Advance America Advances Internet Strategy

| About: Advance America, (AEA)

Last month, I wrote about why I thought Advance America (NYSE:AEA) was a compelling buy at $2.56 per share.  Shortly thereafter, the stock dropped down as low as $1.76, making it an even more compelling buy in my eyes.

The company reported earnings last week and it’s important to parse through the report to see how things are shaping up (see conference call transcript).  Revenues for all stores opened prior to 7/1/07 and still open on 9/30/08 decreased 4.0% while revenue in Ohio alone was down 4.2%.  A few months ago, pandering Republicans led by House Speaker John Husted and Chris Widener got a rate cap approved. Later today we’ll know whether or not a referendum to overturn that law went through or not. 

There are two takeaways from the Ohio situation:

The first is that Ohio revenue was down because customers literally weren’t sure if payday loans were still available after the law passed.  My firm funds several independent stores in Ohio.  We’ve been told that customers are calling stores asking if the loans are still available, and that store traffic has been down because of this mistaken belief that the loans were discontinued.

If the referendum is voted down (meaning the law is overturned), the confusion will be gone and I expect AEA’s revenue to improve in Ohio.  If the law remains in place, I expect AEA and all other lenders to lend under other statutes.  I do not expect any public chain to close their doors.  Not for a second.  Ohio is too lucrative to let go. 

Now, to earnings.  Personally, I’ve never thought that net income is the important number to look at for PDL companies.  Net income is often subject to many one-time charges, and the companies can jigger a bit with the “Provision for Doubtful Accounts” on the expense side.  (I’ve always backed out that number when examining the bottom line).  In AEA’s case, they also repurchased 21% of their outstanding shares, which also affects the bottom line number. 

In addition, net income was impacted by a host of write-downs related to store closings and to lobbying efforts in Ohio and Arizona.  The lobbying expenses are problematic because they aren’t tax-deductible and directly impact the bottom line.  AEA will see some expenses related to these efforts every year, although I don’t expect other years to be as costly as 2008 has been.

In addition, AEA’s business was slightly harmed by the stimulus checks from earlier this year. Another round of checks might come given the state of the economy, but this will also be a temporary setback.

Those are the reasons that net earnings don’t matter too much to me. What I really want to see is stable revenue and cash flow, and AEA has plenty of both.

The exciting thing about Advance America is the strategy announced in their earnings report – one I expected them to initiate in the near future, though admittedly not quite so soon.  Internet payday loans have exploded in popularity over the past few years.  Although difficult to gauge, most estimates put internet lenders as having about 15% market share.   Advance America is dipping their toe into this space.

They’ve made a marketing and servicing deal with CashNetUSA, a subsidiary of Cash America (NYSE:CSH).  Advance America will drive customers to a special website where customers can get an internet loan funded by CashNet, which also bears the default risk.  Advance America picks up an undisclosed fee of net revenue.  As long as those fees exceed their marketing costs, that’s a no-risk source of revenue for them – and I believe it will be significant.

This move is critical for Advance America.  With the storefront market close to saturation, PDL companies that are not diversified into pawn shops will need to find other sources of growth.  Beyond the purchase of title loan companies, expanding onto the internet is the absolute right way to go.

But there are barriers to entry.  The internet borrower is very different from a storefront customer.  Default rates are much higher.  One must have strict controls on underwriting and a crackerjack collections department.   Depending on how lucrative this partnership is, Advance America may elect to just stay the course.  If it only provides minimal revenue, they’ll need to educate themselves further on the internet model  and either create one themselves, or buy someone out.

Advance America continues to trade for around book value, and even with the announced dividend cut, yields 9.3%.  Their revenue base is stable, they have fantastic cash flow, and they are properly positioning themselves for the future.  

For those worried about Obama’s desire to pass a federal rate cap of 36% on all loans, I would say that those concerns are overblown.  Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Tim Johnson are both chairmen of their respective arm’s finance committees, and understand the benefits of payday loans.  There’s no way a federal cap will be instituted, particularly if Ohio voters send a message on Election Day to overturn that state’s rate cap.

Disclosure: Author holds a long position in AEA

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