Better Buy: Manulife Financial (TSX:MFC) or Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF)?

Insurance companies have had a difficult time in recent years, but they might be turning around. Is it time to buy Manulife Financial Corp. (TSX:MFC)(NYSE:MFC)?

| More on:
Two colleagues working on new global financial strategy plan using tablet and laptop.

Image source: Getty Images

It’s been a few years since I invested in insurance companies. It was probably back in 2015 when I last looked at the Canadian insurers as investment options. I had bought them years before that, around 2011. At the time, the world was still recovering from the financial crisis and low interest rates and quantitative easing were assumed to be ending in the not-so-distant future.

Back then, I held both Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF)(NYSE:SLF) and Manulife Financial (TSX:MFC)(NYSE:MFC). My thesis all those years ago was that interest rates would rise, as the economy got back on its feet. When interest rates rose, I imagined the insurance companies would benefit and their stock prices would take off.

While Sun Life did have a pretty significant run, Manulife floundered. Even when rates did rise, nothing happened to the stocks. Instead of gaining value, they actually pulled back. I became disillusioned with the sector, finally sold my shares, and forgot about them for a few years.

Now, I have decided to look at them again to see if anything has changed. As hard it is to believe, eight years after I initially entered a position in the stock, we are still waiting for rates to rise substantially. The increase in rates was very short-lived — insanely so, in fact. That particular piece of the puzzle seems to be gone for good. However, in spite of the lack of interest rate growth, I thought it might be time to take another look at these investments. Are they good investments today, or should we stay on the sidelines in regards to insurance companies as an investment choice?


On a price-to-earnings (P/E) basis, both stocks appear to be reasonably priced. Manulife trades at a P/E of only 11 times trailing earnings, and Sun Life is trading at a slightly more expensive multiple of 16. On a forward earnings basis, Manulife looks even cheaper with a P/E of 8.5. Sun Life still appears to be slightly more expensive with a forward P/E of 11.79 times earnings.

Looking at their price-to-book (P/B) values, Manulife appears to trade closer to its book value with a P/B of 1.13. Again, Sun Life is the more expensive of the two with a P/B of 1.81. Overall, Sun Life appears to trade at a premium to Manulife.


Neither dividend is particularly attractive over the other on an absolute yield basis. Manulife currently has a yield of about 3.77%, while Sun Life’s dividend sits at around 3.42%. Really, neither one of these yields is more appealing than another.

Dividend growth is a different story. One important fact is that Manulife slashed its dividend in half during the financial crisis. Investors with long memories, maybe those who had been burned, might not think too kindly of Manulife if they were the recipients of that decreased payout. Sun Life, however, did not slash its dividend.

If that fact does not bother you, considering it was a decade ago, you might solely base your decision on dividend growth. Manulife, post-cut, has been raising its dividend for the past several years, often in the high single digits. Sun Life has also been increasing its dividend. In 2019, Sun Life increased its dividend by 5%.


Both Manulife and Sun Life have operations in Canada, the United States, and Asia. This leaves both companies with a highly diversified income stream. Their businesses are very similar, leaving little operational difference between the two.

The bottom line

There are two criteria for choosing these stocks, in my opinion, seeing as their diversified operations are very similar. Manulife is the cheaper choice, while Sun Life has had more secure operations and dividend payments over the last couple of decades. Personally, since the yields are pretty close, I would probably choose Sun Life over Manulife.

That being said, right now, I would not choose either. I am frustrated with the low-rate environment, as are the insurance companies. Both of these companies have made excellent strides diversifying their businesses in spite of the macroeconomic challenges, but these operational changes have made them venture into riskier investing realms. For this reason, I would not yet invest in any insurance provider.  

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium service or advisor. We’re Motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer, so we sometimes publish articles that may not be in line with recommendations, rankings or other content.

Fool contributor Kris Knutson has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

More on Dividend Stocks

Senior Couple Walking With Pet Bulldog In Countryside
Dividend Stocks

Retirees: 2 On-Sale TSX Dividend Stocks to Buy Now for Passive Income

These top TSX dividend stocks now offer 6% yields.

Read more »

Payday ringed on a calendar
Dividend Stocks

New Investors: The 3 Best TSX Dividend Stocks for Monthly Cash

New investors looking for monthly dividend cash are in luck! Here are three attractive Canadian dividend stocks for growth and…

Read more »

A worker gives a business presentation.
Dividend Stocks

3 Dividend Stocks You Can Safely Hold for Decades

Here are three of the safest Canadian dividend stocks you can buy right now to hold for decades.

Read more »

Red siren flashing
Dividend Stocks

Buy Alert: This Energy Stock Is Unstoppable After Strong Results

Tourmaline Oil (TSX:TOU) beat earnings and looks unstoppable.

Read more »

Female hand holding piggy bank. Save money and financial investment
Dividend Stocks

2 Safe Dividend Stocks to Beat Inflation

Canadian investors, young and old alike, can cope with or even beat inflation by owning two safe dividend stocks.

Read more »

Dollar symbol and Canadian flag on keyboard
Dividend Stocks

2 Canadian Dividend Stocks (With +6% Yields) You’ll Regret Not Buying at These Prices

TSX dividend stocks such as TC Energy and TransAlta Renewable are well poised to deliver consistent returns to long-term investors.

Read more »

Businessman holding tablet and showing a growing virtual hologram of statistics, graph and chart with arrow up on dark background. Stock market. Business growth, planning and strategy concept
Dividend Stocks

2 TSX Stocks With Market-Beating Potential

Even in the current economic environment, long-term investors have a great chance of beating the market. Stocks like CN Rail…

Read more »

consider the options
Dividend Stocks

Is BCE or Enbridge a Better Buy for Passive Income?

BCE and Enbridge offer attractive dividend yields. Is one a better buy for TFSA passive income?

Read more »