In my most recent article, I discussed how installment lender World Acceptance Corporation's (NASDAQ:WRLD) current situation offers an opportunity to investors. In March 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, sent the company a Civil Investigative Demand, or CID, asking about its lending practices. This caused the company's shares to fall nearly 30% in the course of a few days.
Since then, the company's share price has been roughly flat. As I put it in my last article, it is in a sort of "limbo"-too high if the company's business model is illegal, as short sellers argue, but too low if the company is fundamentally sound. In the short run, this situation will only be decided when the CFPB releases the results of its investigation.
In the long run, however, if the CFPB does not shut down the company, World Acceptance Corporation's share value will be governed by its operating results. Those operating results have shown some worrying trends over the past several quarters.
World Acceptance Corporation's earnings per share have grown significantly over the past several quarters. However, if you ignore the effect of the company's share buybacks, the company's earnings have not grown at all - indeed, they have even begun to shrink in the company's most recent quarters. This is in stark contrast to the double digit yearly earnings growth the company has enjoyed over the past decade. Moreover, not only does World Acceptance's growth seem to be coming to an end, but the company's lenders may think that its loan book is in trouble. This can be seen in its debt covenants, which the company actually seems worrying close to breaching.
One of the most positive aspects of World Acceptance Corporation's recent performance has been its share buybacks. In the two full quarters that have passed since the CID, the company has reduced its share count by a significant 7.8%. This is part of an aggressive share repurchase program that has reduced the company's share count by 17.2% in the past six quarters. Charlie Munger has described "cannibals," or companies that repurchase a large percentage of their own shares, as good investments. On that basis, if you believe that World Acceptance Corporation has done nothing wrong, the company appears to be an excellent investment.
Indeed, if you believe that the company is innocent, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the ongoing CFPB investigation has been its chilling effect on the company's buybacks. In the company's first quarter 2015 conference call, Sandy McLean, World Acceptance's CEO, noted that one issue limiting the company's ability to buy back shares was the overhang of the CFPB's CID. In response to a question about whether the company might like to lever up to buy more shares, McLean responded: "I don't think that now would necessary be the timing to go out and do any type of restructuring of the balance sheet given the couple of issues we have still unresolved like the CFPB..."
Of course, the CFPB's investigation has also given the company a perfect opportunity to buy back shares cheaply with the buyback capacity that it does have. In McLean's words on the company's second quarter 2015 conference call, "given the depressed share value…we'll certainly take every opportunity to use any available funds to take advantage of this market situation." If World Acceptance's business is fundamentally sound, such buybacks will prove to have been an example of good capital allocation.
…and Slowing Growth
However, if the company's business does not prove to be fundamentally sound, shareholders may come to regret these buybacks. World Acceptance Corporation's growth has fallen from double digit annualized rates over the past decade to roughly 2% in 2014. In its past two quarters, the company's net income actually shrank in absolute terms by 1.9%, even as per share net income rose by 18.5% over that time period. This is certainly eloquent testimony to the power of buybacks, but it also seems to imply that the company's growth may be reaching an end. Even if the CFPB deems World Acceptance's business to be perfectly legal, the company's buybacks-and the debt taken on to pay for them-may prove to have been unwise if this slowdown continues.
This possibility was brought up during World Acceptance Corporation's fourth quarter 2014 conference call by David Horn of the value investing hedge fund Kiron Advisors. Horn expressed concerns about the leveraged buybacks, given that the company seems to have lost the ability to grow through making new investments:
Okay, because I guess the -- because of loan growth is slowing to some degree, you are really getting all of your EPS growth from share buybacks and because it's not from free cash flow, because it's from the leverage, I guess do you have any concerns that you will…put yourself in a position like some other companies where you over spend and then if your loan growth continues to decline sort of in a tough position with too much leverage. Is there any concern for that or not at this time?
McLean said that the company would continue to see loan growth and that the company would not run into financial problems from its leveraged buybacks. However, Horn continued to press the issue:
Well then I guess that's what I'm asking. I understand that one point from free cash flow business that you didn't to, money that you didn't have to invest in the business but in doing that, I guess the question is in taking on the debt, I mean what's the urgency to buy back stock and to take on then, and the off of chance that even if business flat lines, the leverage becomes a problem?
