WellPoint ( WLP) could cause some hearts to skip today. Although the giant health insurer reported strong financial results -- largely in line with Wall Street expectations -- the company also weathered an uptick in its all-important medical cost ratio, which reflects the amount of each premium dollar it spends on patient care. WellPoint blamed higher claims in government-sponsored programs for much of that rise. Still, shares fell 3% early Wednesday. During the fourth quarter, WellPoint's revenue jumped 29% to $14.3 billion -- just shy of the consensus estimate -- as the company's customer base expanded to include 34.1 million members. Net income rose 23% to $801 million, while operating profits of $1.27 a share matched Wall Street expectations exactly. Looking ahead, WellPoint expects to deliver profits of $1.25 a share in the first quarter and $5.53 a share in the coming year. Analysts have predicted a penny more from the company over both of those periods. The market could dwell on some other disappointing metrics as well. Perhaps most notably, WellPoint's fourth-quarter MCR rose to 81.1%. The company attributed the increase to growth in government accounts with high expense ratios, including both federal and state programs. The company did see its MCR drop from the previous quarter's worrisome levels but not as much as it had hoped. It is now projecting an MCR of 81.5% for the entire year.
Bear Stearns analyst John Rex had hoped for better. Earlier this week, Rex predicted that WellPoint would report a fourth-quarter MCR of 80.9% -- down from 81.3% in the third quarter -- and suggested that greater improvement was possible. Regardless, he knew that investors would be paying close attention to the matter. "Given that the third-quarter MCR came in somewhat higher than expectations," Rex wrote on Monday, "we believe that there could be some increased scrutiny as to the directional move -- that is, the need to show improvement" in this metric. Rex himself feels upbeat about WellPoint's outlook and has an outperform rating on the company's stock. His firm seeks to do business with the companies it covers. Meanwhile, investors seem bullish on the health care industry in general. In a recent Bank of America survey, 60% of respondents predicted that health care would outperform the broader market this year. Moreover, they named managed care as one of their top picks in the health care group. "The most appealing sector was managed care, with 30% of responses," Bank of America credit analyst David Peterson wrote this week. And "not counting the 'other' category, the top buy was WellPoint." Investors remain leery of some other health care sectors, however. Based on the recent survey, they could shy away from drugmakers and hard-hit hospital chains in the coming year. Still, at least one of their predictions -- while outside the financial arena -- has been proved wrong already. "For the Super Bowl, the Chargers were the top picks," Peterson notes. Meanwhile, "the Bears and the Colts -- who advanced last weekend -- came in at about 10% of votes each."