Genworth's Down Under for a Reason

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) --If you invested in an S&P 500 financial stock at the start of the year, you had to work very hard to lose money.

Out of the 85 financial stocks in that index, just three had negative returns year to date through Thursday and two of them-- Assurant ( AIZ) and People's United Bancorp , were down by roughly one percent each.

The only real loser, then, is Genworth Financial ( GNW), down 9.16%. So it makes sense to wonder whether Genworth, which reports first quarter earnings Wednesday, is worth a gamble. Can it really be so much worse than the other 84 stocks?

The answer is probably not but it still may not be the best place to make your wager.

Genworth's big problem coming out of the 2008 crisis has been its mortgage insurance unit. Mortgage insurance is simply not a business you want to be in when a housing crisis hits, and all the mortgage insurers have been highly volatile and risky plays ever since.

Still, Genworth was up nearly 18% this year until April 17, when it announced it would postpone plans for an initial public offering of its Australian mortgage business due to poor performance of the unit. That sent shares plunging 24%.

The bull case on Genworth is that the shares are really cheap. According to Sandler O'Neill analyst Ed Shields, Genworth shares trade at just of estimated 2012 fourth quarter book value and at 4.1 times his 2013 earnings estimate. Life insurance peers are trading at an average of 71% of current book values and at 6.9 times 2013 earnings.

Shields has a "buy" on the stock and a $10.50 price target versus Friday's closing price of $5.99.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Edward Spehar has an "underperform" rating and an $8 price target, however, arguing investors looking for high beta insurance names would do better with Lincoln National LNC.

"We see materially less fundamental risk for Lincoln National than we do for Genworth, and the substantial difference in cash payouts to shareholders (more than 50% of earnings for Lincoln versus 0% of earnings for Genworth) supports our view," Spehar writes.

He contends that Lincoln's potential for positive earnings surprises, an 11% return on equity (ROE), in addition to the payout ratio, "is much more compelling" than Genworth's potential negative earnings surprises, a 3%-4% ROE and no cash to shareholders.

This, he acknowledges, is in spite of Lincoln's trades at a 35% discount to estimated first quarter 2012 book value versus Genworth's 74%.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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