UnitedHealth Group ( UNH) is ready to strut its stuff.

The giant health insurer is poised to deliver another huge jump in profits when it kicks off the sector's third-quarter earnings season on Friday. The company's performance, which has proven strong for years, will then set the stage for expectations about the managed care group as a whole.

Prudential analyst David Shove plans to see some real muscle.

"We expect UnitedHealth Group to report strong 3Q05 earnings with slight upside to consensus," writes Shove, who has long maintained an overweight rating on the stock. And "looking to 2006, we believe UnitedHealth Group will sketch a rosy, robust earnings outlook, which will allay investor concerns over the managed care sector's earnings prospects."

On average, analysts are looking for UnitedHealth to increase third-quarter earnings by at least 20% to 63 cents a share. But they see profit growth slowing down in the year ahead.

Shove clearly expects better. He points to a number of opportunities -- especially those created by recent acquisitions and expanded Medicare coverage -- when explaining his bullish view.

"Reflecting this hopeful outlook, we foresee UnitedHealth Group could aggressively raise its 2006 earnings expectations from its current 15% to the mid-25% range," he writes, "which would be higher than prior year's forward expectations."

In the meantime, Shove suggests, UnitedHealth could benefit from developments that have brought pain to others. For one thing, he says, the company could see its results boosted by the disruption in patient visits caused by Hurricane Katrina. For another, he adds, it could find itself negotiating more attractive contracts with transportation companies that have wound up bankrupt.

Even so, UnitedHealth investors seemed a bit nervous on Thursday. They pushed the stock down 1.4% to $54.26 over concerns that UnitedHealth might fail to clear the high bar they always set.

High Hurdles

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