Many so-called value investors fail to live up to the name. Value investing means buying real businesses, with real assets and real growth, at a price that allows for a generous margin of safety. Value investing is not simply buying shares that "look cheap" or have been battered down.
A good case in point is Marsh & McLennan
First-quarter results weren't exactly great for Marsh & McLennan. Underlying revenues in the risk-and-insurance business dropped 5%, and the company's key broking business saw revenue fall 19% because of business declines and the absence of contingent commissions.
Performance of the company's mutual fund business, Putnam, was also weak. Revenue declined 12%, and assets under management continue to dwindle. On a bright note, though, the company's risk-consulting business (recently and significantly expanded with the acquisition of Kroll) did well.
Although Marsh & McLennan management is saying all the right things with respect to its commitment to integrity and customer service, the company still has a tough row to hoe.
The insurance business in general, and the property-casualty business cycle in particular, is still eroding, and the market is softening for most participants. That generally means stiffer competition among brokers and insurers, and that's something Marsh & McLennan doesn't really need right now.
It's also entirely possible that the company's legal issues aren't finished yet. The $850 million settlement made earlier this year only pacified the attorney general of the state of New York, and other settlements could be on the way. Though such settlements will likely be much smaller, nobody yet knows how much cash will have to flow out of the company.
Finally, the balance sheet at Marsh & McLennan is something of a concern to me. The company's long-term debt of $4.7 billion is nearly equal to the company's shareholder equity, but nearly half of the company's assets consist of goodwill and intangibles. Simply put, Marsh & McLennan isn't in trouble yet, but it doesn't have much wiggle room.
It's hard to say that Marsh & McLennan is a top-notch idea in its space -- particularly when compared with a company like Aon
But it is a speculative turnaround opportunity. Investors who believe that the company can navigate its remaining settlements, push through higher commissions, retain key employees, and fix the ailing Putnam business should be well-rewarded over time. That's a lot of "ifs," even for a turnaround fan like me. But investors with a hankering for some risk might want to dig in and see whether there's some value in this swamp.
Dredge up more on the insurance world and Marsh & McLennan:
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).