Since september 11th, Ajit has been particularly busy. Among the policies we have written and retained entirely for our own account are (1) 578 million of property coverage for a south American refinery once a loss there exceeds 1 billion; (2) 1 billion of non-cancelable third-party liability coverage for losses arising from acts. We have written many other jumbo risks as well, such as protection for the world Cup Soccer tournament and the 2002 Winter Olympics. In all cases, however, we have attempted to avoid writing groups of policies from which losses might seriously aggregate. We will not, for example, write coverages on a large number of office and apartment towers in a single metropolis without excluding losses from both a nuclear explosion and the fires that would follow. No one can match the speed with which Ajit can offer huge policies.
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Joe brandon was appointed General re's ceo in September proposals and, along with global Tad Montross, its new president, is committed to producing underwriting profits. Last fall, Charlie and I read Jack welch's terrific book, jack, straight from the gut (get a copy!). In discussing it, we agreed that joe has many of Jack's characteristics: he is smart, energetic, hands-on, and expects much of both himself and his organization. When it was an independent company, general re often shone, and now it also has the considerable strengths Berkshire brings to the table. With that added advantage and with underwriting discipline restored, general re should be a huge asset for Berkshire. I predict that joe and Tad will make. At the national Indemnity reinsurance operation, Ajit jain continues to add enormous value to berkshire. Working with only 18 associates, Ajit manages one of the world's largest reinsurance operations measured by assets, and the largest, based upon the size of individual risks assumed. I have known the details of almost every policy that Ajit has written since he came with us in 1986, and never on even a single occasion have i seen him break any of our three underwriting rules. His extraordinary discipline, of course, does not eliminate losses; it does, however, prevent foolish losses. And that's the key: Just as is the case in investing, insurers produce outstanding long-term results primarily by avoiding dumb decisions, rather than by making brilliant ones.
Not knowing your costs will cause problems in any business. In long-tail reinsurance, where years of unawareness will promote and prolong severe underpricing, ignorance of true costs is dynamite. Additionally, general re was overly-competitive in going after, and retaining, business. While all concerned may intend to underwrite with essay care, it is nonetheless difficult for able, hard-driving professionals to curb their urge to prevail over competitors. If "winning however, is equated with market share rather than profits, trouble awaits. "No" must be an important part of any underwriter's vocabulary. At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, i now assure you that underwriting discipline is being restored at General re (and its Cologne re subsidiary) with appropriate urgency.
But we will not knowingly expose berkshire to losses beyond what we can comfortably handle. We will control our total exposure, no matter what the competition does. Insurance Operations in 2001 over the years, our insurance business has provided ever-growing, low-cost funds that have fueled much of Berkshire's growth. Charlie and I believe this will continue to be the case. But we stumbled in a big way in 2001, largely because of underwriting losses at General. In the past I have assured you that General re was underwriting with discipline and I have been proven wrong. Though its managers' intentions were good, the company broke each of the three underwriting rules I set forth in the last section and has paid a huge price for doing. One obvious cause for its failure is friendship that it did not reserve correctly more about this in the next section and therefore severely miscalculated the cost of the product it was selling.
That's still the case. We are perfectly willing to lose 2 billion to 2 billion in a single event (as we did on September 11th) if we have been paid properly for assuming the risk that caused the loss (which on that occasion we weren't). Indeed, we have a major competitive advantage because of our tolerance for huge losses. Berkshire has massive liquid resources, substantial non-insurance earnings, a favorable tax position and a knowledgeable shareholder constituency willing to accept volatility in earnings. This unique combination enables us to assume risks that far exceed the appetite of even our largest competitors. Over time, insuring these jumbo risks should be profitable, though periodically they will bring on a terrible year. The bottom-line today is that we will write some coverage for terrorist-related losses, including a few non-correlated policies with very large limits.
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The best the nation can achieve is a long succession of stalemates. There can be no flash checkmate against hydra-headed foes. Until now, insurers and reinsurers have blithely assumed the financial consequences from the incalculable risks I have described. Under a "close-to-worst-case" scenario, which could conceivably involve 1 trillion of damage, the insurance industry would be destroyed unless it manages in some manner to dramatically limit its assumption of terrorism risks. Government has the resources to absorb such a blow.
If it is unwilling to do so on a prospective basis, the general citizenry must bear its own risks and count on the government to come to its rescue after a disaster occurs. Why, you might ask, didn't I recognize the above facts before, september 11th? The answer, sadly, is that I did but I didn't convert thought into action. I violated the noah rule: Predicting rain doesn't count; building arks does. I consequently let Berkshire operate with a dangerous level of risk at General re in particular. I'm sorry to say that much risk for which we haven't been compensated remains on our books, but it is running off by the day. At Berkshire, it should be noted, we have for some years been willing to assume more risk than any other insurer has knowingly taken.
