Should I Buy RSA Insurance Group?


LONDON -- It's time to go shopping for shares again, but where to start? Recovering oil major BP? Banking bad boys Barclays? Or tumbling Tesco?

There are plenty of great stocks to choose from, and I'm enjoying doing some window shopping. So here's the question I'm asking right now: Should I buy RSA Insurance Group (ISE: RSA.L) ?

Feel that yield
Investing is it isn't all about the yield, you know (although these days, it often feels like it). If it was, we'd all be making a beeline for RSA Insurance Group.

The U.K.'s biggest commercial insurer is currently trading on an almighty yield of nearly 8.2%, more than 16 times the Bank of England base rate. That makes it the second-best dividend payer in the FTSE 100, narrowly beating insurer Aviva, which yields 7.95%. Only Resolution yields more, at 9.35%

Why leave a penny in cash when you can get that kind of return from a FTSE 100 stalwart, plus any capital growth on top? Well, let's see...

Storm warning
RSA, owner of More Than home and motor insurance, is looking a little soggy right now, after its profits were washed away by floods in the U.K. and further shaken by two earthquakes in Italy. RSA incurred more than 50 million pounds worth of claims in the U.K., and 35 million pounds in Italy, soaking its bottom line.

Pre-tax profits fell nearly 40% to 164 million pounds in the six months to 30 June, down from 277 million pounds in the same period last year. Net written premiums rose a modest 2% (or 4% at constant exchange rates), although that marks a slowdown from the first quarter, when they were 5%.

RSA expects 70% of group premiums to come from overseas by 2015, including Latin America and the Middle East, where it is rapidly expanding. It has also enjoyed strong growth in Scandinavia and Canada.

Group chief executive Simon Lee remains confident of a good full-year performance, despite the tough economic conditions. Providing the weather holds, that is.

Outlook stable
The results were a disappointment after a blistering 2011, when RSA achieved a 19% return on its investments after reducing its exposure to stocks and shares. In February, S&P upgraded it to A+ (stable outlook).

Repeating that spectacular investment success won't be easy but (as any fund manager will tell you), especially given continuing stock market volatility.

RSA, like other U.K. insurers, could also be hampered by EU Solvency II regulations, which could force them to hold more capital to protect their U.S. operations. That will make it hard to compete with home-grown U.S. businesses, who can laugh in the face of EU directives.

Boosting growth in the competitive insurance market won't be easy, and if global warming is really behind the endless string of U.K. flood alerts, RSA investors will need to keep one eye on the weather forecast.

It seems like the dividend is the most exciting thing about with RSA right now. So it is all about the yield, after all. But what a yield!

Blue-chip bonanza
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Harvey holds BP. He doesn't own any other shares mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares in Tesco.

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