Fundamentals still matter at UnitedHealth ( UNH). The company's stock, guided in recent weeks by a stock options probe, jumped 5% Wednesday, passing $50 for the first time since late spring, on news of solid
second-quarter results . Rapid growth in key areas, such as Medicare Part D and consumer-driven health plans, lifted quarterly profits above expectations and allowed the company to raise the bar for the entire year. Investors felt so cheered by the news that they stopped dwelling on the options probe -- and even stopped asking about it, for a change. CEO William McGuire, a paper billionaire at the center of that investigation, barely mentioned an ongoing review of the company's stock option grants during a conference call on Wednesday. He also made clear that he could offer little more if asked for an update "It is frustrating to all of us," he acknowledged at the beginning of the call. "But the integrity of the review process must be assured." Although other companies have completed similar reviews in a matter of weeks -- and this one has now dragged on for months -- investors accepted McGuire's brief comment without argument and settled in for some good news about the latest quarter instead. On that topic, at least, the company had plenty to say. For starters, UnitedHealth saw its second-quarter revenue surge by 57% to $17.9 billion following its acquisition of big-time Medicare player PacifiCare. Net income jumped a solid 26% to $974 million, with earnings per share of 70 cents beating analyst expectations by 2 cents. Given that upside -- and a robust outlook for the second half of the year -- the company has raised its 2006 guidance to between $2.91 and $2.95 a share. It could, therefore, beat the current consensus estimate of $2.92 a share if everything goes as planned.
In the meantime, many things have gone better than planned so far. Notably, UnitedHealth continues to sell more Medicare Part D and consumer-driven health plans than it had anticipated. All told, the company now boasts 5.7 million Part D customers -- including 1.2 million that it added in the past 90 days alone. It ranks as the leader in that space. UnitedHealth dominates the consumer-driven market as well. The company's Definity division, which markets such plans, added 675,000 customers - resulting in a 53% growth rate - over the past six months. Those results, McGuire said, "have certainly been beyond our expectations for 2006." Indeed, only one major business segment -- the company's traditional risk-based commercial insurance unit -- seems to be lagging in performance these days. Continuing a trend, the unit lost 45,000 customers in the latest period. Still, CIBC analyst Carl McDonald saw good news even there. "Commercial at-risk enrollment was modestly below our expectation," McDonald admitted on Wednesday, when reiterating his outperform rating on the company's stock. But "we do not view this as negative, as United has adopted a disciplined pricing strategy. ... (This) is a sign the company continues to raise rates faster than the rest of the industry." Indeed, McDonald spotted positive signs almost everywhere. Perhaps most importantly, the company's medical cost ratio -- a metric closely watched by investors -- held steady during the period and is expected to remain stable throughout the rest of the year. Meanwhile, McDonald noted, the company recognized another favorable prior-period development, suggesting that it continues to conservatively reserve more money for medical claims than it actually winds up needing. At the same time, McDonald suggests, the company could wind up saving more money from its PacifiCare acquisition than it had anticipated. It could also post higher margins on its Part D business, he said, and - hopefully - ramp up its stock repurchases.
In the meantime, he notes, most of the company's major business segments continue to handily outperform expectations. Now, he suggests, the company simply needs to put the stock options scandal behind it and move on. "The company had no comment on its ongoing options situation (in its earnings release), and the question is bound to come up on today's conference call," wrote McDonald, whose firm hopes to secure investment banking business from the company over the next three months. "We think almost any resolution is positive for the stock, since it will eliminate uncertainty and allow the market to focus on fundamentals."