Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.
Health care has been at the front and center of national debate for years now. With reforms currently still in place, UnitedHealth Group (NYS: UNH) and its fellow health insurers have dealt with a wide range of changes to their market. So far, though, none of that has stopped UnitedHealth from posting strong growth numbers. Will the insurer be able to hold its own if new health care laws take full effect, or will it suffer from a big profit decline? Below, we'll revisit how UnitedHealth Group does on our 10-point scale.
The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.
Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.
When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:
Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.
With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at UnitedHealth Group.
What We Want to See
Pass or Fail?
Market cap > $10 billion
Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years
Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years
Beta < 0.9
Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20%
Normalized P/E < 18
Current yield > 2%
5-year dividend growth > 10%
Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years
Payout ratio < 75%
6 out of 10
Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.
Since we looked at UnitedHealth Group last year, the company has kept its six-point score. But the stock has put in a reasonable gain even amid all the uncertainty in the industry right now.
Many investors have been scared about the impact that health care reform could have on insurers. But for UnitedHealth and other big players in the area, the downsides of having to accept patients with pre-existing conditions and provide other sorts of mandatory coverage get offset by the benefit of the law's mandate for everyone to obtain private health insurance or face penalties. In other words, top companies have more to gain from greater demand for insurance than they'll lose from the law's provisions -- as long as the Supreme Court upholds the mandate.
Still, it isn't clear sailing yet. Late last year, UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley pointed out a number of challenges the company will have to overcome in 2012. With smaller premium increases, higher medical cost ratios, and increased competition, UnitedHealth will have to fight to keep its leadership position in the industry.
Lately, insurers have sought growth by poaching each other's contracts with state Medicaid programs. In April, UnitedHealth and Aetna (NYS: AET) beat out a host of competitors including Molina Healthcare (NYS: MOH) to win lucrative Medicaid contracts in Ohio. Yet so far in 2012, Aetna's been the one to post troubling results, while UnitedHealth and WellPoint (NYS: WLP) have both given positive guidance and made encouraging reports.
For retirees and other conservative investors, the best thing UnitedHealth has done is to boost its dividend substantially in recent years, joining Humana (NYS: HUM) in emphasizing the importance of a modest payout. Although UnitedHealth's dividend isn't very big, it provides some stability in a topsy-turvy industry. Investors willing to gamble on the future of health care reform might see good value in UnitedHealth shares right now.
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills, and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.
If you really want to retire rich, no one stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, plus it reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.
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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of WellPoint. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group, as well as creating a diagonal call position in UnitedHealth Group. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.
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