Conglomerates

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

Just when the biggest U.S. conglomerates find themselves having to defend their sprawling structures or be forced to dismantle them -- think General Electric Co., Honeywell International Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and so on -- Warren Buffett can sit back, grin and take another swig of Cherry Coke. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc. engine is chugging along, just as he said it would.

Berkshire's insurance claims following hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria resulted in another underwriting loss, which as Bloomberg's Noah Buhayar has pointed out, means 2017 will likely be the first time since 2002 that the business doesn't post an annual underwriting profit. This isn't surprising, but when any one of Buffett's winning streaks ends it's likely to draw gasps. However, that's where the other divisions come into play. 

Got Your Back
As Berkshire racks up underwriting losses due to recent natural disasters, its railroad business has picked up steam, posting its highest pretax profit since 2015
Source: Bloomberg

It wasn't all that long ago that Berkshire's railroad business -- BNSF, which it acquired in 2010 -- was dragging down profit as lessening demand for coal muted shipping needs. In this latest quarter, though, BNSF earned $1.7 billion before income taxes, the most since 2015. Meanwhile, the manufacturing operations -- which expanded with Berkshire's $37 billion takeover of Precision Castparts that closed early last year -- just cranked out its own record profit. 

Berkshire won't always fire on all cylinders. But when one division slumps, the others are there to make up for it. It's why the stock continues to hit new records, even as Buffett struggles to do what he has typically done best: make major acquisitions. It's also why, when the insurance business posts a $1.95 billion after-tax underwriting loss, he can continue to skip out on the U.S. convention of hosting quarterly earnings calls to take analysts' questions. (As I've written, the 87-year-old's successor shouldn't expect that same luxury.)

Can't Complain
Shares of Berkshire, which is avoiding paying a dividend even as its cash accumulates to unproductive levels, are still beating the S&P 500 on a total return basis
Source: Bloomberg

Back to acquisitions for a moment. I was disappointed to see that Berkshire didn't disclose the price of last month's investment in Pilot Flying J, a chain of truck stops that ranks among America's largest private businesses. It's an interesting purchase and so very Buffett. Still, following his energy division's failed deal for Oncor and Kraft Heinz Co.'s failed run at Unilever (a transaction Berkshire would have helped bankroll), Buffett needs to find another big, exciting acquisition that will put that steaming pile of cash to good use. It reached $109 billion as of Sept. 30. 

Broken Record
We keep saying it -- Berkshire Hathaway's cash has hit yet another record of $109 billion, so Warren Buffett needs to work his M&A magic:
Source: Bloomberg

As is the case lately, the story isn't how's Berkshire doing. It's fine, as always. But what's Buffett going to do with all that cash? Long-time Berkshire bulls and Buffett fans may say there's no rush. I doubt they'll act as nonchalant with Buffett's eventual replacement. 

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

To contact the author of this story:
Tara Lachapelle in New York at tlachapelle@bloomberg.net

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