Finance

Gillian Tan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals and private equity. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She is a qualified chartered accountant.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway took its first step toward becoming a conglomerate back in 1967 by stepping from textiles into insurance, which would become its lifeblood. Nearly fifty years later, it's evolved again.

The $358 billion company's steady foray into energy, railways and manufacturing (among other sectors) has radically changed its earnings profile over the past decade. As a result, once-core insurance divisions such as Geico have become a much smaller part of the overall business. In fact, Berkshire's insurance arm is expected to contribute just 25 percent of its total 2016 pre-tax operating earnings, less than half the 57 percent that it accounted for in 2006.

Changing Shape
Berkshire Hathaway's foray into auto and consumer businesses means it's becoming increasingly less reliant on its core competency: insurance
Source: Barclays estimates, Berkshire Hathaway data

Barclays analyst Jay Gelb told clients Monday that Berkshire's non-insurance businesses will be even bigger contributors toward operating earnings as a result of recent acquisitions led by its largest deal ever: Precision Castparts.

Of course, Buffett is proud of Berkshire's insurance business and it isn't going anywhere. Here he is in his 2015 letter to shareholders, published in February:

"Without a doubt, Berkshire’s largest unrecorded wealth lies in its insurance business. We’ve spent 48 years building this multi-faceted operation, and it can’t be replicated."

The unit took in $10.8 billion in premiums this past quarter. And just last month, Berkshire agreed to buy a medical liability insurer, and said it would start offering coverage for risks tied to financial transactions such as M&A. But as the conglomerate keeps growing, its reliance on that unit is only going to shrink further. 

Sticking Around
Berkshire Hathaway's insurance business isn't shrinking by any means, but the conglomerate's general expansion means it's no longer in the spotlight
Source: Company filings

As of June 30, Berkshire's cash pile had grown to $72.7 billion, enough to fan speculation about whether Buffett may be ready to strike again, and where. Berkshire had been in the running for Texas power company Oncor and could still make a play for it even after NextEra agreed to buy it (but this is unlikely). It's also reasonable to expect that Berkshire might consider cooking up another food deal with its partner on Kraft Heinz, 3G Capital.

Opining about Berkshire's cash hoard at the company's April annual general meeting, Buffett said, "We'll never go below $20 billion of cash and we'll actually stay comfortably above it." That still leaves plenty to work with.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Gillian Tan in New York at gtan129@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net