Direct Line Still Overvalued, say Analysts

Morningstar analysts note that the FTSE 100 insurer's dividend is now approaching 6%, but an increasingly competitive car insurance sector brings risks

Morningstar Analysts 5 March, 2019 | 3:05PM

Cars

Direct Line Insurance Group (DLG) reported full-year results with profit before tax of £583 million, slightly above our full-year estimate. This is higher than the £539 million in 2017. Gross written premium was down at £3.2 billion versus £3.4 billion, but the business achieved 180 basis-point growth in gross written premium coming from its own brands. We will maintain our fair value estimate of 260p for the time being while we roll our valuation model, but we think there are some warning signs coming out of these results. 

The final dividend being proposed is 14p with a 8.3p special payout. Combined with the 7.0p interim payment, the normal dividends give the stock a near 6.0% dividend yield. While the business is entering a phase of rollout of the latest generation of IT systems for personal lines, following the launch of these systems for small businesses in 2018, Direct Line management continues to target a 93.0%-95.0% combined ratio over the medium term across the group. Operating profit declined by £43.6 million as the group had lower prior-year reserve releases. What we basically have is a flattened profit before tax because of improved financing costs.

Full-year results also demonstrated a decline in underwriting profit, from £288 million to £255 million. That near 12% decline has been buoyed by a 7% rise in instalment and other operating income. The loss ratio has deteriorated from 56.0% to 61.8%. This overall deterioration in underwriting profitability, beyond the 5.0% reduction in gross written premium, is being masked within the movement of the combined ratio from 90.8% to 91.7% by a significant improvement in the commission ratio from 910 basis points to 650. The expense ratio has also dropped by 150 basis points. We find the movement in these metrics a bit worrying: they say that the business is making less money from its core of underwriting and is having to make up for this with expense reductions and lower commissions, both of which we think have an end point. Net asset value per share is down to 188.6p, with tangible a bit lower at 147p.

Pricing Pressure in Motor Insurance

Gross written premiums in motor were broadly stable at £1.67 billion, but this was on the back of a 190-basis point rise in policies in force. This indicates a decline in the quality of pricing. While motor risk-adjusted pricing was up 0.6%, the risk mix reduced average premiums by 150 basis points. This reduction primarily reflects the promotion of free motor legal protection cover to Churchill price comparison website customers, who typically have lower average premiums. While investors might be tempted to assign these promotions as one-offs, look at risk-adjusted pricing, and believe the pricing will therefore rise again in the near future, we think this will likely become a more normal than a more abnormal set of circumstances as the market becomes increasingly competitive.

One of the overarching themes we are concerned about in this sector, and where we have thought Direct Line may be more defensible, is price comparison websites. However, the business is forced into this. Management sees a "real opportunity in strengthening [its] capabilities in price comparison websites." The team has made some "tactical pricing changes," and this has helped increase premiums by nearly 20% within Churchill and Privilege motor insurance. This speaks volumes to us, and this is where the market is being driven. The only way to offset this will be expenses and alternative sources of profit. We think these cost savings will be finite. Over the last five years, management already reduced marketing spending by 30%, the number of Direct Line sites by half, and annual rental costs by nearly 40%.

We see instalment and other income becoming an increasingly important part of Direct Line’s income statement, and in light of the combination with price comparison websites, this is something we are not a fan of.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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