Despite incredible relevancy toward the novel coronavirus pandemic, UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) was hardly immune to volatility. At one point, UNH stock was down over 33% for the year.
However, in late March, shares began picking up momentum. It wasn’t the only one, with other managed care organizations, such as Anthem (NYSE:ANTM), Cigna (NYSE:CI) and Humana (NYSE:HUM) enjoying similar upside.
But can you trust this sector given growing concerns about economic stability?
On one hand, the case for UNH stock and its peers appears to have fundamental justification. Unlike other crises that we have suffered in the modern era, the novel coronavirus is a black swan event that has impacted all of us to a significant degree. In this manner, it’s completely dissimilar to localized events, such as the 9/11 attacks or an incident that only impacts certain people, such as the housing crisis of the mid-2000s.
No, the coronavirus is a microbiological threat from which no one can assume they’re safe. Undoubtedly, this caused many consumers to open their eyes toward upgrading their medical care. If enough people do this, it could provide a boost to UNH stock.
Furthermore, UnitedHealth delivered an earnings beat for its first quarter with an earnings per share of $3.72. Consensus estimates called for EPS of $3.65. Revenue, though, missed slightly at $64.42 billion, whereas analysts had targeted $64.67 billion.
Although a very positive outcome considering the circumstances, we’re walking through uncharted territory. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to believe UNH stock could suffer more turbulence until we get a hold of the true status of our economy. Here are three other reasons why investors need to be careful with UnitedHealth.
UNH Stock Has a Flawed Coronavirus Catalyst
Although I understand why many analysts have a bullish take on managed care companies, I believe that they’re exaggerating the positive impact of the coronavirus. Yes, the pandemic has caused people to examine their insurance policy and their overall preparedness. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to a mass conversion toward UNH.
First, the membership metric missed Wall Street’s expectation by 2% in the first quarter. This shortfall likely indicates that the growing number of the unemployed, along with broader fears about economic sustainability have negatively affected UnitedHealth.
Second, the coronavirus is a rare, one-off event. The last incident like this to hit the U.S. was the H1N1 pandemic, which infected millions and killed approximately 17,000. But this outbreak happened over a decade ago. Frankly, it’s not worth adjusting your insurance policy (especially to a premium policy) to address a situation that occurs so infrequently.
Not only that, your chances of getting Covid-19 are very slim. Roughly speaking, there are 328 million people in the U.S. At time of writing, there are 1.26 million total cumulative cases of coronavirus here. Thus, we’re talking about a disease that has only impacted less than 0.4% of the population.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not minimizing this pandemic. But I just don’t see the impetus for UNH stock. Sure, people will forever remember the coronavirus, but I doubt they’ll switch or upgrade insurance policies over it.
The Pandemic Is a Negative for Insurers
As you know, the rising cost of health care has been a vexing issue for patients along with the electorate. However, not having access to health care is a scarier thought for many folks. That’s why for those of us that can afford it, we put up with the escalating costs.
If you believe the above bullish argument for UNH stock, then you’re assuming the outbreak provides an incentive for UnitedHealth. Clearly, the collective health risk has caused people to examine their coverage with “what if” scenarios. But I don’t think an outlier is enough to convince people to pay more money for premium care.
Indeed, I look at it from the opposite angle. When the coronavirus broke out in a substantial way and disrupted our health care networks, people were incentivized not to visit the hospital or primary care clinic. With so many sick people and medical professionals often working without adequate protection, you were taking huge risks to subject yourself to that environment.
Yet at the same time, you were paying your monthly bills as if nothing happened. This then causes people to examine the extreme cost of paying for protection against an event that might not occur.
If anything, I see a catalyst for supplemental insurance companies like Aflac (NYSE:AFL), which covers more common unexpected events, such as a broken limb. Because it’s supplemental, people can choose whatever services they wish to enhance their overall coverage profile. But besides that, the concept of a bump up in premium covered care doesn’t strike me as plausible in this environment.
It’s All About the Economy
The Department of Labor will release its April jobs report today. I don’t need to know what the number is to know that it’s terrible. On Wednesday, Automatic Data Processing (NASDAQ:ADP) released its employment stats, which showed that the private sector shed more than 20 million jobs.
Current projections call for the April jobs report to disclose 22 million employment positions lost. That would mean a decade’s worth of jobs have evaporated in a span of weeks. It’s a staggering thought.
And in this paradigm, it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile how UNH stock will thrive. Generally, UnitedHealth plans cost more than other coverage programs. Perhaps the first wave of unemployment numbers didn’t impact UNH because they disproportionately affected lower-income workers.
But if this economic malaise continues, it’s inevitable that higher-wage earners in business services and management roles will get the axe. In my opinion, it’s already happening. Either way, the middle class cannot avoid the coronavirus. And that would present huge challenges for UNH stock for which I’m not interested in staking my money.
A former senior business analyst for Sony Electronics, Josh Enomoto has helped broker major contracts with Fortune Global 500 companies. Over the past several years, he has delivered unique, critical insights for the investment markets, as well as various other industries including legal, construction management, and healthcare. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.