Investors who get MetLife may find it pays -Barron's

Reuters

March 9 (Reuters) - MetLife Inc is by some measures one of the cheapest Standard & Poor's 500 stocks, and its shares could rise because the largest publicly-traded U.S. life insurer has a attractive global franchise and astute management, and may hike its dividend significantly, Barron's said in its March 10 edition.

With a stock price of $53.15, MetLife trades at just 9.3 times projected 2014 profit of $5.70 per share and 8.7 times projected 2015 profit of $6.12 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Barron's said the 2015 projection is the lowest in the life insurance industry, and that fewer than 10 companies in the S&P 500 have lower ratios. Two with similar ratios are insurers Prudential Financial Inc and Lincoln Financial Corp .

In addition, MetLife is trading at just 1.1 times book value per share excluding unrealized investment gains, also among the lowest in the S&P 500, Barron's said.

Fans say the stock price could rise above $60, and that the company known for its blimp and for advertising featuring Snoopy and other "Peanuts" characters could benefit from both a rising stock market and higher interest rates.

According to the newspaper, part of the reason for the low price is MetLife's refusal to buy back stock, as it awaits U.S. regulatory decisions on capital requirements and whether it will be declared a "systemically important financial institution," a label that several of the nation's biggest banks already carry.

But the newspaper said Chief Executive Steven Kandarian has made reducing risk a priority, cutting back in variable annuities and halting sales of products such as new long-term care insurance policies and one type of universal life insurance.

Meanwhile, rising stocks boost potential profit from equity-sensitive annuities, and rising rates could help MetLife more affordably fund fixed-rate products and cut risk on offerings that guarantee investors minimum returns, the newspaper said.

Even if growth slows in the United States, MetLife has a cushion because 30 percent of its profit comes from other countries, and the overseas business is growing faster than the U.S. business, the newspaper said.

MetLife's annual $1.10 per share dividend equates to a 2.1 percent dividend yield, and Barron's said it could approach $1.50 per share in 2015, or nearly 3 percent based on the current stock price.

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