Insurance Stocks: In It for the Long Haul

And the recent hit they've taken could spell opportunity for investors

By Alyssa Oursler, InvestorPlace Contributor

Investors have been flocking to safe investments lately, but they haven’t been so bullish on insurance companies.

The “Obamacare” ruling, for one, sparked a lot of talk about the future of such companies … well, not just talk. Major insurance stocks plummeted after the ruling on the idea that the restructuring of their fundamental business model and lower margins from more regulation would hurt them down the road.

If you really want to point at the ruling and throw your hands in the air and scream, go right ahead. But even in terms of the legislation, remember that lower margins also will be coming with a hefty influx of customers.

And, really, that’s all just fine print when it comes to insurance companies. These companies are just as steady as the telecom and tobacco stocks that investors are smitten with in tough times.

Nevertheless, big names in the insurance industry dropped even further Wednesday: WellPoint (NYSE:WLP) lost almost 13% while UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) was in the red 5%. The diversified iShares Dow Jones US Health Care ETF (NYSE:IHF) — which has a position in WellPoint and UnitedHealth, as well as Aetna (NYSE:AET) and Humana (NYSE:HUM) — is off 6% in the past five days. And most of the sector was suffering further losses Thursday.

What does that mean? It’s pretty simple: between Obamacare and the most recent sell-off, now could be a good time to jump on board.

See, when it comes to insurance companies, you’re not going to see any gigantic quarterly growth. But you also aren’t going to see them disappear.

Let’s take a closer look at UNH for some proof.

UnitedHealth Group is the largest single health carrier in the U.S. and insures 75 million people worldwide. Like I mentioned, this is a company that is down nearly 6% in the past two days and has shed 12% in a month.

But it’s also a company that saw its revenue break into the 12-figure range in 2011 when it brought in more than $100 billion. And it’s a company that’s seen year-over-year growth in both earnings and revenue since the beginning of 2008 — 18 consecutive quarters.

Heck, it’s probably longer than that, but that’s just when I decided to stop counting.

UnitedHealth’s revenue growth has remained steady in the most recent years too, hovering around 8%. And its EPS has more than doubled in the past four years, growing by double-digit percentages (sometimes as much as 35%) in every one of them.

UNH also offers a modest 1.6% dividend — a payout it has maintained for two decades. Sure, it wouldn’t make the cut as an “ultimate” dividend stock, but that return is better than you’d get on 10-year Treasuries right now.

Another good example is AFLAC (NYSE:AFL), which provides supplemental insurance — cancer plans, care plans, life insurance plans and so much more. For each of the past several years, Aflac’s revenue has increased by around $2 billion. And its earnings? $2.62 per share in 2008, up to $4.95 in 2010, and expected to be $6.64 in 2012.

Plus, it’s one of our Dependable Dividend stocks, with a 3.1% yield and a nearly 30-year history of uninterrupted payouts.

Like I said, slow and steady. Yet AFLAC has been hit hard in the past year, with shares down 10%.

WellPoint admittedly is the dog of the sector right now, as yesterday’s dismal earnings report was a big reason for its move down. And, indeed, it is worth noting the company’s short-term risk as it missed Wall Street’s earnings expectations and lowered its full-year forecast because of rising medical costs and competition.

But WellPoint also is trading at just 7 times earnings right now. Meanwhile, Humana and UNH have higher P/E’s of 9 and 11, while Health Net (NYSE:HNT) — a smaller operator — is trading at upwards of 13 times earnings. That makes WLP look pretty cheap right now, especially when you consider that its struggles are short-term, but it’s a long-term pick.

I think (or I’m hoping) you get the point. Insurance companies are solid, secular picks that could be a great opportunity given their recent sell-offs.

So don’t let Obamacare scare you away. Amidst all the hullabaloo about health care, one things is pretty darn certain: People need insurance, and companies that provide it will continue to cash in.

As of writing this, Alyssa Oursler did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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