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Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway seems to pull its own weight

Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway seems to pull its own weight

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The “most important” Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that isn’t an insurance company is likely to have performed better than its rival in the second quarter.

BNSF Railway second-quarter freight volumes probably held steady versus year-earlier levels, a reading that would outpace Union Pacific, whose shipments fell and helped drag down that company’s profits. At Berkshire, BNSF’s performance could help the conglomerate’s bottom line — or at least not hurt it.

Chief Executive Warren Buffett calls the railroad, employer of 5,000 Nebraskans, “by far the most important non-insurance subsidiary” among the conglomerate’s 80-odd operating companies, which include confectioners, bootmakers, party-goods suppliers and global catastrophe insurers.

Some of the news at this key unit has not been good, including a 10 percent second-quarter decline in shipments of crude oil. BNSF hauls the most crude of any other railroad.

“But the temporary drop-off in freight shipments is of little concern, since Warren Buffett has a time horizon of more than 10 years and the railroad will grow over time with the U.S. economy,” said David Kass, a Berkshire shareholder and business professor at the University of Maryland.

Kass reckons that the market value of BNSF, which Berkshire acquired in 2010 for $44 billion, has nearly doubled since then. Annual revenue through 2014 has risen by two-thirds to $23.2 billion on net earnings that have more than doubled to almost $4 billion.

Of course, BNSF is just one of Berkshire’s many moving parts that investors will watch when earnings are released Friday. All told, a FactSet poll of Wall Street analysts has them expecting second-quarter earnings of $2,997.44 a share. Last year, Berkshire’s second-quarter net income was $3,889 per Class A share. So far this year, the company’s Class A stock is down about 4.75 percent.

Still, David Rolfe, chief investment officer of St. Louis-​based Wedgewood Partners, said Berkshire Hathaway is an outlier among publicly traded companies in many ways. One of them, he said, is that its shareholders typically think largely in terms of annual operating earnings and gain in per-share book value, metrics preferred by Buffett and regularly preached by him.

“We always think in terms of annual earnings rather than the lumpiness of quarter to quarter,” said Rolfe, whose partnership allocated 7.5 percent of its $11 billion portfolio to Berkshire shares. “We typically don’t put a lot of time trying to drill down where we think the earnings are going to be.”

Of the investors and analysts who are paying attention to second-quarter earnings, here’s what they’re watching:

Home-related businesses: Berkshire owns several companies that depend on the housing industry, including a real estate sales division, a carpet company, furniture stores and building products manufacturers.

While the U.S. housing sector has rebounded, those companies’ earnings may not be enough to “move the needle” and make a substantial difference in Berkshire’s profits, given the small size of those operating units compared to the mammoth parent company, said Cathy Seifert, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ.

Insurance: Insurance remains the company’s lifeblood. Numerous subsidiaries, such as Geico, have created over their lifetimes $84 billion as of the end of last year of what the industry calls “float,” or unallocated paid-in customer premiums Buffett can use for other investments. That float has more than tripled since 2000.

Seifert said profits from insurance may not improve much for the quarter. And lower gasoline prices may encourage more driving and result in more auto accident claims, even though the car insurance business has been fairly healthy overall.

Derivatives: Andy Kilpatrick, a Berkshire shareholder and author of the multi-volume corporate biography “Of Permanent Value, said the company’s vast portfolio of derivatives probably will show some unrealized losses because world stocks and bonds were volatile in the second quarter. Derivatives are investments tied to moves in other assets.

In the first quarter, Berkshire reported a $3.5 billion book of derivatives related to stocks and credit marks. It consisted mostly of $3.2 billion of equity index put options, or bets that world stock markets will rise. Unrealized, on-paper derivatives gains in the first quarter were about $1.3 billion, but that might not be the case this quarter.

Buffett has said that the company’s derivatives portfolio is slowly winding down and that he expects to exit the business altogether.

Cash: Shareholders and others closely watch the company’s cash on hand. It’s expected to come in higher than last quarter’s $64 billion, Kilpatrick said. The cash balance is from where Buffett likes to pay for acquisitions, eschewing both debt and the use of his beloved Berkshire shares as buyout currency.

George Morgan, a finance instructor and Buffett scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he sees a good chance Buffett will once again go after a major consumer food and beverage company, after 2013’s blockbuster deal for H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup maker.

Heinz, purchased in collaboration with Brazilian investment partnership 3G Capital, was the last “elephant” — Buffett’s term for acquisitions large enough to make a major contribution to a business as large as Berkshire Hathaway — to join the family. BNSF, added in 2010, was the last one prior to that, making it two elephants in five years.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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Related to this story

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said late June reports from the railroad indicate that an average of between two oil trains and eight oil trains a week were entering Nebraska near South Sioux City before heading east into Iowa along the Cass-Sarpy County borders. That is down from 12 trains a week to 18 trains a week reported in May by the Texas-based railroad owned by Omaha’s Berkshire Hathaway.

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