LONDON -- Investors in Aviva
Before the financial crisis, Aviva's share price bobbed around 8 pounds. Ah, those were the days. Today, it trades at less than 3 pounds. It's been a contrarian buy for at least the last two or three years, and being the contrarian sort myself, I've been buying -- and I'm not the only Fool doing so.
We're still patiently waiting to see if we will be proven right.
Down with Aviva!
Two years ago, I bought chunks of Aviva at prices ranging from 3.14 pounds to 3.70 pounds, and I felt pretty clever when the stock recently hit its 52-week high of 4.37 pounds.
The share price has since wilted in the heat of the eurozone meltdown. Aviva has half its business in Europe, including beleaguered France, Spain, Italy, and Ireland, as well as emerging markets such as Poland, Russia, and Turkey.
I may not be feeling so clever now, but I am still patient. And I am confident I will be rewarded. If there were one share I would buy more of today, it would be Aviva.
Aviva is in the headlines right now because its strategy review has just identified 16 existing business units for disposal. These consume 6 billion pounds' worth of capital yet generate a meager 300 million pounds in operating profit after tax.
What business wouldn't want to get rid of those? The biggest challenge will be finding another business that wants to buy them. But Aviva has already made a start, raising 318 million pounds by selling 37 million shares in Dutch group Delta Lloyd. This has more than halved its stake to less than 20%. It had originally planned to sell just 25 million shares, but it upped the number in response to strong demand. Markets liked the move, and Aviva's share price jumped 3.5% on Friday morning.
Further successful disposals could see Aviva's shares rerated, following a similar phenomenon seen at Old Mutual, says Investec Bank analyst Kevin Ryan. Ryan says Aviva has sensibly refused to identify all the business units it wishes to dispose of, apart from Delta and some holdings in South Korea, and he admires its determination to focus on businesses that make reasonable returns.
Further disposals should make the group look less complex, boosting the share price. But not everybody will be impressed by Aviva's decision to focus primarily on mature European markets. However, Ryan isn't worried, arguing that "Europe continues to harbour a large part of the world's wealth and Aviva's products are designed to look after this."
Cynics might rewrite this as "Europe continues to harbor a large but shrinking part of the world's wealth," and then switch their attentions to a financial stock with greater emerging-market exposure, such as Standard Chartered.
That's nearly 10%!
Aviva isn't just ditching excess business baggage; it is also trying to make the group more streamlined by cutting costs by 4 million pounds per year for the next two years. Half of this will come from thinning management layers.
Ryan says this should help maintain what I think is Aviva's most obvious attraction: its whopping dividend yield of 9.14%, covered twice by earnings. He "suspects the company would prefer to reshape itself before revisiting its dividend policy and that, ultimately, a cut may not occur."
The waiting game
Aviva is now the second-highest-yielding stock on the FTSE 100 after Resolution, at 9.77%. Since I have money sitting in a savings account earning just 2% a year, I wonder what I'm waiting for.
Actually, I'll tell you what I'm waiting for: the unfolding of the EU summit rescue package and a reversal of the recent relief rally. And that's what investing in Aviva is all about -- waiting. If you can be patient, you may finally receive your rerating reward. Ryan has set a target price of 5.17 pounds. That's 84% higher than it is today.
Patience is a virtue
Plenty of Fools share his optimism, including Stephen Bland, who thinks fear will ultimately turn into enthusiasm. As Aviva wields its cost-cutting axe, Cliff D'Arcy agrees. Everything rests on whether the new management team can generate more value for Aviva investors, says Foolish writer Tony Reading.
There is the small matter of a eurozone crisis to clean up before Aviva's share price can really sparkle. If you can accept the risks and you like the sound of a well-covered yield nearing 10%, you may also see the virtue in being patient with Aviva.
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