UnitedHealth's (UNH) first-quarter earnings call Tuesday morning will be a big test of the company's prediction for strong revenue and earnings per share growth in 2017.
United is the first in a string of health insurers that will report quarterly earnings in the next few weeks and is considered to be among the strongest in a sector beset by uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the millions of subsidized policies purchased through government-run exchanges.
Analysts expect strong earnings results from UnitedHealth Tuesday due to its decision to exit the ACA exchanges and implementation of its Optum platform to manage service costs.
UnitedHealth has predicted its 2017 revenue will be between $197 billion and $199 billion, up as much as 7.7% from 2016. Net earnings per share are expected to between $8.75 and $9.05, which puts annual EPS growth in the range of 16% and 21%.
Analysts at both Cantor Fitzgerald and Leerink have predicted the company's shares will hit a long-term price target of $200. Monday afternoon the shares traded at $166.83.
Cantor Fitzgerald lists UnitedHealth as a core holding for large-cap growth investors.
FactSet consensus for first quarter results is for revenue of $48.8 billion and EPS of $2.19. Total membership is expected to grow about 2.2% over first quarter 2016.
In an April 4 note, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Steven Halper predicted UnitedHealth will enjoy mid-to-high single-digit revenue growth over the next several years, long-term growth of 2%, debt to capital ratio of 20% and a weighted average cost of capital of 8%.
The current share price, which is roughly 17.4 times Cantor Fitzgerald's 2017 EPS estimate, is "attractive given the company's track record in growing earnings and successfully deploying capital," Halper wrote.
Leerink's Ana Gupte wrote in a note Monday that UnitedHealth, along with Humana, Anthem and WellCare, are among the best positioned managed care companies to weather whatever political fate awaits the ACA.
United's strengths include strong customer enrollment and retention, cutting its losses by exiting the ACA exchange business and the improving quality and cost control enabled by its Optum platform, which provides national health systems, private payers, employers and care providers with clinical care management and coordination services.
"We began 2017 with one of the stronger operational starts to a new year we've ever had," UnitedHealth CEO Hemsley said during the company fourth quarter earnings call on Jan. 17.
Although Hemsley said the ultimate result from GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare are impossible to predict, the company feels it is prepared to capitalize on the market, whatever the result.
"Our posture has remained consistent for some time now," he said. "We remain positive and constructive with respect to what ultimately evolves in the next phase of healthcare change. We see the opportunity for robust, state based healthcare markets offering flexible commercial benefits, flexible Medicaid available to eligible as well as pain beneficiaries, well-structured and managed high risk pools, exchanges where space choose to sustain them and much more."
"We believe all of these taken together can represent effective, local, state based coverage systems which can well accommodate those currently in the ACA individual exchanges, as well as serve as channels for further expanding coverage if that remains the focus," he said.