"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%. 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.