NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The stocks of profitable life insurers are trading at historically low multiples, providing wonderful long-term opportunities for investors as the sector flies under the radar.
With the financial news media fixated on the endless mortgage travails of Bank of America (BAC) and the almost nonstop flow of regulatory interpretations of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, it's easy to forget that some niches of the financial sector are pretty darn healthy despite stubborn unemployment and continually low interest rates.
Credit Suisse analyst Thomas Gallagher said last week that although some investors consider life insurance to be one of the most "structurally challenged financial subsectors" because of the effect of low interest rates on investment portfolios, "the group appears to be trading as if the true economic impact is more severe."
With many life insurers trading well below book value -- while facing much less risk than similarly priced banks that face unknown risks from mortgage putback lawsuits (like Bank of America) and much smaller regulatory targets on their backs -- Gavin Magor, a senior analyst with Weiss Ratings, says "investors are looking at a pretty good deal" for healthier sector players. Although the sector as a whole "should be trading at a discount to book value because of asset quality uncertainty, this is a solid industry, that is financially very viable," he says."Using data provided by SNL Financial, TheStreet has identified the five actively traded U.S. life insurers with the most upside potential based on consensus price targets among analysts. Most of the names are trading well below tangible book value and are also trading at forward price multiples even lower than the largest U.S. banks. Bank of America -- which arguably faces the highest level of uncertainty among the nation's largest banks -- closed at $7.23 on Friday, or six times the consensus 2012 earnings estimate of $1.23 a share, among analysts polled by FactSet. Three of the five profitable life insurers discussed here trade at even lower multiples. Here are the five actively traded insurance companies with the most upside implied by mean price targets among analysts polled by FactSet:
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