WellPoint Inc. (WLP) Chief Executive Officer Joseph R. Swedish won high marks from investors and analysts in his first public appearance since taking over for the ousted Angela Braly.
Swedish, 61, speaking today during the Indianapolis-based health insurer’s first-quarter earnings call, announced profits that beat analysts’ estimates and proclaimed himself “optimistic” about the company’s future. The market responded by pushing shares up the most since the day after Braly left last August amid investor complaints.
“The old management team liked to overpromise and under- deliver, and that’s a disaster for the stock market,” said Mark Giambrone, a portfolio manager at WellPoint’s biggest shareholder, Dallas-based Barrow, Hanley, Mewhinney & Strauss. “It’s clear to me that his focus is different.”
WellPoint, the second-biggest U.S. health insurer, reported first-quarter earnings of $2.94 a share, 56 cents higher than the average of 19 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The company also raised its forecast for full-year profit by 20 cents, to at least $7.80 a share, citing medical costs that grew more slowly than WellPoint anticipated.
Swedish, a former hospital executive, took over March 25 and can’t claim much credit for the quarterly earnings report, said Brian Wright, a Monness Crespi Hardt & Co. analyst in New York. Still, on the call, he displayed “a thoughtful process to address the company’s performance issues,” Wright said in a phone interview. “The business seems to be back on solid footing.”
Braly resigned Aug. 28 as investors and analysts criticized missed profit estimates, enrollment declines and disappointing stock performance relative to peers. The company traded today at an 18 percent discount to an S&P 500 index of the top six health insurers, compared with a 25 percent discount on April 5.
WellPoint closed up 5.8 percent to $73.33 in New York, the largest gain for the company’s shares since the day after Braly’s resignation.
Swedish told analysts on the call that he was reviewing WellPoint’s assets and strategies. So far, “the overarching strategic framework seems reasonable,” he said.
The company faces major changes next year under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which will open new online insurance markets for small businesses and people who buy their own insurance. WellPoint is the biggest U.S. carrier in both markets. It’s still digesting last year’s $4.9 billion acquisition of Amerigroup Corp.
Swedish said he recognizes WellPoint investors want more consistent performance.
“I’m going to drive WellPoint forward with an emphasis on performance, transparency and accountability,” he said. “We need to be nimble and proactive.”
Giambrone, the portfolio manager, said Swedish impressed him by lifting the full-year forecast by only 20 cents, taking a “conservative” approach even after the first-quarter numbers.
“What I like about him is his consistent message about execution, operating efficiency and expense control,” Giambrone said. “Those are the things WellPoint had been missing, frankly. I think the assets are there. Really, the question is about execution.”
Barrow Hanley owned 18.1 million WellPoint shares as of Dec. 31, 6 percent of the total outstanding, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
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