This 'Baby Berkshire' Outperforms Its Namesake -- And Has 50% Upside

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If a firm that has earned the title of "Baby Berkshire" actually outperforms Warren Buffett's legendary Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , what should it be called then?

It's just a hypothetical question, but I ask because the stock of one pretty well-known Baby Berkshire has been soundly beating the real Berkshire for quite some time.

As you can see, this Baby Berkshire is substantially ahead at just about every time, and it has led by nearly 2 full percentage points a year for the past decade and a half.

The firm takes after Buffett's Berkshire in a couple key ways, including its business model -- a diverse and profitable insurance business supplemented by an adeptly managed stock portfolio. Also, the firm refuses to let the constant din of notoriously shortsighted Wall Street distract it from its goal of delivering excellent long-term results.

I'm referring to specialty insurer Markel (NYSE: MKL ) , which currently only has a market capitalization of $9.1 billion (Berkshire's Class A shares alone are worth more than $310 billion). But I don't think it'll be long until Markel achieves large-cap status -- thanks to fast-rising revenues, which have more than doubled since 2009, to $4.7 billion a year.

Revenues come mainly from the insurance side of the business, where Markel has made it hard for competitors to gain a foothold by developing expertise in a wide variety of policies. These include some common everyday coverage like property and casualty (P&C) insurance, as well as various types of professional liability such as medical malpractice.

But where the firm has really made its mark is in the provision of specialty products most other insurers don't delve into. Examples include coverage for camps and recreation programs, racehorses, health clubs, child care centers, railroads, artisan contractors, light manufacturing operations, shipping cargo and even vacant buildings. Last November, Markel introduced liability insurance for the U.K. biomedical and life sciences industry.

Periodic acquisitions have long contributed to the firm's expansion and product lineup, and in May 2013, management completed a $3.1 billion buyout of reinsurer Alterra. Some analysts criticized the deal because reinsurance (policies that insurance firms purchase to protect themselves from large losses) is considered higher-risk due to the potential scale of reinsurance claims, among other reasons.

These analysts do have a point. However, management pursued the deal because it expected Alterra would help diversify Markel's book of business. I agree not only because the acquisition made Markel more like Berkshire, which also offers reinsurance, but because of the importance of reinsurance in promoting stability in the overall insurance industry.

Several commonly used industry metrics bear out management's acumen, not only in the case of Alterra but in general. For instance, premium income has risen dramatically in the past couple years, climbing from nearly $2 billion in 2011 to more than $3.2 billion currently. (The addition of Alterra certainly contributed a large portion of recent growth.) During the past 20 years, Markel's income from premiums has increased by an average of about 18% annually.

The firm has also posted a solid combined ratio of 97% during the past couple years, indicating that operating expenses and claims payments have been significantly lower than premium income recently. (The combined ratio is obtained by dividing the combined total of losses and expenses by the premium earned; the lower the percentage, the better.) During the past decade, the firm's combined ratio averaged 96% and has dropped below 90% on occasion. By comparison, the combined ratio for the overall P&C industry is currently about 98% and has sometimes significantly exceeded 100%.

Book value is another useful metric for insurance companies because it accurately reflects the health of their balance sheets. In Markel's case, book value has grown at a very solid 12%-a-year pace for about a decade, from $168 in 2004 to $494 currently.

The firm probably wouldn't possess industry-leading metrics like these if it obsessed over quarterly results like so many competitors. Indeed, within the industry, Markel is famous for encouraging underwriters to avoid issuing unprofitable policies even though doing so might appease Wall Street by padding the top line.

With the oversight of noted value investor Tom Gayner, Markel's $3.3 billion stock portfolio has long beaten the market. Indeed, its five- and 10-year compound annual growth rates of 21.6% and 12.4%, respectively, are well ahead of the S&P 500's 18.8% and 7.8% rates of return during the same periods. As of March 31, Gayner's top five holdings were Berkshire Hathaway, CarMax (NYSE: KMX ) , Diageo (NYSE: DEO ) , Walgreen (NYSE: WAG ) and Brookfield Asset Management (NYSE: BAM ) .

When selecting stocks, Gayner focuses on several features in addition to attractive valuations, including high returns on capital relative to competitors, and management with talent and a reputation for integrity. He also prefers companies that are in a position to do a better job than competitors of compounding earnings and cash flow.

Markel doesn't pay a dividend, opting instead to reinvest profits back into the business. Based on the stock's long-term outperformance, this approach has clearly benefited shareholders.

Risks to Consider: Though uncommon, catastrophic losses from man-made or natural disasters are a significant concern for P&C insurers like Markel and could decimate the company financially.

Action to Take --> With a trailing price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 32, investors are paying a premium for Markel's stock. However, this is warranted, in my view, because of this Baby Berkshire's high quality operations and top-notch investment management. With analysts projecting earnings per share ( EPS ) growth of more than 11% a year, upside for the stock is in the 50% range during the next five years. Thus, the price could jump to more than $980 by mid-2019 from $655 currently.




The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.

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This article appears in: Investing , Investing Ideas , Stocks

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