When stocks fall, these sins surface, hammering investors with losses that can run into the hundreds of billions. Juries deciding whether those losses should be borne by small investors or big insurance companies can be expected to hit insurers with verdicts that bear little relation to those delivered in bull-market days. Even one jumbo judgment, moreover, can cause settlement costs in later cases to mushroom. Consequently, the correct rate for d o "excess" (meaning the insurer or reinsurer will pay losses above a high threshold) might well, if based on exposure, be five or more times the premium dictated by experience. Insurers have always found it costly to ignore new exposures. Doing that in the case of terrorism, however, could literally bankrupt the industry.
No one knows the probability of a nuclear detonation in a major metropolis this year (or even multiple detonations, given that a terrorist organization able to construct one bomb might not stop there). Nor can anyone, with assurance, assess the probability in this year, or another, of deadly biological or chemical agents being introduced simultaneously (say, through ventilation systems) into multiple office buildings and manufacturing plants. An attack like that would produce astronomical workers' compensation claims. Here's what we do know: The probability of such mind-boggling disasters, though likely very low at present, is not zero. The probabilities are increasing, in an irregular and immeasurable manner, as knowledge and materials become available to those who wish us ill. Fear may recede with time, but the danger won't the war against terrorism can never be won.
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This information will not tell you the exact probability of a big quake next year, or where in great the state it might happen. But the statistic has utility, particularly if you are writing a huge statewide policy, as National Indemnity has done in recent years. At certain times, however, using experience as a guide to pricing is not only useless, but actually dangerous. Late in a bull market, for example, large losses from directors and professional officers liability insurance d o are likely to be relatively rare. When stocks are rising, there are a scarcity of targets to sue, and both questionable accounting and management chicanery often go undetected. At that juncture, experience on high-limit d o may look great. But that's just when exposure is likely to be exploding, by way of ridiculous public offerings, earnings manipulation, chain-letter-like stock promotions and a potpourri of other unsavory activities.
extraordinarily. The events of September 11th made it clear that our implementation of rules 1 and 2 at General re had been dangerously weak. In setting prices and also in evaluating aggregation risk, we had either overlooked or dismissed the possibility of large-scale terrorism losses. That was a relevant underwriting factor, and we ignored. In pricing property coverages, for example, we had looked to the past and taken into account only costs we might expect to incur from windstorm, fire, explosion and earthquake. But what will be the largest insured property loss in history (after adding related business-interruption claims) originated from none of these forces. In short, all of us in the industry made a fundamental underwriting mistake by focusing on experience, rather than exposure, thereby assuming a huge terrorism risk for which we received no premium. Experience, of course, is a highly useful starting point in underwriting most coverages. For example, it's important for insurers writing California earthquake policies to know how many quakes in the state during the past century have registered.0 or greater on the richter scale.
The exception is our retroactive reinsurance operation (a business we explained in last year's annual report which has desirable economics even though it currently hits us with an annual underwriting loss of about 425 million. Principles of Insurance Underwriting, when property/casualty companies are judged by their cost of float, very few stack up as satisfactory businesses. And interestingly unlike the situation prevailing in many other industries neither size nor brand name determines an insurer's profitability. Indeed, many of the biggest and best-known companies regularly deliver mediocre results. What counts in this business is underwriting discipline. The winners are those that unfailingly stick to three key principles: They accept only house those risks that they are able to properly evaluate (staying within their circle of competence) and that, after they have evaluated all relevant factors including remote loss scenarios, carry the expectancy. These insurers ignore market-share considerations and are sanguine about losing business to competitors that are offering foolish prices or policy conditions. They limit the business they accept in a manner that guarantees they will suffer no aggregation of losses from a single event or from related events that will threaten their solvency. They ceaselessly search for possible correlation among seemingly-unrelated risks.
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Last year I told you that, barring a mega-catastrophe, our cost of float would probably drop from its 2000 level. I had in mind natural catastrophes when I said that, but instead we were hit by a man-made catastrophe on September 11th an event that delivered the insurance industry its largest loss in history. Our float cost therefore came in at a staggering.8. It was our worst year in float cost since 1984, and a result that to a significant degree, as I will explain in the next section, we brought upon ourselves. If no mega-catastrophe occurs, i once again expect the cost of our float to be book low in the coming year. We will indeed need a low cost, as will all insurers. Some years back, float costing, say, 4 was tolerable because government bonds yielded twice as much, and stocks prospectively offered still loftier returns. Today, fat returns are nowhere to be found (at least we can't find them) and short-term funds earn less than. Under these conditions, each of our insurance operations, save one, must deliver an underwriting profit if it is to be judged a good business.