Is It Safe? UnitedHealth Gets Interesting

"Is It Safe?" looks at a company's risk-and-reward potential. Find out if your stocks are safe at 4 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

UnitedHealth Group ( UNH) drew a line under the executive options lawsuit with a settlement last week. Following the Ingenix patient reimbursement rate scandal, the company can now focus on the future.

UnitedHealth's 5% share-price decline so far this year contrasts with WellCare Health Plans' ( WCG) 37% gain. Other insurers doing better include Molina Healthcare ( MOH), up 36%, and Cigna ( CI), up 50%.

TheStreet.com Ratings

The problem with health care is that the industry hardly excites short-term investors. Many companies have a beta of less than 1, meaning their shares usually can't beat the broader stock market. Cigna and Assurant ( AIZ) are exceptions, at 1.12 and 1.19, respectively. UnitedHealth's beta of 0.9 and one-week short interest ratio of 1.01 suggests stability and a lack of investment opportunity for those with a risk appetite. How safe an investment is it?

The stock is priced 16% less than analysts' 2009 target of $29.94, has a low price-to-earnings ratio of 7.8 and has experienced lower-than-average trading volume. Contrast those potential reasons to buy the company's stock with a party killer: a price-to-book value of 139%. That's considerably higher than Humana's ( HUM) 92% of book value, with a P/E of 6.6 and a beta of 0.76.

Insurers with significant Medicare Advantage books are exposed to government plans for health care reform. From an investor's standpoint, UnitedHealth's 8% stock-price increase over the past year was only bettered by those of WellPoint ( WLP), Centene ( CNC) and Amerigroup ( AGP).

UnitedHealth's second-quarter results will be telling. Revenue was strong through March, even as membership dropped slightly from the end of 2008, and cash and equivalents started to grow, rising 6% to $7.9 billion. Perhaps more importantly, policy reserves increased nearly 5% to $15.6 billion.

UnitedHealth's stock probably will become more volatile as the health care debate warms up and decisions are taken. That will provide short-term investing opportunities, but also a chance for those with a longer time frame.

TheStreet.com Ratings gives UnitedHealth a "hold" recommendation.

TSC Ratings provides exclusive stock, ETF and mutual fund ratings and commentary based on award-winning, proprietary tools. Its "safety first" approach to investing aims to reduce risk while seeking solid outperformance on a total return basis.

Gavin Magor joined TheStreet.com Ratings in 2008, and is the senior analyst responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to health insurers and supporting other health care-related consumer products, including Medicare supplement insurance, long-term care insurance and elder care information. He conducts industry analysis in these areas. He has more than 20 years' international experience in credit risk management, commercial lending and analysis, working in the U.K., Sweden, Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. He holds a master's degree in business administration from The Open University in the U.K.

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