Aflac (NYSE:AFL) conducted its third-quarter conference call on Wednesday and gave investors a glimpse into management's opinions and vision for the future. However, because these calls can last upwards of an hour, I've boiled down the five most important things investors should know.
5. Holding tight on earnings guidance
A year ago, Aflac estimated the company would increase operating earnings per diluted share -- a metric Aflac believes gives a better picture of underlying insurance profitability -- between 2% and 5% in 2014.
Because of headwinds, such as lower predicted sales and higher expenses, Aflac expected to fall toward the lower end of that range. Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case.
Payouts toward benefits and claims and tax rates were lower than expected, and sales have been slightly better. In fact, for the first nine months of 2014, operating earnings excluding the impact of currency exchange rates have increased 5.4% -- which is already above full-year expectations.
Despite the stronger than expected earnings, management is predicting expenses and claims to pick up in the fourth quarter. For that reason, CEO Dan Amos believes "the 3% to 4% range is a likely outcome for 2014."
4. Strengthening relationship with Japan Post Holdings
Aflac Japan began its relationship with Japanese banking, insurance, and post office conglomerate Japan Post Holdings in 2008.
The allies signed a new agreement in July 2013 that would expand distribution of Aflac products through Japan Post. On Oct. 1 of this year, the number of post offices selling Aflac cancer insurance increased from 3,000 to 10,000. Amos also suggested the two companies are working on continuing to expand distribution to 20,000 outlets by the end of 2015.
With the "largest nationwide distribution network," the relationship with Japan Post is one of Aflac's best opportunities for future growth. President and CEO of Aflac Japan Tohru Tonoike explained they're already seeing befits as "the largest part of the growth of the cancer [products] comes from Japan Post."
3. New products
Between September and October 2014, Aflac launched two new cancer insurance products.
The first will be sold exclusively through Japan Post. The product "was designed to provide essential cancer related benefits; it also complements the insurance coverage that is available through our products at Japan Post already offers."
The second product will be available through all of Aflac Japan's distribution channels. Management suggested it "provides intensive coverage including additional outpatient benefits in treatments, multiple cancer occurrences benefits, while offering better pricing at many age groups."
Cancer insurance represents 21% of new annualized premium sales for the first six months of 2014, and it's one of Aflac's strongest opportunities for growth. As the industry leader and pioneer of cancer insurance in Japan, the success of these products will be worth watching.
2. The U.S. is progressing faster than expected
Amos mentioned on the call that he is "very excited about the changes that we have made in our management infrastructure."
To improve U.S. operations, Aflac has been shaking up management structure and adding new sales initiatives, which they believe will better align compensation with corporate goals. However, with initiatives come adjustments and additional expenses. This led management to predict sales for the second half of the year would be down 4% to 8%.
Rather than being down, U.S. sales in the third quarter were roughly flat from a year ago. This was significantly better than expected and allowed the company to adjust its forecasts to sales being down only 2% to 4%. While Amos explained that he's "not happy with the prospect of sales being down... I believe we're heading in the right direction."
1. The company is rewarding shareholders
Amos also said on the call, "I also understand the importance of returning capital to our shareholders."
The company announced it will be increasing its quarterly dividend 5.4% -- from $0.37 to $0.39 -- effective in the fourth quarter. This marks the Aflac's 32nd consecutive year of increasing its dividend. Also, Aflac has increased its stock repurchase goal to $1.2 billion for 2014 and is currently planning to repurchase $1.3 billion of common stock in 2015.
Aflac is a long-standing and stable business that isn't going to wow anyone with yearly growth numbers. But, because of Aflac's capital strength, the company can use share repurchases and dividends to increase returns and continue to reward shareholders.