WellPoint ( WLP) looks like the picture of health. Following a big merger last year that left it ranked as the largest managed care player in the country, WellPoint managed to more than double both its revenue and its profit during the third quarter. The company also grew earnings per share by 20% to $1.02, topping the consensus estimate by a penny. Looking ahead, WellPoint raised its full-year guidance by 2 cents and expects to report operating profits of $3.99 a share. Wall Street was expecting that much already. The company also reiterated its pledge to increase next year's earnings by 15%, with more specific guidance expected in early December. In the meantime, the company saw plenty of reason to celebrate its latest accomplishments. "Our third-quarter results further build upon a very successful year," CEO Larry Glasscock said, "in which we have delivered more products and services to our members than ever before." WellPoint's third-quarter revenue of $11.2 billion did come in a bit light, with analysts expecting $11.4 billion instead. But the company's net income rocketed 165% to $641 million, and its operating cash flow reached $928 million during the latest period. The company benefited from membership gains across every business line and every region in which it operates. All told, it now serves 29 million customers. In addition to membership growth, moderating medical cost trends and merger synergies helped lift the company's results. The company's medical cost ratio of 79.9% dropped from 83.7% a year ago and came in better than some experts had expected. Its merger-related synergies of "at least $40 million" matched management's guidance. Going forward, WellPoint plans to capitalize on new opportunities and keep growing its membership base. "We expect that our new Medicare products will be well received in the marketplace, as they will offer access to more affordable health and prescription drug plan options than previously available," Glasscock said. And "we are also anticipating good national accounts growth, having already secured a number of new accounts for the first of the year."
WellPoint's stock, which has nearly doubled over the past year, was unchanged at $76.09 a share in premarket trading.
"This segment makes up about half of WellPoint's commercial enrollment" right now, noted Arnold, who has an equal-weight rating on the stock. But "brokers overwhelmingly agreed that the carrier is gaining business due to its strong brand name and reasonable prices." Boorady likes WellPoint's strong Blue Cross/Blue Shield brand name as well. He believes it will help the company capture business in such growing areas as senior coverage and consumer-driven healthcare plans. If anything, he expects the company -- which has grown by acquiring other Blue Cross players -- to just keep getting bigger. "While WellPoint is big -- in fact, the larger health benefit provider in the U.S. -- it will have just 10% of the U.S. population enrolled after the WellChoice ( WC) acquisition, leaving it plenty of room for continued market share gains in a growing market," Boorady wrote. Thus, "WellPoint remains our favorite stock for 2005 and among the best-positioned companies we see in the managed care space."