On a competitive basis, who has the most to lose in the present environment?

Some executives won't name names, but they might be able to point out what characteristics the worst-positioned competitors don't have. In commodity businesses, the executive could point at those with bad cost structures. In businesses where value comes from customization, the executive could say, "To be a real player, you can't just sell product, you must be able to assess the needs of the client, advise him, sell the product, install it and provide continuing service, leading to ancillary product sales."

As commodity prices move down, the recent acquirers and developers of high-cost capacity fare the worst. With life insurance today, scale is becoming more and more of an advantage. Smaller players without a clear niche focus are likely to be the losers; that's one reason I don't get tempted to buy most of the smaller life insurance companies that trade below book value. Given their fixed expenses and lack of profitability, they deserve to trade at a discount to book.

Key Points:

  • Asking what the competition is missing lets management open its brag bag.
  • The answer had better impress and be a critical aspect of the business.
  • Trash-talking of rivals is a red flag of hubris.

Editor's note: We're pleased to present David Merkel's five-part series on questions to ask the management of a public company. Click here for Part 4, questions on pricing and products.
At the time of publication, Merkel and/or his fund was long Valero, though positions may change at any time.

David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA, is a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. Previously, he managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Merkel cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

Analyst Certification: All of the views expressed in the report accurately reflect the personal views of the research analyst about any and all of the subject securities or issuers. No part of the compensation of the research analyst named herein was, is, or will be, directly or indirectly, related to the specific recommendations or views expressed by the research analyst in this report.

Merkel is employed by Hovde Capital Advisors LLC (the "firm"), a registered investment advisor with its principal office located in Washington, D.C. The Firm and/or its affiliates have or may have a long or short position or holding in the securities, options on securities, or other related investments of the issuers mentioned herein.

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