Despite McLean's assertions, the company did not begin to grow again in the two quarters after this conference call. Instead, as mentioned above, the company's net income actually fell.
Beyond the matter of slowing growth, another issue confronting World Acceptance is that its revenues have risen more than its net income in the past two years. This implies that the additional business the company is winning is less profitable than its past business. It's possible that the company's new borrowers cost more to acquire, or that they are riskier than its past borrowers. Regardless, this does not bode well for World Acceptance Corporation's hopes for additional growth. Even if the company does gain new business, it seems unlikely that this business will be as profitable as in the past.
Moreover, the company's loan volume, or the dollar amount of new loans made by the company, is also declining. In my article about competition in the alternative finance industry as illustrated by Gary Rivlin's Broke, USA, I noted the importance of loan volume to an alternative finance business. Loan volume is important because such a business's expenses are largely fixed. As a result, any increase in loan volume causes an increase in revenues that almost directly goes to profits. Of course, this operating leverage goes both ways-any decrease in loan volume will cause a disproportionate drop in profits.
Because of this, it is worrying that World Acceptance Corporation's loan volume fell by 12.7% year over year in the second quarter of 2015. It is true that the company's total loans outstanding still rose in that quarter, since the company still made more new loans than had old loans paid off. However, the key test, I feel, will be the third quarter of fiscal 2015, or the quarter that we are currently in (October through December of 2014). The third quarter is the company's busiest due to borrowing for the holidays, and it will be interesting to see whether the trend of falling loan volumes continues. If it does, that may indicate that the company's days of growth are finally over.
Reasons For Declining Loan Volumes
As why loan volumes are declining at World Acceptance Corporation, it is hard to say. McLean, the company's CEO, was noncommittal in the company's second quarter 2015 conference call. In his words, he didn't think "there's a general trend in people not borrowing." However, he also didn't offer any explanation, saying merely that it "is very difficult to identify all the areas that impact our growth in loan volumes and so forth."
Banktalk.org, a website that discusses the alternative finance industry, explained World Acceptance's declining loan volumes by saying that "World is not generating enough business. Fewer people are walking into the door for the first time, and fewer existing borrowers are refinancing on their outstanding loans." It is true that Banktalk.org is a program of non-profit organization Reinvestment Partners, which opposes high interest lenders such as World Acceptance. However, I believe its description of the company's issues is accurate. Moreover, the site's comment highlights the particularly important issue of the company's falling refinancing rates. In my first article about World Acceptance Corporation, I noted how refinancings are the overwhelming majority of the company's business. As a result, it is worrying that refinancing borrowings were down a significant 16.8% year over year in the company's most recent quarter, and that they were down 14.1% the quarter before that. This decline is particularly significant because the rest of the company's business-from new borrowers and previous borrowers who had paid off their loans-was largely flat. Thus, the decline in World Acceptance's refinancing business reflected a particular weakness in that business.
To be fair, part of this decline in refinancing is due to the company's own efforts. At the end of fiscal year 2014, World Acceptance Corporation "made some system changes…that ensured customers were not encouraged to refinance existing loans where the proceeds from the transaction were less than 10% of the loan being refinanced." Most notably, borrowers' payment receipts will no longer show how much money they can get in a refinancing until that amount has reached 10% of the loan balance. In Sandy McLean's words on the company's fourth quarter 2014 conference call, such changes were related to "accounting issues surrounding less than 10% loans." This is an allusion to the accounting weakness the company encountered in fiscal 2013 that I described in my article about how World Acceptance Corporation illustrates the risks and rewards of investing in the alternative finance industry.
However, in that same conference call, McLean also said that those less than 10% refinancings were less than 7% of all refinancings, and that that proportion was falling. Thus, the double digit decline in refinancings in the first and second quarters of fiscal 2015 can only be partially blamed on that change in company policy. The rest must be due to other factors.
