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It can be tough to get wildly excited about insurance companies as investments since it's rare that an insurance stock will have a huge spike over a short period of time. However, from the perspective of a Foolish investor -- that is, an investor looking to build their portfolio over longer periods of time -- the steady, compounding growth of a quality insurer can be a great addition to your portfolio.
A perfect case in point is Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) , a giant conglomerate which build itself through the company's savvy investment of the premiums earned from owned insurance businesses like General Re and GEICO. While I think Berkshire itself could be a good buy, below are three other insurers well worth putting on your radar.
The solid one
If you are a fan of Berkshire, you'll definitely want to tune into the story at Alleghany (NYSE: Y ) . For the Berkshire faithful, this will likely sound familiar:
Conservatism dominates our management philosophy. We shun investment fads and fashions in favor of acquiring relatively few interests in basic financial and industrial enterprises that offer the potential to deliver long-term value to our investors.
That comes from Alleghany's annual letter to shareholders. The company is based around a collection of specialty property and casualty insurers and focuses on solid underwriting results from those businesses, combined with returns from debt and equity investments. It also targets longer-term growth through investments in non-insurance operating companies.
A similar business philosophy isn't the only thing that ties Alleghany to Berkshire. Alleghany acquired fellow insurer Transatlantic at the end of last year, beating out a number of other bidders, including Berkshire. And well before Berkshire decided to acquire all of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the railroad was the largest position in Alleghany's portfolio.
Beyond the Berkshire comparison, the quality of the company can be seen in the results it produces. Though the nature of the business means that profits may not rise predictably from year to year, Alleghany has more than doubled its book value per share over the past decade.
The dicey one
Assured Guaranty (NYSE: AGO ) isn't the insurer that you want to put in your portfolio and then fall asleep. It's among a handful of major insurers that back bonds, including those issued by municipal governments.
On the bright side, Assured has performed far better than its major competitors as of late. It's obviously fared better than the bankrupt Ambac, but it's also managed to avoid the battering that MBIA (NYSE: MBI ) took during the crisis and its fallout.
On the other hand, there are significant challenges that the company is facing. For one, its credit rating was downgraded at the end of last year, and its bond-backing services are only as good as its own credit worthiness. At the same time, as investors have watched the struggles of bond insurers, they've started to wonder whether they really want to rely on these insurers' services. Both of those challenges have slowed demand for Assured, and its premium revenue has been in decline. Through the second quarter of this year, premiums have fallen 15% from last year. And as if that's not enough, insurers from outside the financial guaranty segment have started encroaching. Over the summer, White Mountains Insurance announced that it'd funded a subsidiary that will focus on municipal-bond insurance.
So what's the case for investing in Assured Guaranty despite all of this? With the exception of 2007, the company has stayed solidly profitable and the stock is trading at just a bit over half of its tangible book value, which, historically, is a very low valuation.
The odd one
The two insurance companies above are "normal" insurance companies from the perspective that their business is selling insurance protection. But that's not where Enstar Group (Nasdaq: ESGR ) has found its success. Instead, Enstar seeks out insurers that have fallen on hard times and forced into "run-off" -- a purgatory state in the insurance business where an insurer is no longer writing new policies and instead is simply managing claims and allowing policies already in force to run their course.
By being an expert in valuing run-off companies, negotiating deals to buy them, and then managing the run-off process, Enstar has notched impressive growth. Since just 2007, the company's tangible book value is up nearly 140%. Over the same period, net income is up more than 200%.
Because Enstar relies heavily on industry relationships and deal-making prowess, this is very much a people-driven business. Fortunately, the company is run by Dominic Silvester, who founded a run-off services business in 1993 that is now at the core of Enstar. Silvester also is the largest Enstar shareholder, with an 11% stake in the company.
Though Berkshire is a great insurer, the company is probably best known because of the investment savvy of its CEO, Warren Buffett. One of Buffett's favorite companies happens to be a bank that my fellow Fools think is "the only big bank built to last." To find out which of the banking powerhouses I'm talking about, click here to access the free special report.