Over the past few months, as shown by the chart below, the insurance sector has been hot. The primary reason for the move higher is the increase in interest rates. It must be noted that insurance companies benefit from increasing rates as it increases the amount of interest that can be earned on risk-free assets, such as Treasury bonds, that insurance companies hold. While I do not think the sector-wide advance is over, I do believe that investor focus will turn more toward individual companies, compared to the current sector-wide bullishness.
Simply stated, Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET) is my favorite insurance stock right now. With a market cap of $48 billion, MetLife is one of the largest and most diversified insurance companies in the world. Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET) divides itself into six different segments: insurance products, retirement products, corporate benefit funding, auto and home insurance, and international. As shown by the chart below, MetLife trades at an attractive price to book value ratio of 0.75, relative to historic norms. Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET) could easily trade at a price to book value of 1 without being expensive.
In addition to being a value play, Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET) is also a dividend play. Currently, after a recent dividend increase, MetLife yields 2.5%. Lately, investors have soured on high-yield stocks due to rising interest rates. However, given that MetLife’s business benefits from rising rates, I would not expect the stock to be hurt by rising rates.
Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) is my second favorite insurance stock right now. Although smaller than Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET), Hartford is similar in that it is diversified. Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) is a provider of investment products, property, and casualty insurance to both individuals and businesses. Like MetLife, as shown by the chart below, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) trades at a discount to book value. In my opinion, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) should trade at a minimum of 1 times book value.
Hartford continues to make progress on its transformation strategy, announced in March 2012. A major part of this transformation is the run-off of Hartford’s annuity business. Also, Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) has divested its life insurance business by completing a sale to Prudential for $615 million. Finally, Hartford has announced plans to buy back as much as $500 million in stock and reduce outstanding debt by $1 billion. In short, I think Hartford Financial Services Group Inc (NYSE:HIG) is making positive changes. However, some market participants disagree. Currently, short interest stands at more than 28 million shares, or 6.4%. The high short interest is, in my opinion, a bullish factor as it indicates that, despite trading close to a 52-week high, there are many skeptics yet to be converted to the bull camp.
Two insurance stocks that I would avoid right now are The Chubb Corporation (NYSE:CB) and Travelers Companies Inc (NYSE:TRV). I should start out by saying that these two companies, both engaged primarily in the property and casualty insurance business, are two of the highest quality insurance companies around. As shown by the chart below, during the Great Recession, both The Chubb Corporation (NYSE:CB) and Travelers remained profitable. Comparably, both Metlife Inc (NYSE:MET) and Hartford were forced to take significant losses in 2008 and 2009. This trait speaks to the quality of both The Chubb Corporation (NYSE:CB) and Travelers Companies Inc (NYSE:TRV).