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An Undervalued, Profitable Insurance Company -- Investors Title (ITIC)

April 04, 2011 | About:
whopper investments

whopper investments

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Currently trading for 70% of tangible book despite a history of consistent profitability and relatively strong ROE, Investors Title Company (ITIC) is a potentially significantly undervalued insurance company.

I first stumbled upon ITIC from when it was posted on the Rational Walk (see here for the initial write up and here for a quick follow up on some potentially hidden assets that could (slightly) increase value). Insurance is much more his forte than mine, so I encourage you to read his write ups.

Anyway, ITIC sells title insurance. The are a bit player in this industry, which is dominated by four large players. Most (between 40-50%) of their business comes from North Carolina. I like this for a couple of reasons: 1) North Carolina was not one of the “centers” of the housing bubble, like California, Florida, etc., so while business is down in the recession, it hasn’t been absolutely crushed and should recover to normal levels as the economy continues to recover. 2) It gives them something of a niche in that they should know the market and be able to price/understand the risks in it better than the giant players.

As you might expect, business has been hard hit by the recession and housing crisis. Title insurance is only purchased when a property is sold or refinanced, and the drop off in sales led to a drop off in demand for title insurance. Still, the company weathered the crisis pretty well, reporting a loss only in 2008 and easily weathering the recession due to a near fortress balance sheet.

On to valuation. The company currently trades for a market cap of ~$72 million ($31.5 per share) despite a book value of just shy of $104 million (just over $45.5 per share). Given that most insurance companies trade for at least tangible book (and sometimes a multiple of it), that alone makes them interesting. What I think makes them really interesting though, is their earnings power. Currently, with the low volumes from the recession, the company is earning ~8% margins on their underwriting business. This makes them pretty interesting for a couple of reasons. First, as an insurance company, they get paid premiums upfront and get to invest the float while waiting to pay claims. They pay out between 15-20% of reserves in claims each year, so they get an average of about three years worth of free float every time they take in a premium. In a high interest/inflationary environment (not saying that’s coming, but always a concern with Q.E.3,4,5, and 6 on the horizon), that float would be incredibly valuable. Even in today’s low interest rate environment, that’s pretty valuable. Some insurers write insurance at a loss just to get float to invest, so to do it at a decent profit, especially in a sluggish environment, is pretty impressive.

But are ~8% margins sustainable? I say no… they're likely much too low given the company’s past. Pre-housing crisis, the company was underwriting at 15%+ margins, and they were underwriting at ~12-13% margins before the housing bubble started getting really frothy. Even if revenue don't recover from today’s volume, if they could get back to 13% margins, that would add another $3 million or so in earnings power to this company. It’s hard to see margins recovering that fully given the fixed costs involved in operating the business, but I think projecting margins of 12% on 10% higher revenue as the company’s mid-cycle earnings power is pretty reasonable, given that’s what they were doing in 2002. That would give the insurance operations pretax earnings power of about $8 million per year. Subtract out $3-4 million per year in overhead, and the company could very easily make $5 million per year from insurance operations alone (remember, the insurance operations generates float— no-cost money that can be invested while waiting to pay it out, so that $5 million is a good bit more valuable than $5 million from a manufacturing business, where you need to invest capital in order to get that profit).

Then there’s the investment portfolio. At year end, the company had ~$100 million in bonds and $30 million invested in stocks (plus about $9 million in cash and accrued interest). The bonds are invested ~12% in long term (10+ year to maturity) bonds, with the remainder split pretty evenly between 1-5 year and 5-10 year maturity bonds. They earned $3.4 million in interest on them last year and the year before, so I think it’s safe to assume they will earn that rate going forward. Some of the bond state invested in tax advantaged local bonds, so they could likely earn a bit more by switching over to treasuries, but I’ll use $3.4 million as the pretax return from their bonds. On the $30 million of equity, I don’t claim to be a forecaster of stock prices, but going forward I think a 5% rate of return for stocks would be reasonable. That would be an additional $1.5 million in earnings. Let’s make the math easy and say their investment portfolio will generate $5 million in pretax income going forward.

So, using my projections, I get earnings power going forward of $10 million pretax. Given they earned more than this in every year from 2002-2007 (pretax earnings ranged from $11.6 million-18.6 million, with four of the six years coming in over $15 million). I think that’s a pretty conservative number.

My take

With a market cap of $72.5 million and ~$9 million in net cash, they would trade for around 7x my projection of pretax earnings. That’s cheap. Add in the fact the ROE was consistently between 15-18% pre-crisis (despite a maybe too-conservative balance sheet) and management’s history of share buybacks, dividends and maintaining a fortress balance sheet, and I think that’s too cheap. Readers who consider the insurance industry within their circle of competence should certainly take a look at this one. I personally don’t, but as I continue to gain experience in the area and read the 10-Ks and value other insurers, I will be revisiting this company and could see myself making an investment in them at some point.

Originally posted on whopperinvestments.com, where I focus on deep value microcaps


Rating: 3.3/5 (12 votes)

Comments

rnagarajan
Rnagarajan - 3 years ago
Decline today was on high volume and no news - kind of odd. I'm not complaining since it allowed me to finally increase the position to my desired allocation.

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