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Health Insurance Companies on a Stock Buyback Binge

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You might be surprised to learn that more and more of the dollars you pay for coverage are being sucked into a kind of black hole.

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Ever wonder what happens to the premiums you pay for your health insurance?

You might be surprised to learn that more and more of the dollars you pay for coverage are being sucked into a kind of black hole.

It doesn't really disappear, of course. It just doesn't do you a bit of good -- unless, of course you believe it is to your advantage that it ultimately winds up in the bank accounts of a few investors and insurance company executives, including those who have the power to deny coverage for potentially life-saving care.

If you've been paying attention to what health insurance company CEOs have been saying to Wall Street over the past several months, you will know that they are spending more and more of their firms' cash -- which comes from you, of course -- to "repurchase" their firms' stock. And Wall Street absolutely loves that.

I once handled financial communications for CIGNA (CI). So I knew that whenever the company could tell its shareholders that the amount of money it earned on a per share basis during the preceding three months was more than expected, those shareholders and other investors would likely show their appreciation by offering to buy even more shares of the company's stock. When more investors are buying stock in your company than are selling it, the stock price will go up. And when that happens, everybody who owns stock or can cash in a bunch of stock options -- including you, if you are a senior manager or a health plan medical director -- will suddenly be richer.

Being very familiar with how and why this happens, your company's top executives will do whatever they can make sure the earnings per share (EPS) exceeds Wall Street's expectations. One of the ways they do this is by joining the investors in buying shares of the company's stock. They are actually repurchasing or buying back those shares because it was the company that initially put the shares on the market in the first place.

When CIGNA announced on May 5 that its adjusted income from operations for the first quarter of 2011 was $1.37 per share compared to $1.01 per share during the same quarter in 2010, the company's stock price hit a 52-week high. The EPS was way more than investors had expected.

You had to read all the way to the bottom of page two of CIGNA's earnings release, however, to learn that one of the ways the company was able to achieve such an impressive increase in the EPS was by buying back a whole lot of the company's shares.

CIGNA's net income for the first quarter of this year was $429 million. So what did the company do with its wealth? Well, between January 1 and May 4, the company repurchased approximately 4.9 million shares of its own stock for $210 million.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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