(Adds details on quarterly operating profit, cash pile; investor quotes)
By Jonathan Stempel
OMAHA, Neb., May 5 (Reuters) - Berkshire Hathaway Inc , the conglomerate run by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, reported a 27 percent decline in first-quarter profit on Friday, and said a loss from insurance underwriting contributed to operating results that fell short of forecasts.
The results were released one day before Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, where Buffett, 86, and Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 93, will answer five hours of questions from shareholders, journalists and analysts.
That meeting is the centerpiece of a festive weekend of events throughout Omaha expected to draw more than 37,000 shareholders.
Net income fell to $4.06 billion, or $2,469 per Class A share, from $5.59 billion, or $3,401, a year earlier, when Berkshire had a $1.9 billion gain from its swap of its Procter & Gamble Co stock for the Duracell battery business.
Quarterly operating profit, which excludes investment and derivative gains and losses, fell 5 percent to a three-year low of $3.56 billion, or $2,163 per Class A share, from $3.74 billion, or $2,274.
Analysts on average expected operating profit of about $2,666 per Class A share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Buffett believes Berkshire’s investment and derivative gains in any given quarter are often meaningless, but accounting rules require Berkshire to report them in its earnings statements.
Despite the earnings shortfall, Buffett’s preferred measure of growth for Berkshire, book value per Class A share, or assets minus liabilities, rose 3.5 percent in the quarter to $178,073.
The conglomerate also ended the quarter with roughly $96.5 billion of cash, equivalents and Treasury bills, a record sum and enough for one or more major acquisitions.
Berkshire has more than 90 operating units in insurance, chemical, energy, food and clothing, railroad and other sectors, and also has large investments in stocks of companies such as Apple Inc and Wells Fargo & Co.
Many Berkshire units are selling their wares at discounted prices at the annual meeting, while others offer memorabilia such as “Berky” boxers and bras, talking Warren Buffett dolls, and rubber ducks that look like Buffett and Munger for $5 a pair.
Buffett has led Berkshire since 1965.
Berkshire said its insurance businesses swung to a $267 million underwriting loss from a year-earlier profit of $213 million.
This reflected higher losses from catastrophes in 2017, including an Australian cyclone in March; unexpectedly high losses related to hurricanes and earthquakes in 2016, and weaker results at the auto insurer Geico and the reinsurer General Re.
It also reflected the amortization of deferred charges from Berkshire’s January agreement to take on many long-term risks in American International Group Inc’s property and casualty portfolio, in exchange for $10.2 billion upfront.
That payment helped boost float, or the amount of insurance premiums collected before claims are paid and which helps fund Berkshire’s growth, to about $105 billion from $91 billion at the end of 2016. It also helped boost quarterly revenue 25 percent to $65.19 billion.
Quarter-to-quarter swings “are about the mix of business and what is coming due, and what is being renewed,” said Cole Smead, portfolio manager at Smead Capital Management in Seattle. “This is not a disaster.”
It is unclear whether Berkshire booked losses as Buffett began selling some of its stock in IBM Corp, which it has owned for about six years.
Buffett told CNBC on Thursday he sold about one-third of Berkshire’s 81 million share stake in IBM this year, and no longer values the computer services company as highly as before.
In other businesses, the BNSF railroad saw profit rise 7 percent to $838 million, helped by higher revenue from fuel surcharges and increased shipments of consumer products.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a utility unit mostly owned by Berkshire, saw profit rise 14 percent to $501 million, helped by lower pension and maintenance costs at the PacifiCorp electric utility and a better rate structure for natural gas pipeline operator Kern River.
In Friday trading, Berkshire Class A shares rose 0.2 percent to $250,000 and its Class B shares rose 0.1 percent to $166.55. The shares are roughly 6 percent below record highs set on March 2.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in Omaha, Nebraska; Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan; Editing by Nick Zieminski