Aetna Inc (AET) the Latest Insurer to Jilt Obamacare

Aetna Inc (AET) put options have been very popular in recent months

by Alex Eppstein

Published on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:31 AM

In a move that wasn't totally unexpected, insurance giant Aetna Inc (NYSE:AET) -- like rival UnitedHealth Group Inc (NYSE:UNH) -- said it will reduce its participation in Obamacare state exchanges. Currently, the insurer offers exchange plans in 15 states, but it will reduce that number to just four in 2017. The news has AET stock 0.4% lower at $118.73, and it seems options traders are hoping for even steeper losses.

Specifically, during the last 10 weeks at the International Securities Exchange (ISE), Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), and NASDAQ OMX PHLX (PHLX), traders have bought to open 1.76 puts for every call. The corresponding put/call volume ratio sits just 3 percentage points from a 12-month high. In other words, rarely have speculators preferred bearish bets over bullish by a greater margin, looking back one year.

On the other hand, short sellers have been fleeing for cover. During the last two reporting periods, short interest on AET plunged nearly 54%, and now just 2% of the stock's total float is sold short. In fact, these bearish bets are at their lowest level in roughly one year after peaking in mid-June.

Similarly, analysts have been pretty upbeat. Nearly two-thirds of brokerage firms consider AET shares worthy of a "buy" or better rating. Plus, the stock's consensus 12-month price target of $138 registers at a healthy 16.2% premium to current levels.

From a technical perspective, Aetna Inc (NYSE:AET) deserves a vote of confidence. Despite being slightly lower this morning, the insurance stock has advanced a market-beating 10% year-to-date. With that in mind, a portion of the aforementioned put buyers may actually be shareholders protecting paper profits, while a capitulation among "vanilla" bears could give AET a shot in the arm.

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