Charles Schwab’s Purchase of optionsXpress Highlights Value in E*Trade Shares

Although most investors and analysts see no reason to get near shares of online brokerage firm E*Trade Financial (ETFC), I have been attracted to the stock for a while now. The company got into trouble during the housing boom as it decided to make home loans to its brokerage customers in order to expand its client relationships. Given that many of its clients were residents in tech-centric California, and E*Trade’s underwriting standards for mortgages and home equity loans wasn’t very strong, the company nearly went out of business under the weight of massive amounts of soured loans. After restructuring the company’s loan book, which is now in run-off, E*Trade has turned its attention back to their core (and very profitable) brokerage business, and is well on its way to making a full recovery.

Still, investors are leery as E*Trade still has about $16.2 billion of old loans on their books. About $1.8 billion of these are delinquent and the company has set aside about $1 billion to cover losses (loss rates tend to max out at around 50-60%). The bullish argument for the stock is that the loan book is in run-off, the company has set aside plenty of reserves to cover losses, and since these loans were made 4-6 years ago, they are mature and delinquencies are actually falling fairly dramatically (down 21% in 2010, from $2.3 billion to $1.8 billion).

So, assuming that the loan book continues to shrink until it’s immaterial to the company, is E*Trade stock cheap based on false worries about the health of the company’s balance sheet? That has been my investment thesis for months now and we recently got some more data to back up such an assertion. Charles Schwab (SCHW) announced on March 21st that it is acquiring OptionsXpress (OXPS), a small online brokerage firm, for $1 billion in stock. This deal serves as an excellent proxy for how to value E*Trade, whose core business is not lending, but rather online brokerage services. While OptionsXpress sold for $1 billion, E*Trade is much larger and has a market value currently of only $3.5 billion.

Here are some interesting data points supporting the view that E*Trade is undervalued at today’s market price:

*E*Trade has $189 billion of customer assets, versus just $8 billion for OXPS

*E*Trade’s 2010 revenue was $1.3 billion, versus just $231 million for OXPS

*E*Trade has 4.3 million client accounts, versus just 400,000 for OXPS

*E*Trade’s average account size is $44,000, versus just $21,000 at OXPS

*E*Trade’s brokerage business earns $700 million+ in annual EBITDA, versus just $89 million for OXPS

Based on this Schwab acquisition, I have even more confidence that E*Trade is extremely undervalued at $3.5 billion or around $15 per share. If OXPS could fetch $1 billion, there is no reason E*Trade should not be valued at 5-6 times that figure, if not more, which would equate to at least $22 to $27 per share.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of ETFC at the time of writing, although positions may change at any time

If Conservatives Succeed in Phasing Out Medicare, HMO Bull Market Will Continue Unabated

Contrary to what opponents of the Obama Administration’s healthcare reform law argued originally (that the “government takeover” of healthcare would drive private insurance companies out of business), HMO stocks have been on fire over the last two years, as this chart of the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index shows:

The reason, of course, is that the new law was about as far from a “government takeover” as one could get. Instead, Americans are being required to buy insurance from the private sector, which not surprisingly, is a huge boon to the HMO companies (hence the stocks are soaring).

With healthcare costs rising far faster than inflation, and the long term costs of Medicare serving as the single biggest problem for our federal government’s long term budget issues, Republicans led by Rep. Paul Ryan are unveiling a new budget proposal. At the heart of the plan is a phase-out of Medicare for Americans who today are under the age of 55. In its place, the government would subsidize the cost of private insurance plans that retirees would purchase on their own. Think of it as the same employer-based system you have now at work, except that the government would pay some of the cost of the plan after you retire, and you would be responsible for the rest.

This concept is sure to face a ton of backlash, as it shifts the burden of surging healthcare costs from the government directly into the pockets of the middle class America. However, imagine how great it would be for the insurance industry and the HMO stocks. Not only would the HMO companies operate in an environment where people were required to buy a plan from them, but all of the country’s retirees would become their customers, whereas today they don’t sell plans to any retirees who qualify for Medicare.

This is surely a development to watch, not only from the standpoint of future retirement planning, but also in terms of how you analyze potential healthcare investments in the future. The U.S. healthcare system is already run based on how much profit can be generated (not how to give the best care for the lowest price) and this new plan would transfer even more wealth from the pockets of Americans to the coffers of the insurance industry. Not good for us, but great for the HMO stocks!