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Three top insurance stocks for 2024

Insurance stocks can make a great addition to any investor’s stock portfolio. Not only does the insurance business have the potential to produce excellent long-term returns, but it’s also a business that works in good times and bad.

 

With that in mind, here’s an overview of how the insurance business works, some important concepts to know, and three insurance stocks that investors should keep on their radar in 2024 and beyond.

Three top insurance stocks for 2024

1. MetLife (MET 0.47%)

MetLife is a great option for investors who want some insurance exposure. It’s the largest U.S. life insurer, and it also has a huge retirement solutions business. MetLife has an easy-to-understand business model and a history of strong returns on equity. Plus, the company pays one of the highest dividend yields of its peer group, which can significantly boost total returns over time.

Life insurance is also a relatively recession-resistant business, as illustrated by the fact that MetLife outperformed the S&P 500 by 20 percentage points through the first six months of 2022 during a market downturn.

2. Markel (MKL 0.67%)

Markel is a specialty insurer, choosing to insure unusual risks, which is a much-needed business in both strong economies and recessions. Not only does Markel typically run a nice underwriting profit, but the company has an interesting investment strategy.

Instead of solely focusing on safe investments, such as high-grade bonds, Markel puts about one-third of invested assets in publicly traded stocks and also buys entire businesses through its Markel Ventures segment. For this reason, Markel is often described as a smaller-scale version of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 0.63%)(BRK.B 0.52%), which happens to be Markel’s largest stock investment.

3. UnitedHealth (UNH 0.17%)

When you’re looking for beginner-friendly stocks, it’s often a smart idea to stick with industry leaders, such as top U.S. health insurer UnitedHealth. The company serves more than 75 million people worldwide and has one of the best net margins in the industry. In addition to its core UnitedHealthcare business, the company also owns Optum, which provides technology, analytics, and more to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries.

UnitedHealth also has a track record of shareholder-friendly management. It’s increased its dividend every year since 2010 and spends billions on share buybacks. Over the 10-year period through mid-2022, UnitedHealth has delivered 900% total returns for investors, more than triple the S&P 500 production during the same period.

 

How insurance companies make money

One of the most important things to understand before buying any stock is how the company makes its money. This sounds simple, but it’s frequently misunderstood when it comes to the insurance industry.

The obvious way that insurance companies can make money is by selling insurance policies and bringing in more money in premiums than they pay out as claims. This is known as an underwriting profit. However, for most insurance companies, an underwriting profit is not the focus. Many of the largest insurers are completely happy breaking even, or doing slightly better, when it comes to underwriting.

The second, and more important, way insurance companies make money is by investing the money they take in before it is paid out for claims. This money is known as the float. Most insurers invest their float in safe places, such as high-quality bonds, but some choose to be a little more adventurous and buy other types of investments.

Obviously this is a simplified explanation. Insurance companies have other ways to generate revenue, and two of the companies discussed in this article have substantial non-insurance operations as well. But this is the main idea behind how the business works.

Three important metrics for insurance investors to know

To analyze insurance stocks, most standard metrics work, such as return on equity (ROE) and net margin. However, there are three insurance-specific profitability metrics that you should know before getting started:

Loss ratio: This is the percentage of an insurer’s premiums paid out as claims. For example, if an insurer collects $100 million in premiums and pays out $70 million for claims, the insurer has a loss ratio of 70%.
Expense ratio: This is the percentage of premiums that an insurer spends to run its business. For example, expenses might include employee salaries and office equipment. An insurer with $100 million in collected premiums and $20 million in expenses would have a 20% expense ratio.
Combined ratio: This is the combination of the loss ratio and the expense ratio. An insurer with $100 million in premiums and $90 million in losses and expenses would have a combined ratio of 90%. A combined ratio of less than 100% shows an underwriting profit and is a sign of good risk management.

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