Why Aviva Beats Prudential and RSA Insurance Group

LONDON -- Last time I conducted a sector examination, I plumped for SSE as my pick of the FTSE 100's utilities companies. Today, it's time for a look at the insurance sector.

There are eight insurers listed on the FTSE 100 once the life and non-life sectors are included, but I'm omitting Resolution as its business model is one of acquiring and restructuring smaller companies in the financial services industry.

Here's a quick look at some of fundamentals of the remaining seven:

Share-price growth is over the past 12 months, historic figures are for the last reported full year, forward figures are for the next forecasts.

What's the difference?
One immediate difference is that share prices for the two non-life companies, Admiral  (LSE: ADM  ) and RSA  (LSE: RSA  ) have not risen anywhere near as much as the life insurers over the past 12 months.

Another obvious anomaly is Admiral's dividend yield, with forecasts for a barely covered 7.1%. But about half of that is a "special" dividend, which is by no means assured, though Admiral has been paying it over the past few years.

We have a couple of "n/a" entries in the Aviva  (LSE: AV  ) column, which is because the firm reported a loss per share for the year to December 2012 and that messes up P/E and earnings growth figures.

Volatility
Share-price growth can be pretty erratic in the insurance sectors, but they're companies that are taking on uncertainty as their business, and so we really should expect volatility over the short term. And there really isn't much differentiation in the products the industry provides.

So for me, what it comes down to mainly is a combination of P/E, dividend yield, and dividend cover.

I'm going to leave out Admiral, as I don't really like the dividend situation -- 7% is nice, but there's no cover, and if the special part of the dividend doesn't come off, I'd expect a significant share-price fall.

I really think I'm also going to have to drop Legal & General  (LSE: LGEN  ) , RSAPrudential, and Standard Life, too, for either lower dividend yields, poorer cover, or a combination of the two. I like RSA, and its dividend is one of the best around, but its cover isn't as good as it could be -- and that makes me feel a bit less confident about it going forward.

So what's the result?
Old Mutual  (LSE: OML  ) comes close, with a nice dividend, decent cover, and a modest P/E.

But for me it's beaten by Aviva, which I think offers the best combination of value characteristics -- and as it's one that has rebased its dividend, I think payments going forward are likely to be more reliable than some of the others.

So Aviva is my pick of the sector. In fact, I added Aviva to the Beginners' Portfolio back in March at a price of 321 pence. We have a modest rise since then, but it's still looking pretty cheap to me.

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