August 7, 2015
Dinner With Warren Buffett (Part 1)
by Tony Canas
Buffett's timeless advice, over 38 years of writing to shareholders, includes: Uncertainty is okay as long as the price is right.
Recently, we received an amazing email from Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha himself, congratulating us for InsNerds.com, confessing that he’s a big fan of our efforts and inviting us on an all expenses-paid trip (on NetJets, of course) to have dinner with him to discuss the industry. We had an amazing time over the three-hour dinner at Gorat’s Steak House. The best part was being able to pick his brain about the awesome industry we work in…
Sadly, then the alarm clock went off at 5 am, and I realized I was dreaming. There was no email from Warren Buffett, no invitation for dinner and no flight on NetJets.
But all is not lost. Uncle Warren has written extensively about the insurance industry through letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, which he has published every year since 1977. All this wisdom is available to anyone online for free, or you can even buy a printed copy. All you need is the nerdiness, dedication and patience to read through all 763 pages of material.
Because we know you’re busy, and don’t have the time to do this, we did it for you. We went through all 38 years of Warren Buffett’s letters, and we extracted everything you need to learn about insurance from the Oracle of Omaha himself, largely in his own words, with some of our colorful commentary. There is a lot to learn from Omaha’s Oracle, so instead of overwhelming you with all 38 years worth of knowledge, InsNerds will be publishing a series of articles sharing his wisdom.
The letters contain a lot of the history of GEICO, Gen Re, Berkshire Specialty Insurance and his other insurance companies in the letters; we chose not to include that and instead focus on insurance knowledge that can be useful to today’s insurance professionals. Uncle Warren keeps hitting many of the same points over and over; in those cases, we generally chose the wording from the newest letters, because, like good wine, Uncle Warren’s writing got better with time. Our first article will share three insights on the fundamentals of insurance:
1. At the core, insurance is nothing but a promise, and being able to fulfill that promise is key:
“The buyer of insurance receives only a promise in exchange for his cash. The value of that promise should be appraised against the possibility of adversity, not prosperity. At a minimum, the promise should appear able to withstand a prolonged combination of depressed financial markets and exceptionally unfavorable underwriting results. ” 1984 letter, page 10.
Buffett is indicating that a company must be cognizant of the promise that it is making to its customers, which is that the company will have the funds to indemnify its customers after a loss. The company must manage its reserves and investments wisely to be able to fulfill its promise when there is a claim, so the investments must be able to withstand a down market and a year of catastrophic losses at the same time. One of the main things that makes insurance interesting is that, contrary to most other businesses, we don’t know the cost of our product when we sell it.
2. Uncertainty is okay, as long as it’s priced appropriately:
“Even if perfection in assessing risks is unattainable, insurers can underwrite sensibly. After all, you need not know a man’s precise age to know he is old enough to vote nor know his exact weight to recognize his need to diet.” 1996 letter, page 6.
The purpose of insurance is to manage risk. When taking on a given risk, it is not possible to know if you will see a positive or negative outcome. In choosing risks, one must make informed decisions, but if a company waits to make a decision it may lose the business. Insurers must determine how much uncertainty they are comfortable with. The company will likely not be able to attain every single bit of information that it would like before making a decision, but a decision must still be made.
3. Always remember the big picture:
“[…]any insurer can grow rapidly if it gets careless about underwriting.” 1997 letter, page 8.
Finally, in the business of insurance, a company should take on smart risks. It can be tempting to grow rapidly by writing any piece of business that comes your way. A company may take shortcuts in underwriting to put business on the books. However, if this practice becomes a habit, the profitability of your book will be unsustainable. Playing the long game is necessary in our business. This is something Uncle Warren is constantly talking about in his letters: Underwriting discipline, especially when the market gets soft, is his top priority.
These are three key observations about the basics of insurance that we found in reading Mr. Buffett’s letters. There are many more to be discovered, and we look forward to writing about some additional themes.