Obama’s Address Signals Opportunities in Health Care, Clean Energy

President Obama has given his speech, the Republicans have had their say and the punditry has opined and moved on.

Investors should now consider what effect the State of the Union address and the president’s 2010 agenda might have on their portfolios.

The speech’s focus, jobs, may well be the right direction for the administration to take, but it’s a macro level approach. Investors should instead seek micro-level opportunities that will have a significant effect on individual public companies.

That means health care. I’ve long predicted that the president wouldn’t get his health care bill, and with the recent election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, the future of the current proposal looks bleak. In Washington, putting something on the back burner — as the president seemed to suggest last night — is the same as putting it on the shelf. While no one can predict what will come out of the legislative process, which is at best chaotic, the prospect of a “public option” — that is, a government-run health-care plan that would compete with private insurance companies — is dead.

The nation’s two largest health insurers, WellPoint, Inc. (NYSE: WLP) and UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE: UNH), remain undervalued. Both have been profitable throughout the downturn, with WellPoint showing remarkable earnings resiliency. Nevertheless, the legislative risk hanging over both these companies has put a serious dent into their respective valuations. WellPoint historically trades at 14 times earnings and is selling for less than 11; UnitedHealth is trading at 10.4 times trailing earnings when it is generally worth at least 15.6. Given their earnings estimates for 2010 and assuming a return to the historical average valuation as the legislative threat officially abates, each company presents upside in excess of the long-term S&P average: UnitedHealth +41.2% and WellPoint +29.5%.

The other opportunity for investors was crammed into two paragraphs in the middle of the speech that concerned energy. Obama clicked off several areas he wanted to focus on.

The first is nuclear power. For a president whose political acumen has been called into question in recent weeks, this is a brilliant move. If Obama wants real change in environmental policy, he’s going to have to give Republicans what they want on nuclear power. By suggesting a push in this direction, the president nicely jujitsued the issue to his advantage and can now claim credit for something he would have had to give away. While there are only a few companies that can build a nuclear power plant — Shaw Group Inc., Fluor Corp., Bechtel — these projects are years from being approved and more years from being built. There are great reasons to own Shaw and Fluor, particularly for investors who want to benefit from government action, but a sudden wave of nuclear power plants isn’t going to juice their bottom lines anytime soon.

The president next mentioned offshore drilling — a sector that seems fairly valued. However, the next area Obama touched on is a segment investors should pay extremely close attention to: advanced biofuels.

Biofuel has traditionally meant corn-based ethanol, but that’s changing. A Bush-era energy law called the Energy Policy and Security Act of 2007 establishes federal production targets for renewable biofuel — that is, corn-based ethanol — as well as an aggressive timetable for the production of advanced biofuels, which is defined as any fuel 50% cleaner than gasoline. But the real money shot is cellulosic ethanol, demand for which will rise 15,900% between now and 2022.

Cellulosic ethanol can be made from any plant using enzymes that break down the cellulose in plant-cell walls and turn this sugar into ethanol. The process can use any native plant material. Verenium Corp. (Nasdaq: VRNM), a Florida-based biotech firm, has been working on the technology for decades. (I alerted my guarantee likely will serve as a springboard for these shares, and commercial-scale production plants will produce billions of gallons of ethanol and billions of dollars in revenue. I predict the president will go to Florida for the ground-breaking of this facility when it occurs, and I’ll be less than surprised if Verenium’s match the explosive growth in cellulosic output.

The last piece of the president’s brief mention of energy was clean coal. Clean coal is an especially compelling idea, as coal fires roughly half the electric power plants in the country. It’s also cheap and abundant, with hundreds of years of reserves. And it needn’t be dirty: Scientists already know how to burn coal without producing any emissions at all. The trick is to burn coal with pure oxygen. The ambient air is mostly nitrogen, and nitrogen throws a wrench into things because it creates a lot of nasty byproducts that make separating the various components of a utility’s emissions very difficult. If pure oxygen is used, the only byproduct is water vapor and carbon dioxide, which is easy to separate. The water can be piped off and the CO2 can be stored. Problem solved.

The leading company in this exciting space is the industrial gas company Praxair Inc. (NYSE: PX), which holds hundreds of patents related to the technology. (I alerted my Government-Driven Investing readers to Praxair in this issue.) Right now investors can buy one of the world’s largest industrial gas businesses and get the so-called “oxyfuel” process for free. 

Obama’s focus on jobs is what most Americans expect of their president in times of economic uncertainty. But it is his ideas about health care and energy — one because of what he has been unable to do, one because of what he would like to do — that have the most potential for long-term, growth-oriented investors.