Is It Safe? Ameriprise Gets Over the Hump

"Is It Safe?" is a feature by TheStreet.com that looks at a company's risk-and-reward potential. Find out if your stocks are safe Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 4.

MINNEAPOLIS ( TheStreet) -- Ameriprise Financial's ( AMP) message from management during last week's conference call was clear: The wealth-management and insurance firm will keep cutting costs and seek acquisitions with its $2 billion in cash.

Revenue was at the highest level since the second quarter of 2008 and earnings were nearly the same if a $114 million one-off expense were excluded. With ever-widening profit margins, the second half of the year may turn out to be very profitable.

The firm's policy income was strong and may comfortably exceed last year's. Asset levels at $103 billion have rebounded from a low of $95 billion in the first quarter.

And with $800 million in debt repayments next year and nothing due in the following three years, the future looks bright. Chief Executive Jim Cracchiolo said on the call: Ameriprise "now has the capacity to act quickly as we identify opportunities," noting he's actively looking for acquisitions without the need to raise additional capital.

Clearly, Ameriprise is bullish. Is the stock worth buying?

Ameriprise has a high price-to-earnings ratio of 15.7, compared with Travelers' ( TRV) 9.7 and Unum's ( UNM) 9.3. However, it may drop to around 11 for the year based on analysts' estimates.

With a book value of only 82.4%, Ameriprise is cheap. MetLife ( MET) is about 130%, which isn't particularly high. By contrast, consider Hartford Financial Group ( HIG), which is clearly undervalued at 62% but has well-publicized problems holding it back.

Ameriprise's stock should be trading at more than $31 for parity with book value and, according to SNL Financial, the price target for the year is $32.50. This means it's underpriced by 21%. With little short interest in the stock, only Aetna ( AET) and Chubb ( CB) are less interesting to short traders betting on share-price declines.

Ameriprise, with a beta of 1.49, is nearly as volatile as Unum. In fact, until yesterday's 5.6% rise, Ameriprise was the only large insurer whose share price was lower than it was three months ago. That's partially because the stock started the year so strongly and investors took some profits, but there is plenty left to be gained by investing now.

That said, Amerprise is one of the five best-performing big insurers, up 10%, alongside XL Capital ( XL), up 268%; CIGNA ( CI), up 55%; Prudential Financial ( PRU), up 42%; and WellPoint ( WLP), up 25%.

With the exception of XL Capital, the other outperformers have a book value far exceeding 100%.

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

-- Reported by Gavin Magor in Jupiter, Florida. Feedback can be sent to gavin.magor@thestreet.com.

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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