Europe’s Woes Crushing U.S. Stocks, Creating Longer Term Opportunities

You can certainly argue whether the TARP program was a good idea or not, but you cannot accuse the U.S. government of dragging their feet. They took decisive action, injected much-needed capital into the banking sector, brought confidence back into the system, and the end result was a well capitalized banking industry and a profit on the U.S. taxpayer’s $700 billion investment. Unfortunately, the powers that be in Europe are taking their good ol’ time to take meaningful action. Greece may be the size of Ohio, as I have repeatedly reminded investors, but as long as the markets freak out about it anyway, strong action must be taken to settle the financial markets down. We have yet to see that (hence the market’s continued concern this morning), but let’s keep our fingers crossed that we are getting closer.

In the meantime, there are plenty of strong companies that are being dragged down by this prolonged bailout process. Not surprisingly, most of these opportunities are in the financial sector, but in many ways are not directly in the middle of the European crisis but rather only marginally impacted. In my view, a perfect example is Aflac (AFL), the supplemental health and life insurance company whose two largest markets are Japan and the United States. As you can see from the chart below, shares of Aflac have been crushed from $59 to $33, a 44% drop from earlier in the year.

Now Aflac is not exactly the first company that comes to mind when you think about the European debt crisis. So why the huge sell-off in the stock? As a large insurance company, Aflac collects premiums from its customers and invests that capital to earn income until it needs to pay out claims. Aflac’s investment portfolio amounts to a relatively large $90 billion. When investing that much money, and doing so in mostly shorter term fixed income securities, an insurance company will own a little bit of everything, and that includes debt of European countries. And therein lies the problem for the stock in 2011.

Aflac has already sold all of its Greece exposure and over the next year or so will de-risk its holdings in the other smaller European countries that people are worried about (Italy, Portugal, etc). Of course, most of Aflac’s investments are outside of the troubled European countries and their underlying business is very strong. But in times of stress investors focus only on the negatives, and if any losses at all are possible from Europe, that will drive the stock down quickly.

Given the health of Aflac’s business, any losses should be more than manageable. The company right now is earning more than $6 per share. At $33 per share, that puts the stock’s P/E at 5.5. Such territory is nothing new for Aflac stock. During the U.S. sub-prime crisis Aflac stock also got killed, dropping from $68 in early 2008 to $10 in early 2009. The company’s sub-prime exposure back then also proved to be very manageable (most of the losses were marked-to-market and never actually realized) and the stock soared nearly 500% over the following two years. I have little reason to think this time around will be much different in terms of how the company can weather the storm in the financial markets and the European debt crisis.

Full Disclosure: No position in AFL at the time of writing, but clients of Peridot Capital have owned the stock in recent years and may again in the near future