After announcing a marketing deal with Time Warner's
Thanks to InsWeb's cash-rich balance sheet, I have had the stock on my watch list for quite some time, even if it means that I usually have to hold my nose every time the company spits out its quarterly financials.
See, InsWeb, despite a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, markets insurance policies online. Right away, you might see the flaw in that plan. Folks usually need a live person giving the persuasive push toward whole and term life insurance policies. (Don't even get me started on health insurance!)
InsWeb is aware of this situation. That's why it's been shifting its focus to something more sensible -- auto insurance policies. Over the past year, while its term life business has been cut in half, its car insurance segment has grown by 28%. Auto policies now make up more than 80% of the company's revenues.
But there's still a problem here. While December quarter revenues overall dipped by 7%, the company's direct-marketing expenses nearly doubled. InsWeb has gone from spending $1.44 to land a new customer a year ago to $3.31 today. That would be fine if it could now milk that much more out of each generated lead, but that's not happening. The company's revenue per successful referral is just $5.22, only a $0.48 improvement from last year's showing.
This isn't rocket science. The company realizes that if it wants to keep drawing folks in, it has to use big sponsor outlets -- like the AOL Autos Channel deal it struck earlier this week -- as well as the more mainstream yet competitive text-based ads that it can buy on Google
InsWeb's willingness to let its direct-marketing costs soar doesn't exactly give me much hope that the company will strike a very InsWeb-friendly deal with a behemoth like AOL. We'll soon see, I guess, but the reason I was watching the stock in the first place, despite its shortcomings, is slowly unraveling.
Last March, I singled out the stock in an article titled 5 Dot-Com Bargains. With $5.26 a share in cash, and trading for less than that, the company then had the kind of balance sheet that normally stirs up interest in our Green Gene Stocks discussion board. Yet when I profiled the stock a few months later, I was troubled to find that cash per share had shrunk to just $4.73.
It gets worse. I hadn't checked InsWeb over the past couple of quarters, and now I see that it closed out December with just $3.72 a share in cash. This is a company that can't turn a profit and is eating through its cash.
Yes, once again the stock is trading for less than its greenbacks, but I've seen this before, folks. Until the company has some more sensible leadership, that limbo bar of greenery only gets lower -- and, with it, the cruelly nimble share price.
See if you have a green gene thumb.
- There has to be discipline on top to make "net net working capital" situations attractive.
- Just two of 5 Dot-Com Bargains turned out to be real bargains.
- Talk in our Green Gene Stocks discussion board about promising companies trading near their cash balances.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has never met a person who can say InsWeb five times fast. Try it. See if you can prove him wrong. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.