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Buffett's Berkshire results point to an improving economy

August 2, 2013: 6:47 PM ET

The company made more money from both its investments -- which have outperformed the market overall -- and its operating businesses than it did a year ago.

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FORTUNE -- If Berkshire Hathaway is a guide, then the economy may be picking up speed.

Berkshire (BRKA), which is run by billionaire Warren Buffett, handily beat expectations with its second-quarter earnings on Friday. The company, which is both a conglomerate and an investment vehicle for Buffett, made more money from both its investments and in its operating businesses than it did a year ago.

Berkshire reported earnings of $4.5 billion, or $2,763 per Class A share, easily exceeding expectations of $2,093.73 per share from analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. While revenue rose 13% in its insurance business line, higher costs in the division led to a slight dip in profits. Berkshire's non-insurance businesses made $170 million more in the second quarter of 2013 than they did in the same period a year ago. Overall, the company's second-quarter earnings were up 46% from a year ago.

Buffett also posted an impressive gain in his investment portfolio, which is dominated by a number of sizable stakes in well-known companies, including American Express (AXP), Coca Cola (KO), and Wells Fargo (WFC).

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Berkshire's stock market holdings rose 18% in the first six months of the year, outperforming the market in general, which was up 13% in the same time, as measured by the S&P 500 (SPX).

But even Buffett's company wasn't able to dodge rising interest rates. The value of Berkshire's bond market holdings, which are largely held in its insurance businesses, have fallen $750 million so far this year.

Berkshire is widely followed because of Buffett, but also because it is a relatively reliable bellwether for the rest of the economy.

It owns a wide variety of businesses including railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe and companies that benefit from home construction. In the past few years, Berkshire has deployed more of its cash on large-scale acquisitions instead of simply investing in the stock market. In the second quarter, Berkshire completed its acquisition of Heinz with Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital.

Berkshire's positive results came on the same day the U.S. government announced that employers added a disappointing 162,000 jobs in the month of July.

Berkshire's results, though, suggest that the economic recovery is continuing. Revenue from Berkshire's railroad business rose 7% in the quarter. That was up from a 4% jump at the same time a year ago. Berkshire's other manufacturing businesses, which include Benjamin Moore and other building products companies as well as apparel makers Fruit of the Loom and Russell, rose 8% in the quarter.

MORE: Investors still aren't betting on a better economy

Berkshire's acquisitions may make the company a better barometer for the economy, but these moves have also altered the company's makeup and its prospects to investors. Berkshire now generates far more of its gains in book value, which Buffett says is his preferred metric for success, from its operating businesses rather than its investments. As a result, the company's book value this year is up only 7%, far less than the gains of Buffett's investments.

Still, investors in Berkshire should be asking themselves if that makes Berkshire a riskier business or a safer one? For now, the market seems to be saying safer. Berkshire's stock is up 32% this year.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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