I believe one factor may be saturation in World Acceptance's core market of making installment loans, resulting in increased competition and thus a decline in loan volumes. In my first article about the company, I detailed how many companies in other areas of the alternative finance industry are entering the installment loan business. Payday lenders have been particularly enthusiastic in doing so because installment loans are less heavily regulated than payday loans.
If the installment lending market has become saturated because of this, it explains the falling loan volumes at World Acceptance Corporation. Competition directly erodes loan volumes in the alternative finance industry. This is because the market for alternative finance products is fairly limited, so companies have to fight for market share within the same limited pool of individuals who can't get access to more traditional means of credit. When more providers enter a given alternative finance market-such as installment lending-everyone's loan volumes suffer.
Indeed, there are indications that the installment loan business has become more competitive. In my Broke, USA article about competition, I noted how the book describes the trajectory of the payday lending industry in the United States through the story of Chris Browning, a payday lending manager from the late 90s to 2007. In Rivlin's words, as payday lending neared its peak saturation in the US, "revenues at the existing establishments would remain fairly steady…[but the] battle [became]…a war of dueling rewards programs and rival marketing campaigns."
World Acceptance Corporation's current situation has also become like this. The company's revenues have been fairly steady, and marketing has become increasingly important to the company. The company increased its referral fees for new leads in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, It has also touted its new marketing initiatives, such as a more consumer oriented website and cell phone app, on its conference calls. Moreover, I think it is indicative that the word "marketing" appears nine times in the company's most recent quarterly conference call transcript, whereas it does not appear once the year before.
Beyond stimulating new marketing efforts, competition in World Acceptance Corporation's business might also be the cause of another of the company's new initiatives. At the beginning of fiscal year 2015's second quarter (or July 1st, 2014), the company set up a new incentive program to keep branch managers from charging off loans that are 90 to 180 days late. Unlike the previous program, the new program encourages managers to continue trying to collect on those loans. In my mind, this initiative might be an effect of the rising competition in World Acceptance's business. As Banktalk.org puts it, "[doing] well at collecting on old debts and provoking more customers to renew their existing loans are key drivers of World's business model." If the company is increasing its focus on the former, that might be because it is having trouble with the latter due to increased competition.
That said, my opinion on this new effort is different from that of Banktalk.org. In the website's words, the company is "re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship." The reason for this accusation is because World Acceptance's new policy has the side effect of temporarily reducing the charge off rate of the company's loans. This rate fell on an annualized basis from 15.4% of net loans to 10.1% according to the company's second quarter fiscal 2015 press release filed with the SEC. Because of that side effect, Banktalk.org believes this new initiative is intended to hide problems with the company's loan book, and by extension, its balance sheet. In the website's words:
Putting past-due accounts into an accountant's 'no man's land" seems dubious. While the long view might be to see this change as something that only re-arranges how the company presents itself, the short-term view is the relevant benchmark. This is about tax season. World is hoping that it can delay some damage to their balance sheet for long enough until tax refunds arrive.
I am not entirely convinced by this explanation of World Acceptance Corporation's actions. For one thing, this accounting change should not significantly affect the company's balance sheet. The company will still fully reserve against loans more than 90 days delinquent. This means that the company's total assets - and by extension, its total equity - will not be affected by this action. Similarly, the company's earnings will not be boosted by this action.
Concerns About the Company's Loan Book, As Found In Its Most Recent Credit Facility Amendment
On the other hand, Banktalk.org's accusation that this move is designed to hide problems in World Acceptance Corporation's loan book does bring up an important issue. There is indeed some evidence that there might be problems with that loan book. In November 2014, World Acceptance informed investors of an amendment to its revolving credit facility. That credit facility funds most of the company's operations, and according to the company's 2014 10-K, "[substantially] all of the Company's assets are pledged as collateral for borrowings under the revolving credit agreement."
Because of this, it is worth taking a close look at any changes in this agreement. After all, in some ways, a company's lenders have far more reason to worry about an investment's downside than do its shareholders. This is because a lender's upside is capped at the interest that can be earned on a loan, but the downside is the entirety of the lender's investment. In contrast, a stock investor's upside is theoretically unlimited. Thus, if one is interested in examining a business's downside, as we are now, it is useful to consider a lender's perspective on the business.
