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Buffett takes insurance route to India

Last updated on: March 3, 2011 12:43 IST

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BS Reporter in Mumbai

The Sage of Omaha has finally arrived in India, just two days after the finance minister reaffirmed the government's commitment to further liberalise the insurance sector.

Berkshire Hathaway, owned by Warren Buffett, one of the world's most successful investors, will distribute general insurance products in India through its online portal and tele-marketing arm.

The $100-billion Berkshire, which will operate in India through Berkshire India, on Wednesday said it had become a 'corporate agent' of Bajaj Allianz General Insurance.

According to a source, Berkshire will invest around $10 million and put in place a call centre.

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Though the company's India debut is low-key, it is being seen as a preamble to a much larger presence.

If the market was receptive, Berkshire would expand products to include health, life and travel insurance and other personal lines as well, the company said.

"We have been watching the Indian insurance industry for a long time and are very excited about the immense opportunity in the emerging retail insurance sector. Berkshire Hathaway has been very successful in online and direct distribution in the US. As a corporate agent of Bajaj Allianz, it would like to replicate that success in India as well," said Kara Raiguel, director, Berkshire India.

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To start with, the company, based in Nebraska, US, will focus on motor insurance.

It plans to diversify into segments such as property and casualty insurance and reinsurance, utilities and energy, and freight rail transportation and finance.

Insurance and re-insurance are the main businesses of Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffet has been keen on entering the Indian insurance market for quite some time.

Last year, at the annual shareholders' meet, Buffett said he did not rule out India as a possible investment destination.

Recently, there was market speculation about Berkshire buying strategic stakes in Indian general insurance companies.

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There were reports of Berkshire picking up a stake in Bajaj Finserve.

It was also supposedly in talks with the government to buy a majority stake in one of the four public sector general insurance companies.

"We've looked a lot at being in the insurance business in India. The investments could be in companies or marketable securities, though bureaucratic obstacles, including limitations on foreign ownership, could complicate plans to invest," he had said.

Buffet's plans, said analyts, got crystallised with the rising prominence of Ajit Jain, long-rumoured contender to succeed Buffett.

Jain, in charge of Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, was recently praised by the legendary investor for having added 'great many billions of dollars' to the value of Berkshire Hathaway.

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There are 18 private general insurance companies in the country and most of them have foreign partners.

Apart from the foreign direct investment route, corporate agency is another way to enter the Indian insurance market.

"With higher margins, it is an attractive option for foreign players to start with," said an official of a general insurance company.

The FDI limit in the insurance sector is 26 per cent.

However, the government is trying to push the long-pending Insurance Amendment Bill, which seeks to raise this to 49 per cent.


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