The Bullish and Bearish Case for UnitedHealth in 2015

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Now that the bull market is nearing its sixth year, investors have to wonder about valuations after exponential gains from the March 2009 bottom. 2014 brought gains of 7.5% in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and 11.4% in the S&P 500 Index, without considering individual stock dividends. The health insurance giant UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE: UNH) closed out the year 2014 at $101.09, for a gain of 36.5%, if you include its dividends.

24/7 Wall St. has undertaken a bullish and bearish case to evaluate both sides of the coin and see what lies ahead for UnitedHealth in 2015. One key consideration for the year ahead is that UnitedHealth is the nation’s largest health insurance provider. That means it is often front and center in the fight or review of the Affordable Care Act. Amazingly, this was one of the top performing Dow stocks of 2014, and the health care sector was also a stellar performer.

The stock had a 2014 trading range of $69.57 to $104.00, and the consensus analyst price target of $108.68 would imply upside of 7.5% this year. Then there is the dividend yield of 1.5% to consider.

UnitedHealth had a market cap near $97 billion at year’s end. Its stock also rose almost $3 in the first week or so of trading in 2015, giving it a market cap that rivaled $100 billion. UnitedHealth was valued at about 18 times expected 2014 earnings, yet was valued at about 16.5 times expected 2015 earnings. Revenue growth was projected to be 6% in 2014 to $130 billion, and it was expected to be followed by another 8% or so in 2015 to almost $141 billion. So much for Obamacare lowering those premiums.

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Who would have guessed when the Affordable Care Act was first introduced that UnitedHealth and the top insurers in the country would rise to all-time highs. Hint: insurance executives and insiders were scared to the point that they decided the best way to survive was to broaden out their reach by consolidating the health insurance industry via mergers. This stock has also risen about 400% since the panic selling lows of March 2009.

As recently as December, UnitedHealth issued its earnings outlook for 2014 and 2015. For last year, the company signaled that its net earnings would be $5.60 to $5.65 per share. For this year, the targeted revenues are expected to be between $140.5 billion to $141.5 billion, with net earnings of about $6.00 to $6.25 per share.

What is amazing under all the scrutiny in health insurance under Obamacare is that UnitedHealth’s dividend payout was raised by more than one-third in 2014. The stock buyback was also increased to 100 million shares, which was about one-tenth of the shares outstanding. The value of that on a static basis today would be $10 billion, had it been announced more recently.

After a dividend-adjusted performance of 36.5% in 2014, UnitedHealth’s total expected upside this year, with the dividend included, is expected to be 9% for 2015. So much for politicians wrecking the insurance industry. In fact, UnitedHealth is one of the more recently named Dow components — and that was after the Affordable Care Act was a known event.

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It seems that the trend for insurer earnings is solid. More Affordable Care Act issues are coming down the pipe that may negatively impact earnings, but the deal that seems have been struck is that insurers can continue to operate somewhat like a regulated utility.