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We are reiterating our Neutral recommendation on life and health insurer, Torchmark Corp. (TMK - Analyst Report). Though we are optimistic about the company’s life insurance business, its underperforming health insurance business keeps us on the sidelines. 

Torchmark distributes its Life and Health products primarily via its subsidiaries American Income Life Insurance Co. (“AIL”), Direct Response operations at Globe Life and Liberty National Life (“LNL”). While AIL and Direct Response have performed strongly over the last several years, LNL has lagged behind. 
 
In the recently concluded quarter, AIL net life sales increased 17% on the back of a 26% increase in agents over the prior year. This was the result of the management’s aggressive actions to bring about a turnaround in sales. These initiatives are progressing well and management is currently projecting 12%–14% growth for 2012. Given its niche in the organized labor market, where competition is less, we believe the unit is uniquely poised to post increased sales.
 
Torchmark’s Globe Life also enjoys competitive advantage over its peers, on account of an experienced team and effective cost control measures. While Direct Response continues to increase its traditional direct mail and insert media distribution, management is also trying to increase its presence on new distribution platforms like the Internet and social networking sites.  The company expects a 6% growth in life sales at its Direct Response channel. 
 
Torchmark is also aligning its operations to focus on more profitable business lines. The company sold its subsidiary United Investors Life (UIL), which primarily marketed fixed and variable annuity products, generating low returns.  
 
However, Torchmark’s other subsidiary LNL has not been able to contribute meaningfully to the company’s earnings. Over the past 16 years, life premiums have increased by only $2 million. Moreover, the life underwriting margin in 2011 was $5 million less than it was 16 years ago. The underperformance of this channel was primarily due to its cost structure, which was characterized by high, fixed acquisition costs. Though the company has taken a number of initiatives like changing the compensation structure as well as appointing new managers, growth challenges remain. Moreover, we don’t expect this distribution channel to contribute meaningfully to the company’s earnings in the near term. 
 
Its Health business also remains a weak spot. The lack of growth was due to discontinued sales of limited-benefit hospital-surgical health products in 2010 as well as due to a decline in agent count. Though Medicare Supplement remains the largest contributor to total health premium, increased competition has dampened the sales of this product in recent years, resulting in premium declines in each successive year. We do not expect much growth from this segment as management continues to focus on expanding its more profitable life business.
 
Despite top-line pressure, we expect the company to manage its bottom-line earnings through a solid capital management strategy. With an expected free cash flow of $347 million for 2012, we anticipate continual buyback activity, which would consequently boost earnings. 
 
Based in Birmingham, Alabama, Torchmark closely competes with Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU - Analyst Report),  Unum Group (UNM - Analyst Report) and others. The stock currently retains a Zacks # 3 Rank, which translates into a short-term ‘Hold’ rating.

 

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