There are some worrying signs about World Acceptance Corporation's business in this amendment to its revolving credit facility, which can be found in the company's recent 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
First of all, two of the eight lenders that were funding the company's credit facility are leaving, with BB&T (NYSE:BBT) dropping out effective immediately and TD North (NYSE:TD) departing in June 2015. The remaining banks will be picking up part of the slack, but the overall size of the company's line of credit will fall from $680 million to $630 million.
The negative implications of this are obvious. The company's lenders are reducing the credit they are willing to offer to the company, and two of them are cutting ties with the company altogether. This may indicate that World Acceptance Corporation's lenders, the people who probably know the company best outside of its management, think that the company is becoming riskier. Given that those lenders are shielded from losses on their loan by nearly $300 million of equity, this is a bad sign for shareholders, who will take the first loss if anything bad happens.
Beyond that, in the amendment, the company's lenders also established a "Collateral Performance Indicator" to measure the quality of the "Eligible Finance Receivables" used as collateral for its loan. Those Receivables are essentially World Acceptance's loan book, so the Indicator measures the quality of that loan book. The Indicator is the sum of the company's three month average percentage of loans 60+ days delinquent and the percentage of loans charged off in the previous eight months, as measured every month.
The creation of this Collateral Performance Indicator is worrying for two reasons. First of all, it is worrying that the company's lenders feel the need to quantify the quality of the company's loan book before lending against it. In the past, this quality seems to have been taken as a given. Thus, if the company's lenders are worried about it, shareholders should probably also be worried.
Beyond that, the company's lenders are using the Collateral Performance Indicator to set up covenants on their loan to World Acceptance Corporation. In every case, these covenants have made the loan more restrictive. For example, the lenders have chosen to base the Advance Rate of the lending facility on the Collateral Performance Indicator:
The Advance Rate is the percentage of its loan book that World Acceptance Corporation can borrow. This amount, the company's Borrowing Base, was originally simply set at 85% according to the original credit agreement, as outlined in the company's 8-K from September 21st, 2010.
It is worrying that the company's lenders now feel the need to scale this percentage with the quality of World Acceptance's loan book. It appears that they are afraid that the company's loan book will deteriorate, and that they want to be able to reduce the amount of money lent to the company if that happens. They might feel this way because they think the quality of the company's borrowers is going down. Alternatively, the company's bankers might have suddenly realized that there is a problem with the company's loan book that they had not noticed before. For example, they might now agree with Citron Investments, one of the company's short sellers, which has argued that the company's loan book is suspect because it is almost entirely made up of refinanced loans.
In this context, another of the new covenants in the credit amendment which also uses the Collateral Performance Indicator is also worrying. That covenant states that "[World Acceptance Corporation] will maintain a Collateral Performance Indicator of less than or equal to twenty four percent (24%) as of the end of each calendar month."
At the moment, the company does not seem close to breaching this limit. Its 60+ day delinquency rate was 7.0% at the end of its most recent quarter. The company's annualized net charge off rate before the recent change in charge off policy was 15.4%. As a result, its net charge off rate for the previous eight months should be about 2/3 of that, or around 10.5%. Adding up the two numbers leads to a Collateral Performance Indicator of about 17.5%. This is well below the 24% maximum.
However, this Collateral Performance Indicator is close to the 18% cut off at which the company's lenders begin reducing its borrowing capacity. Moreover, this Collateral Performance Indicator will fall, at least temporarily, due to the company's new charge off policy. Because of that, there does seem to be some evidence for Banktalk.org's theory that the change in charge off policy was designed to reduce the company's charge off rate and make its balance sheet look more appealing. Even if that was not the intent, the change will have that effect.
Regardless of whether the company is intentionally manipulating its loan book metrics, it is worrying that World Acceptance Corporation's lenders have begun considering what they will do if that loan book seriously deteriorates. It is particularly alarming that they have put in place safeguards so that they can declare the company in default and seize its assets if that loan book deteriorates enough.
