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Should You Buy Standard Life Today?

By Royston Wild - Apr 23, 2013 at 3:54PM

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How attractive are the shares of Standard Life?

LONDON -- Shares in British life insurance leviathan Standard Life (LSE: SL) have ticked steadily higher in recent months, clocking up an 8% gain in the year to date and striking record peaks of 383 pence in the process.

The company has experienced erratic earnings performance over the past five years, and is expected to record heavy double-digit negative growth in the current 12-month period. Although the company offers a dividend yield well ahead of the U.K.'s 100 largest-quoted stocks, and earnings are expected to pick up again in 2014, I reckon that Standard Life looks overpriced at current levels.

But please bear with me, as I believe that there are other fantastic opportunities with which to electrify the investment income from your stocks portfolio, which I'll discuss further in a minute.

An pricey pick at current levels
City analysts expect earnings per share to crash 21% lower in 2013, to 24 pence, before recovering 11% next year to 26 pence.

At home, the company is expected to benefit from regulatory changes including the Retail Distribution Review -- which replaces the payment of commission to financial advisors with upfront fees, and came into effect at the turn of the year -- and auto-enrollment program for company pensions. However, rising competition in the domestic pensions and savings markets could mitigate the boost to earnings of these changes to a huge extent.

The insurer currently offers a dividend yield above the forward reading of 3.3% for the FTSE 100, and the 2013 and 2014 full-year dividend is expected to carry a yield of 4.7% and 5%. Indeed, last year's payment of 14.7 pence is forecast to rise to 15.6 pence this year before advancing to 16.6 pence in 2014.

Although dividends for this year and next include coverage of just 1.5 times and 1.6 times forward earnings, Standard Life has steadily built the dividend over the past five years, even in times of severe earnings pressure. This should provide some reassurance to investors concerned over future dividend prospects.

The insurance giant currently changes hands on a P/E rating of 14.2 and 12.7 for 2013 and 2014 respectively, representing a premium to a forward earnings multiple of 12.2 for the entire life insurance sector. Considering that earnings are set to rattle in the medium term, and that better dividend yields can be attained elsewhere -- indeed, the life insurance sector boasts a 5.4% prospective dividend yield -- I believe that Standard Life is vulnerable to a possible share price correction.

Zone in on other sterling stocks
Although Standard Life currently presents too much risk in my opinion, this newly updated special report featuring ace fund manager Neil Woodford highlights a host of other red-hot FTSE winners offering stunning value for money.

Woodford -- head of U.K. Equities at Invesco Perpetual -- has more than 30 years' experience in the industry, and boasts an exceptional track record when it comes to selecting stock market stars.

The report, compiled by The Motley Fool's crack team of analysts, is totally free and comes with no further obligation. Click here now to download your copy.

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