdings rose to $38.2 billion as of Dec. 31, prompting Buffett to tell investors two months later that his “elephant gun has been reloaded.”

The billionaire is seeking to expand into India to tap growth in Asia’s second-fastest growing major economy. India’s $1.3 trillion economy may expand by as much as 9.25 percent in the year starting April 1, the fastest pace since 2008, the finance ministry forecast last month.

“We hope we spend some money here,” Buffett said. “I don’t consider India as an emerging market. We tend to look at larger countries like India, China, U.K., Brazil, Germany. Those all fit us.”

Selling Insurance

Berkshire, which started selling insurance to Indian consumers this month after forging an agreement with Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, will keep doing business in India in that form for the foreseeable future because of the foreign ownership cap, he said.

India aims to raise the limit in the insurance industry to attract companies in the $41 billion market, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the nation’s Planning Commission, said in December. He didn’t give a timeframe.

Allianz SE, Aviva Plc and ING Groep NV are among global insurers that will be able to invest in their Indian ventures if the limit is raised in an industry that the Life Insurance Council forecasts is expanding 34 percent annually.

Nippon Life Insurance Co., Japan’s biggest life insurer, on March 14 agreed to buy a 26 percent stake in India’s Reliance Life Insurance Co. to boost business overseas.

Buffett, whose largest non-U.S. acquisition was the 2006 purchase of Israel’s Iscar Metalworking Cos., is traveling in South Korea and India to visit Berkshire’s operations and look for opportunities. Iscar, purchased for $4 billion, makes cutting tools. A stop in Japan was canceled after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. He visited China in September.

Buffett will meet customers of, its venture with Bajaj Allianz, on March 25.

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