Thus, by considering the covenants in World Acceptance Corporation's most recent amendment to its revolving credit facility, we can see that its lenders seem concerned about the quality of the company's loan book. I feel this sort of covenant analysis is valuable in analyzing a company's financial health because, as I have mentioned, a company's lenders are greatly incentivized to make sure there is a large margin of safety for their investment. Thus, when those lenders begin worrying about that margin of safety, shareholders should know that their investment may be at risk.
Moreover, we have seen other examples where the tightening of a company's loan covenants occurs before that company runs into trouble. In my recent article about the DFC Global (NASDAQ:DLLR) buyout, I noted how the company's 10-K warned of weakness in the company's business by informing investors of tightening in the company's loan covenants. That tightening occurred even while the company's management was still arguing that the company was financially sound. Investors who heeded that warning and sold after the 10-K came out could have saved an additional 10% of their investment above the company's final buyout price. I do not believe World Acceptance Corporation's situation is as serious as that of DFC Global before its buyout. However, I do believe that the recent amendment to its credit facility is a potential warning of trouble ahead.
World Acceptance Corporation Near Covenant Violation?
Given the importance of a company's loan covenants, perhaps the most worrying aspect of World Acceptance Corporation's current situation is that the company has actually come disturbingly close to default on one of those covenants. As Banktalk.org describes it in an October 9th, 2014 post:
According to a loan that the company signed with a consortium of lenders back in March of this year, World Acceptance must maintain a minimum net worth of $265 million. Back when World signed that agreement, the sum of its assets minus its liabilities stood at $307.4 million But the company has had a rough go over the last few months. As of June 30th, World's net worth has slipped to $284.3 million. To some extent, this is a problem that was outside of the normal range of expectations. The lenders and the company had little reason to believe that the trigger would be relevant. At the end of September 2013, World reported a net worth of $352.7 million. In March 2012, the number stood at $418.9 million.
In the same post that outlined the company's most recent credit facility amendment, the website also describes how the company avoided breaching this covenant in its most recent quarter:
At the end of June, World's net worth was shrinking. In fact, it was dropping so much that the chance of a violation of the loan covenant seemed very real. It stood at only $284.3 million, and given the downward trajectory of its shares, $265 million was very much a possibility.
But by adding approximately $11 million in assets to their balance sheet during the next three months, World reported a slighted turnaround.
With this addition to the company's equity, World Acceptance Corporation's equity at the end of the second quarter of fiscal 2015 stood at $293.6 million.
At first glance, this seems like incredibly alarming news-the company's equity is now less than $30 million from violating its debt covenants, after plunging $134.2 million in the past 2 years and 3 months. As we know, if the company does violate its loan covenants, that will give its creditors the right to seize its assets, potentially wiping out all shareholder value.
However, I do not believe that World Acceptance Corporation's situation is quite as alarming as it might seem. The company repurchased nearly $550 million in stock in the same time its net worth declined so precipitously. If it had not done so, that money would have bolstered the company's net worth, leaving it far above the level required by its covenants. I don't think World Acceptance's lenders would have let the company make all of those buybacks if they thought they were going to make the company unsafe. I particularly don't think the lenders would have let the company make more than $180 million in buybacks after its initial net worth requirement came into place if they thought that the company was going to breach its debt covenants. Moreover, World Acceptance is still highly profitable, and as long as it doesn't buy back too much stock, it will add significantly to its net worth every quarter.
That said, this news is still very worrying. For one thing, it supports the idea I described previously that now might not be the best time for World Acceptance Corporation to lever up to buy back stock. It also increases the resemblance of World Acceptance's situation to that of DFC Global before its buyout. As I noted in my article about the buyout, DFC Global's problems did not necessarily have to mean an investment loss for shareholders. The company's management argued that its problems were temporary, and I believe that they genuinely were. However, because of the company's leverage, a temporary business problem became a permanent loss for investors when the company had to sell itself to avoid breaching its debt covenants. It is possible that World Acceptance Corporation, having leveraged itself to buy back shares, might encounter a similar situation if its business does go into a temporary downturn.
