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FirstCash Seeing A Strong Core Pawn Recovery, But Point-Of-Sale Is Lagging (NASDAQ:FCFS)

Jewelry on the background of American dollars. Top view.

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It took some time, but FirstCash (NASDAQ:FCFS) is definitely seeing a recovery in its core pawn operations, as high inflation is pinching disposable income for its core customer base. At the same time, though, retail partners for the company’s lease-to-own operations (the American First Finance acquisition) are seeing lower foot traffic and gross origination volumes haven’t impressed me all that much so far.

At this point, I remain concerned that the AFF deal will drag on results in the near future, though I do still see the logic of entering the point-of-sale financing/lease-to-own business with an asset-light model. I also still expect some lag in the performance of the Mexican pawn stores relative to the U.S. operations, and I continue to believe that expanding the Latin American store footprint would be a good use of capital.

Between a better outlook for the core pawn operations and a weaker outlook for the POS/LTO operations, my model and valuation don’t change all that much. I continue to believe that FirstCash shares are undervalued and worth considering, but I also acknowledge that the AFF acquisition has added execution/capital allocation risk to the story, and some investors may prefer other plays on themes like inflation and lower-income consumers.

The Ongoing Pawn Recovery Is Evident In The Q2’22 Results

While overall second quarter results at FirstCash were as expected on the top line (and better by $0.10 on the EPS line), there was a divide between the business segments – the pawn business did better than expected, while the point-of-sale business didn’t meet expectations.

Revenue rose 63% as reported, or 69% on an adjusted basis, with organic revenue growth of around 17%. Retail merchandise sales revenue rose 12% year over year (or 10% in same-store terms), while pawn fee revenue rose 22% (20% same-store). Scrap revenue jumped 69%, while AFF revenue was down slightly sequentially as slightly higher interest and fee income was offset by weaker leased merchandise revenue.

Core U.S. pawn operation revenue rose 21%, with core pawn revenue (ex-scrap) up 18% on 13% growth in merch sales (up 10% same-store) and 31% growth in pawn fee revenue (up 29% same-store). Scrap revenue more than doubled (up 129%).

In the Latin American operations, revenue rose 10% in constant currency, with retail sales up 11% (up 11% same-store) and fees up 8% (7% same-store). Scrap sales rose 13%.

Gross margin was weaker, falling 11 points to 46.5% from the year-ago level, due both to the inclusion of lower-margin AFF revenue and some changes in the underlying pawn business mix. Both the U.S. and LatAm pawn operations saw lower gross margin (down 180bp to 57.3% and down 30bp to 54.6%, respectively), largely due to the higher contribution of low-margin scrap jewelry revenue.

EBITDA rose 167% as reported, or 68% in adjusted terms, with core pre-tax pawn income up 29%, with a margin of around 21%. AFF pre-tax earnings more than doubled sequentially, with a margin of around 6% on a GAAP basis.

Better Days For Pawn Lending, And This Could Last A While

As I outlined in my last piece on FirstCash, I expected pawn lending to improve as 2022 developed, and that has been the case. The drivers I previously mentioned – inflation, the end of stimulus payments, and a change in taxes – have all contributed to increased pressure on lower-income households, leading to increased demand for pawn loans. As has been the case for some time, the LatAm recovery is lagging the U.S. recovery, some of which is due to a weaker economic recovery in Mexico and some of which I believe is due to higher remittances from the U.S.

Pawn loans grew 33% in the U.S. (reported and same-store), while the Latin American operations saw 6% growth on a constant currency same-store basis. Those numbers represent modest deceleration in the U.S. (from 38% growth in Q1’22) and modest acceleration in LatAm (from 3% growth) but point to healthy upcoming growth in pawn lending fees as loans are rolled over. In both cases, pawn loans are now above pre-pandemic levels.

There have been some ups and downs in the merchandise operations as the pandemic disrupted the business, but I believe the business is overall in good shape. Merchandise sales growth did decelerate in Latin America (and accelerated in the U.S.) relative to the first quarter, but in both cases retail margins are healthy and inventory is in good shape.

Even with a recent retreat in gasoline prices, I do expect healthy pawn loan demand at least into 2023. I’m a little less certain about the merchandise operations – I think demand will be okay, but I believe management could have some challenges in their direct buy operations as customers run out of items to sell (though surrenders from pawn lending will likely increase). To be clear, I don’t think the merchandise operations will suddenly underperform, but rather I think this level may be harder to maintain if it’s harder to grow inventories.

More Challenges In The POS/LTO Market Today

There were some positive notes on the AFF business in the second quarter – active merchant locations rose 34% yoy and 10% qoq (to 7,600), and combined receivables rose 21%. On the other hand, AFF’s retail partners did see weaker foot traffic, and gross transaction volume was up only 5% in the quarter.

Underlining some of the pressure, management noted in the release that they now expect the contingent compensation payout for the AFF deal to be on the lower end of the range, as the businesses’ EBITDA is unlikely to hit the targets for the higher end of the range. As a reminder, AFF owners could have received $300M in earn-outs ($250M and $50M) tied to the business achieving $153M in ’22 EBITDA and $239M in ’23 EBITDA.

What’s going on with AFF does not seem to be a unique phenomenon in the space. PROG Holdings (PRG) pre-announced weaker Q2 results, and when reporting those results, did note weaker demand trends and higher delinquency rates. Rent-A-Center (RCII) (AFF competes with RCII’s Acima business) performed better than PROG and management seemed less concerned about delinquency rates but did also note weaker foot traffic at retail LTO partners.

I don’t think anything is “broken” here. Rather, I do think this is a response to current trends like high inflation pressuring disposable income and leading consumers to be a little more conservative on their spending. Longer term, I see good growth potential in point-of-sale financing (particularly in end-markets like repair services), but I do also still have concerns about the influx of capital and competition into the market.

I want to be clear that I’m not taking these last two quarters of results from AFF as any sort of proof that my skepticism about the deal was justified (it’s too early for that), but I do remain concerned about management’s decision to make a large capital commitment to a new-to-them space (roughly $900M) when that capital could have gone toward expanding the LatAm pawn operations. Still, as inflationary pressures ease and AFF expands its retail partner footprint, this still could become a value-accretive deal for FirstCash shareholders.

The Outlook

Relative to my prior model, the pawn business is performing ahead of my expectations, while the AFF business is lagging. I expect the recent trends (strong pawn loan demand, weaker POS partner foot traffic) to continue, with the two trends mostly canceling each other out. I do expect slightly lower revenue for FY’23 and slightly lower margins (due to a greater mix of scrap revenue), but the changes aren’t material.

I still believe high single-digit core revenue growth, double-digit FCF margins, and high single-digit core FCF growth are possible, and still support a long-term total annualized return in the double-digits, with a near-term target of around $90 per share.

The Bottom Line

I do expect a strong ongoing recovery in the pawn business, but that recovery is going to be tempered by weaker results in the POS/LTO operations. On top of that, I think it’s plausible that the near-term struggles of AFF, even if they are being driven by macro factors that are impacting the entire sector, will support second-guessing management’s decision to enter the business and could be a risk to sentiment.

Longer term, though, I believe both in the ongoing growth potential of the pawn business (particularly in Latin America) and the potential of AFF to become a strong contributor to cash flows. For patient investors, today’s price offers an attractive entry point.

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