The Zacks Analyst Blog Highlights: StanCorp Financial Group, MetLife, Principal Financial Group, Unum Group and Ecolab

CHICAGO, Oct. 23, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Zacks.com announces the list of stocks featured in the Analyst Blog. Every day the Zacks Equity Research analysts discuss the latest news and events impacting stocks and the financial markets. Stocks recently featured in the blog include StanCorp Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: SFG), MetLife, Inc. (NYSE: MET), Principal Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: PFG), Unum Group (NYSE: UNM) and Ecolab (NYSE: ECL).

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Here are highlights from Monday's Analyst Blog:

StanCorp Financial Upgraded

We are upgrading our recommendation on StanCorp Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: SFG) to Neutral from Underperform, as we expect the company to continue to deliver solid underwriting results and lower delinquency.

The company is schedule to release its third quarter results on October 22 and we expect it to deliver earnings of 69 cents per share, improving sequentially, though falling short of the year-ago earnings.

Performance of StanCorp continues to be robust. Its second quarter marks the third consecutive time of reporting lower delinquency. It also marked the lowest 60 day delinquency rate since the first quarter of 2009. The company also reported strong growth in Group insurance premiums. However, intense price competition weighed heavily on the company's group insurance sale. It is also expanding its product portfolio by launching new products and re-launching some of them to diversify its areas of revenue generation.

StanCorp enjoys a strong capital position. By virtue of its solid capital position, the company remains focused on enhancing shareholders' value. StanCorp spent $10 million in share repurchases in the second quarter. The company stated that if group insurance benefit ratio continues to trend upward, then there are remote chances of share buyback activity in the second half of 2012.

However, as StanCorp expected, the second quarter of 2012 experienced higher benefit ratio in the Insurance Services segment, largely due to less favorable claims experience in the group long-term disability business. Benefit ratio exceeded the guided range of 80% to 82% for 2012. Also, the company now expects full-year benefit ratio to exceed its guided range, given the performance in the first half of the year and the persistently low interest rate environment.

Moreover, StanCorp's Asset Management segment, after posting solid earnings over the past couple of quarters, witnessed a decline for the fourth consecutive quarter.

Stancorp currently carries a Zacks #3 Rank translating into a short-term Hold rating. MetLife, Inc. (NYSE: MET), Principal Financial Group Inc. (NYSE: PFG) and Unum Group (NYSE: UNM), which compete with Stancorp, share the same rank.

New Bio-Based Cleaners from Ecolab

Recently, Ecolab (NYSE: ECL) launched its latest range of USDA BioPreferred and Green Seal certified bio-based hard surface cleaners. The new product line includes a peroxide multi-surface cleaner, glass cleaner, acid bathroom cleaner and neutral bathroom cleaner.

These offerings will enhance the portfolio of Ecolab's US Cleaning and Sanitizing segment. Revenues for the segment increased 1% year over year (5% on a pro forma basis) to $760.9 million in the second quarter of 2012. Institutional sales increased 3% year over year on the back of market share gains in the last quarter.

Ecolab witnessed steadfast growth in demand for its products from lodging facilities in the second quarter. As the company's latest organic solutions are designed for lodging, commercial and facility operations, the new product launches should drive segment sales. Marketing initiatives and better field technology are expected to bolster sales of its latest range of bio-based hard surface cleaners.  

St. Paul, Minnesota-based Ecolab serves the food service, food and beverage processing, healthcare, energy, water treatment and hospitality markets both in the U.S. as well as internationally. The company continues to invest in strategic areas such as health care, food, water and energy and global pest elimination to expand its business. Management's current emphasis is on product innovation, sales organization, volume growth, appropriate pricing, and merger synergies along with the rationalization of operating costs.

With a background of robust growth, Ecolab is poised to gain momentum via its aggressive strategy of pursuing acquisitions. The company recently announced the acquisition of privately-owned Champion Technologies and its related company Corsicana Technologies for $2.2 billion, in cash and stock. Moreover, Ecolab's growth has been buoyed by its strong international presence, especially in emerging markets like Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

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