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Insurance companies are always good in times of trouble and should hold up better than the Dow in a plunge (but will not be immune to it so we sell calls against or get out in a downturn). Currently the iShares Dow Jones US Financial ETF (IYF) insurance ETF is 10% behind the Dow's rally but usually outperform the Dow (move the time-line further out), resting neatly at the 10% rule.

I'd like to give a shout out to my man Warren Buffett who took the time over the weekend to pump my beloved Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A), saying "you ain't seen nothin' yet" (I may be paraphrasing) while at the same time jumping on our bandwagon and taking a stab at Exxon for squandering Billions on buybacks and dividends. Berkshire Hathaway was my stock of the year selection for 2006, and, although it was outperformed by some, there were none that made us feel safer through thick and thin! This puts a lot of pressure on my 2007 pick...

Buffett Cartoon 11 12 06

I think that Warren Buffet taking the time out of his busy day to tell you his company is still a good 30% undervalued at $107,000 a share should tell you something about the markets, especially the insurance sector.

American International Group Inc. (AIG) comes to mind as a possible play with 2007 earnings projected at $6.26, up a mere 8% from 2006. "Yawn," you may say, but then you would be sleeping through the story! AIG only earned $3.33 a share in 2005, which was it's best year ever, but still fell from 2004 highs of $77 a share down to $49 during "the scandal."

That was then, this is now. AIG is so similar to Berkshire that they co-insured deals, and poor Mr. Buffet was even slightly tainted by that nonsense back in '04, but he's moved on and so should we with the AIG Jan '09 $70s for the "I'm Not Kidding Price" of $10.40.

You can produce an income against them by selling the Jan $70s for $1.70 AND covering yourself with the Feb $75s for .40, but I would just do half as long as the stock holds $70 because you don't want to miss a nice pop.

Now here's a freebie for my hedge fund buddies (as you need a lot of equity and patience to play this one): Buy the Jan '08 $70s for $6.70, sell the Jan '09 $80s for $5.60 AND the Jan $70s for $1.70, AND cover yourself with the Jan $75s for .20. That gives you .60 in cash on a $0 investment.

The strategy is very complex, but generally you hope it stays flattish. You are playing to sell for the premium each month, but with some protection. If it goes up, you can roll it, if it goes down you don't care once you get past the first month. As a reference, the Jan '08 $80s are just $2.40 so your goal is to make another $1.80 (you made .60 taking the position) to cover your eventual buyout of the '09s but everything else is pure gravy.

Whirlwind 11 12 06This allows you to play the insurance game while laughing at natural disasters!

If Mr. B's comments boost Berkshire, then there are several other nice companies we can take a look at:

Insurance is a game of inches and the whole sector has been very out of favor in the latest rally as sexier stocks have gotten all the attention. Just like an old boyfriend, investors will come running back to these old reliables as soon as they have a fight with their new squeeze.

AFLAC Inc. (AFL) is certainly famous enough and trades right in line with the industry in P/E (14.72) but is growing about 10% faster than most. May $45 are $2.05. If they ever stop spending money on advertising, their cash-flow should skyrocket!

I meant to write this last week, and there's a Post-it on my screen with Progressive Corp. (PGR) (car insurance) written on it. They got a Bernstein upgrade last week (c'est la vie) and stopped at the 5% rule at $24. These guys are NOT doing a good job of growing, but they have been unduly punished for it and have fallen way behind the sector. Jan '08 $25s are $2.05 and I'm not selling against them until they test $25.

Prudential Financial Inc. (PRU) got away from us last week but Chubb Corp. (CB) has made such a mess of their year that they are getting no respect, despite trading at a 20% discount (P/E 10) and, at $20B, being a more attractive takeover target. They are buying back 5% of their stock, so the Jan '08 $52.50s for $4.50 seem safe(ish), but I won't rest easy until they break the 50 DMA at $52.75.

I am dumbfounded that Genworth Financial Inc (GNW) is still at $32! They added 13% to the bottom line this year and project another 10% next year on about 8% more sales. They missed last quarter, and I sometimes wonder if my love of this old General Electric Co. (GE) division clouds my judgment, but I have to take the Mar $35s for $.75.

They should have a tough time at the 200 DMA with a death cross 50 DMA at $33.75, but there are 9M shorts who will be in a 5 day "House of Pain" if they break it. According to Yahoo, this stock is 101% held by institutions. Good luck to the retail shorts getting out of those positions if it takes off... I'm in no hurry on this one as I will happily get other $35s once it breaks out!

Tower Group Inc. (TWGP) just came down to where I want it with the Jan $35s at .85 that were $2 just 2 months ago before a 48% increase in earnings caused the stock to drop 20% as the company lowered guidance by a penny (I know, people are idiots!). I'm very sorry I missed it then!

Probe 11 12 06Allstate Corp. (ALL) is being probed in CT for pulling new policies in CT, NJ and DE as they are looking to get out of the storm business. Don't they have the right not to insure? Well the way they are doing it is sneaky -- they are requiring Connecticut homeowners to install hurricane shutters to maintain coverage. That way they get to say you left them, they didn't kick you out!

As an insured I say Boo! to the evil corporation, but as a shareholder I say, "Why insure people we might have to pay?" If they come down closer to $63 I want the July $65s, hopefully for $1.50.

Read all of Phil Davis's articles on Seeking Alpha

Source: Insurance Sector Looks Cheap