The insurer's shares have taken a battering, but they're currently too cheap, says Phil Oakley.
It's been a rough couple of weeks for insurance company Resolution soon to be renamed Friends Life. First, George Osborne announced a radical shake-up of pensions, which means that in future people could cash in their retirement savings in one go rather than buying an annuity.
Then there were rumours that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) was going to look into whether insurance companies selling products such as endowments, pensions and life insurance had treated their customers fairly on policies going back to the 1970s.
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These two announcements have got analysts worrying about how much money a company like Resolution might be able to make in the future. Its share price fell by nearly a quarter in just over a week, which would seem to imply that profits will be a lot less than they are now.
That said, the stock market often overreacts to news. Resolution's shares have recovered some of their lost ground after the FCA said that any investigation would be a lot narrower than had been previously feared.
What is clear is that Resolution, which makes meaningful amounts of money from pensions and annuities, does have a cloud hanging over it. What does this mean for the shares?
Critics point to the fat profit margins that annuity providers are currently making, but that doesn't automatically show that they have treated customers unfairly. Equally, the scale of the political embarrassment caused by the FCA's poor handling of the announcement has put the regulator on the back foot for now.
Of more concern is what happens to the pensions that are still being built up. Friends Life is a big player in the provision of defined contribution (money purchase) pension schemes for private individuals and companies. Many of the policyholders would have bought an annuity on retirement; they might not do so in future.
Yet things might not turn out as bad as people think. Annuities have come in for a lot of criticism for paying low rates, but it is very hard for pensioners to get a higher guaranteed income for life from other investing strategies.
Some analysts are predicting that the annuity market in the UK could decline by up to two thirds, yet annuities still remain popular in markets such as Switzerland, where the compulsory purchase of them has also been axed.
There's also the possibilitythat Friends Life's pensions businessgets a boost from people saving moreto take advantage of the decent tax benefits. The introduction of auto enrolment for company pensions isalso likely to be helpful.
But Resolution needs to keep winning new business to maintain and grow its profits. At the moment, the bulk of its profits (and, importantly, its cash flow) come from a closed book of insurance policies where the focus is on boosting returns by cutting the costs of running the policies.
But the expectations built into the firm's share price seem to be quite low. The dividend yield is currently 7% and looks safe for now. It probably will not grow until the business can generate a cash surplus of £400m, compared to £331m in 2013, but might be worth tucking away.
The other thing to note is that at 300p a share, the company is valued at just under £4.3bn. This compares with an embedded value a measure used to value insurance companies based on their net asset value and the present value of future cash flows from contracts already written of £6bn.
Embedded value is not the easiest of things for the man in the street to understand, but the near-30% discount suggests that Resolution shares could be too cheap.
Verdict: a buy for the brave
Resolution (LSE: RSL)
Phil spent 13 years as an investment analyst for both stockbroking and fund management companies.
After graduating with a MSc in International Banking, Economics & Finance from Liverpool Business School in 1996, Phil went to work for BWD Rensburg, a Liverpool based investment manager. In 2001, he joined ABN AMRO as a transport analyst. After a brief spell as a food retail analyst, he spent five years with ABN's very successful UK Smaller Companies team where he covered engineering, transport and support services stocks.
In 2007, Phil joined Halbis Capital Management as a European equities analyst. He began writing for Moneyweek in 2010.
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