Aetna Inc., the third-largest health insurer, reports its first-quarter results Thursday before the market opens.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Whether better pricing and a slowdown in health care use have continued. Both helped the Hartford, Conn., managed care company post a 30 percent jump in net income during the fourth quarter.
Slower growth in health care use helped several health insurers in the final quarter of 2010, and competitor UnitedHealth Group Inc. cited that as a factor behind the 13 percent first-quarter profit growth it reported earlier this month. But analysts expect customers' use to return to normal levels later this year.
Analysts will be looking for signs of impact from the new health care overhaul rule. Starting this year, insurers are required to spend minimum percentages of their premiums on medical care or offer rebates to consumers. Insurers have said the law, which aims to eventually cover millions of people, will add to costs for them in 2011.
But analysts have said UnitedHealth's performance showed that health insurers can still do well despite the requirement, and the company's performance bodes well for the rest of the managed care sector.
In February, Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna said it would start offering a 15-cent quarterly dividend to shareholders, or 60 cents annually, a big increase from the 40-cent annual dividend the company paid last year.
Also in February, Aetna forecast a 2011 operating profit of between $3.70 and $3.80 per share, which was higher than the average analyst expectation at the time of $3.27 per share. Analysts now expect $3.73 per share, on average, according to FactSet.
WHY IT MATTERS: Aetna trails only WellPoint Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. in both enrollment and revenue. Health insurance is Aetna's main product, but the company also sells dental, group life and disability coverage.
WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts surveyed by FactSet expect, on average, earnings of 96 cents per share on $8.32 billion in revenue.
LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: Aetna's 2010 first-quarter earnings grew 29 percent and topped Wall Street expectations, largely because leftover claims came in lower than the company expected. The insurer earned $562.6 million, or $1.28 per share, and total revenue rose to $8.62 billion from $8.61 billion.
Health insurance enrollment fell 2 percent to 18.7 million, but the company gained Medicare and Medicaid members.