Moreover, as mentioned, if the company does violate its debt covenants, that could wipe out shareholders' investment in the company. This could occur even if the company seems to still have positive net worth. In one of my recent articles, I discussed the bankruptcy of United Kingdom pawnbroker Albemarle & Bond (OTC:ABMLF). I argued that competition in the UK pawnbroking space permanently impaired Albemarle & Bond's core pawnbroking business. As a result, when its profits from gold buying dried up in 2012 and 2013 because of falling gold prices, the company's earnings collapsed and it violated the covenants on the debt it had taken on to open new locations.
What's interesting is that even after that happened, there was theoretically value left for shareholders. As Lewis Robinson, the author of UK value investing blog Expecting Value noted in an October 2013 post before the bankruptcy, "[there's] £91m of current assets against £44m of borrowings as of the last annual report and, even given a deterioration…that seems like quite a buffer."
Of course, in reality, not only did shareholders get nothing, but even the company's creditors lost money. Robinson predicted why that might happen in the same post. In his words:
Here's the problem as I see it, though - it's a combination of financial and operating leverage. It'd be nice to say that company could wind down its pledge book and bring in cash, but it can't. It overexpanded heavily during the recession…Winding down the pledge book is cash-positive but earnings-negative; and given the company has a number of loss-making stores on operating leases to keep up, they're stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Now, that's not to say that the same thing will happen to World Acceptance Corporation. World Acceptance's problems with competition are not nearly as dire as those of Albemarle & Bond. Moreover, World Acceptance has no cyclical business like gold buying that might get wiped out just as other problems erode its core business, creating a perfect storm of default and disaster.
Also, even if World Acceptance did violate its debt covenants, that doesn't mean that its bankers will declare a default and seize its assets. Bankers understand that a company in default is generally worth more if they allow it to continue operating as usual, assuming that the business model is sound.
An example of this sort of banker forbearance can be found in QC Holdings (NASDAQ:QCCO), which has been in violation of its debt covenants since late 2013. Many of the company's operations are still strong, but the company overall is shrinking, I believe due to competition. As a result, it hasn't been able to meet the minimum levels set by its bankers for EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Because of this, its bankers have reduced the company's borrowing capacity, imposed limitations on cash draining activities like dividend payments, and forced the company to make mandatory debt repayments. They have not, however, forced the company into default, despite having the right to do so.
Given that there is no evidence that World Acceptance Corporation's core business is compromised like Albemarle & Bond's was, if World Acceptance Corporation did breach its debt covenants, I imagine its situation would be more like that of QC Holdings than that of Albemarle & Bond.
That said, the fact that we are discussing such a possibility shows the issues with World Acceptance Corporation that have been revealed in the past several quarters. The company's growth seems to be nearing an end, its lenders seem worried about the quality of its loan book, and it seems at risk of violating one of its debt covenants. And, over all of this, hangs the threat of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its investigation. At the very least, recent events show that World Acceptance Corporation has more hidden dangers than one would have thought only a year before.
That said, the company does still have its strengths. World Acceptance Corporation is still highly profitable. Indeed, the company's returns on equity have never been higher, driven by the company's continuous share buybacks at low earnings multiples. Moreover, the company hopes to resume its growth in fiscal 2015 by opening 50 new stores in the US and 20 in Mexico, of which 30 have already been opened. In many ways, the company still has many characteristics of an ideal investment, as I described it in my first article about the company. Moreover, it is such an investment trading at less than 8 times earnings, making it a true bargain if things go well for the company.
The problem is that the most recent developments for the company do not seem to indicate that things are going well. The company is unquestionably becoming more leveraged-and at a time when it is facing new challenges, both in its operations and with regulators. Moreover, opening new stores does not guarantee growth. Albemarle & Bond opened 25 new locations in each of the last three years before its debt covenant violation, all from of a much smaller base than World Acceptance Corporation, and all those stores did was saddle the company with unsustainable debt.
Thus, I believe the question of whether World Acceptance Corporation is a good investment comes back to the subject of my first article about the company. On the one hand, the company embodies many of the strengths of an ideal business and trades at a cheap valuation. On the other hand, it also embodies many of the perils of the alternative finance industry. I will leave it to the enterprising investor to decide whether the rewards outweigh the risks of such an investment.
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