The Gaping Hole in MetLife Inc.'s Upcoming Earnings Report

MetLife is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter 2013 earnings on Wednesday, but a single metric will be conspicuously absent from its press release.

Feb 11, 2014 at 5:48PM
Metlife Logo

Source: MET website

What may be most notable about MetLife's (NYSE:MET) upcoming earnings report is what's not there.

If earnings per share and EPS guidance are the first things that you look for in an earnings report, then you have plenty of company among investors. But like Fleetwood Mac, MetLife wants to go its own way and, in bucking tradition, help investors put more focus on the long term.

Guiding light
Though the insurer will continue to provide actual EPS results, as of its December 2013 outlook call it won't be providing any forward EPS guidance. With MetLife's business in a period of rebalancing, CEO Steven Kandarian thinks that "EPS guidance no longer makes sense." Instead, the company wants investors to rely on other metrics that MetLife leadership thinks provide a more comprehensive view of its financial progress toward long-term goals.

The exclusion of EPS guidance isn't abnormal for a financial firm, since the complexities of such companies can hardly be comprehended through the baseline metric. Though not exactly the same thing, American International Group (NYSE:AIG) watched its stock dip after telling investors that it would no longer provide guidance on its "aspirational" goals during its last earnings conference call. Perhaps the fact that MetLife made this announcement prior to reporting earnings will save its stock from a similar fate as AIG's.

In light of MetLife's decision to forgo future EPS guidance, investors may need some help figuring out the best metrics to measure the insurer's performance each quarter.

1. Revenue
MetLife has been a key insurance provider in the US for a long time, but the insurer is still looking to grow its business through new product offerings and expansion opportunities. Especially in its emerging markets, investors should keep tabs of how revenue growth fares over the next few quarters.

The company completed an acquisition of Provida, Chile's largest pension provider, during the fourth quarter. Latin America remains a huge growth opportunity for the insurer, and the strategic acquisition of Provida may help boost its potential.

2. Combined ratio
Of course, every insurer should be measured by its combined ratio. The number provides investors with a look at how insurance losses and operating expenses are managed, with declines in the ratio leading to higher profitability.

As discussed in its December outlook presentation, MetLife estimates that a 1% decline in its property and casualty combined ratio equates to a $10 million improvement in operating earnings. That's big incentive to improve the efficiency of its P&C operations.

Based on the company's first three quarters of 2013, the P&C ratio stood at 97%. And while the result does fall within the company's target range of 94% to 98%, it was near the top of the range and can be improved upon. Rival The Hartford (NYSE:HIG) recently reported a P&C combined ratio of 93%, with a target of 90% to 92% for 2014. The Traveler's Companies (NYSE:TRV) reported a combined ratio of 89% for its personal P&C policies.

Met Blimp

Source: MET website

3. Return on equity
One of the key trends that the insurance companies have been directing investors toward is the continued improvement of returns on equity. Both MetLife and retirement solutions provider ING U.S. (NYSE:VOYA) have set very aggressive ROE goals for the coming years. Both wish to achieve an elevated ROE by 2016, with ING U.S. stating a 12% to 13% goal, and MetLife going further with 12% to 14%.

MetLife has made a concerted effort to cut expenses and improve efficiency, so increased revenues should flow more freely to the bottom line -- helping the company in its pursuit of higher ROE.

More than three
Of course, the information provided by the insurance company is sure to include more metrics than the three listed above. Good ol' EPS will be among those results -- the company just won't give you future targets.

Since earnings season is such an important time for investors to take stock of how their portfolios are performing, be sure to focus on the right numbers that will help you achieve long-term goals. That's some good advice that you can take away from MetLife's decision to change its focus during earnings reports.

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Jessica Alling has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American International Group. The Motley Fool owns shares of American International Group and has the following options: long January 2016 $30 calls on American International Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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