Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Staying Patient on Title Insurers

2014 has been a tough year for title insurance stocks (as it has been for many mortgage stocks in general) as the group lagged the broader market. However, I believe that title insurers remain the best way to get exposure to housing recovery.

A 30 second thesis on the industry

·         Good industry structure and pricing power. The top 4 players have over 80% of market share. Customers are essentially captive because banks require title insurance for mortgage transactions.
·         Volumes are near historical troughs. Even without any boosts from household formation or homeownership rates, insurance premiums can go up from housing churn and more relaxed lending standards.
·         Expense restructuring. Title insurers had to control expenses through the latest cycles, as well as meet demands from activist investors. Operations are more efficient post-crisis and margins are poised to increase with any volume uptick due to high fixed cost.

Industry Characteristics

·         Product.  Title insurance is generally required by lenders whenever one purchases or refinances a property. Premiums are some percentage of loan amount or property value, with purchases generating higher premiums than refinances. The mortgage industry does not expect much growth in refinance volumes going forward, meaning purchase mortgage volumes will be the biggest driver in the coming years.

·         Players. Top players are Fidelity National Financial (FNF), First American Financial (FAF), Stewart Information Services (STC), and Old Republic (ORI). These 4 traditionally have 80-90% of the market.

·         Pricing. Pricing is regulated by the states and there is very little price competition. As opposed to true pricing power where firms can get away with price hikes, I would say the industry enjoys stable pricing that is very much fixed across the market. The firms also has upside from home price appreciation (remember premiums are a percentage of loan/property amount).

·         Value add. Title insurers are closer to labor intensive service companies than true “insurance” risk pools. “Insurance” in the typical sense of the word is about protecting against future losses yet to incur. However, title insurer actually guard against historical events that ALREADY occurred. As such title insurers can actually minimize losses by just doing a better job upfront (more thorough title search for example).
o   This puts sell side coverage in a weird position. Does the housing analyst cover this?  Or does the insurance analyst cover this? How about the business services analyst?

·         Cost structure. Personnel cost (semi-fixed) are the largest component of expenses, rather than the more unpredictable losses. The combination of fixed cost and relative low margins means earnings can have maximum leverage to volumes gains.

Upside 1:  Macro Narrative

Both total home sales and purchase mortgage volumes are near historical troughs. The current housing environment is marked by 1) low household formation and 2) a shift away from home ownership toward rentals. The mainstream narrative says young people are staying home due to student debt; and when they do move out (thus forming households), they rent instead of own. While that argument has merit, my personal view is household formation will eventually have to pick up, while home ownership rates will have to plateau as rental vacancies decline to more normal levels.

But keep in mind, household formation and home ownership rates are not the only driver of mortgage volume!  In fact, mortgage volume should be more related to total existing home sales (which is a multiple of new home sales).  This means that housing churn and mortgage access can actually be more important than household formation and home ownership rates.

o   Churn measures housing turnover (shown in chart 1 as total home sales as % of year end number of households). Since the late 1960’s this number has trended up with economic growth, dropped during the great recession and now trending up again. Intuitively, as the economy gets better, people will buy and sell houses and move around more, even if the total number of households remains constant.
o   Average mortgage sizes (shown in chart 2 as purchase mortgage volume divided by total home sales) are still at depressed levels even though home prices have recovered. This means either a) lower percentage of buyers taking out mortgages, or b) people take out smaller mortgages (lower LTV loans). Lenders are already in the process of expanding access, so that will help mortgage volume and by extension title insurance volumes.

Title insurers will likely see their premium revenues increase if either, or both, churn and mortgage sizes increase. This is better than say, homebuilders that are depend on new constructions, which goes back to household formation and home ownership rates.

Chart 1:  home sales activity can increase without the benefit of household formation
Total home sales and churn as % of households

Chart 2:  mortgage size has room to grow when lending standards normalize
mortgage volume per home sales

Upside 2: Expenses and operating leverage

The expense picture will be different from each firm and I encourage investors to dig deeper on their own. Just reading through the transcripts though, expense control is clearly a focus for the industry. This is particularly true after the great recession then the refinance boom-bust in 2012- 2013. First American, for example, has condensed its 103 claim centers, 30 accounting centers and 30 data centers in 2006 to 4, 2, and 2 respectively today (source: conference transcript). These are structural costs that are not expected to come back when purchase volumes come back. As a result, FAF now sees a 10% pre-tax margin as the new floor, as opposed to the ceiling it was during pre-crisis days.

Expense initiatives are hardly limited to FAF. FNF and STC have both attracted activist investors in the past couple years and management teams are on tight leashes regarding expenses.

It’s not just the level of expenses improving either. Expense will be easier to manage going forward because purchase volumes are more predictable than refinances. Refinance volumes are very sensitive to rates so companies had to quickly ramp up and ramp down their staff. The transmission goes something like this:  rate volatility -> refinance volume boom/bust -> difficulty in staffing  -> inefficiencies  -> earning volatility. Going forward though, a primarily purchase driven market should be more predictable and thus costs will be easier to manage.

A better blend of risk vs housing related subsectors

Why title insurers versus other housing/macro plays? The table and discussion below will outline how I mentally think of the various housing sub-sectors.

housing subsectors risk comp:  builders, parts, origination, mreits, pmi, servicing, title insurance

·         Competitive risk. Housing subsectors like home builders, loan origination, mREITs are typically fragmented and competitive. Title insurers and non-bank servicers are the only subsectors with highly concentrated players.

·         Regulatory risk. Non-bank servicers are currently fighting through a host of regulatory issues. Title insurers could have some risk here also, as the uninitiated tend to think of it as a sham product. However as one does more research they realize the protection is necessary.

·         Consumer credit risk. Credit losses are currently minimal but are bound to increase as lenders fight for market share by expanding credit boxes. If you don’t like the idea of normalizing losses (or already have enough in your portfolio) you can screen out origination, mortgage insurers, as well as some of the nonagency mREITS.

At this stage of the cycle, competitive and regulatory risks are my primary concerns. By process of elimination this leaves title insurance as the least risky way to get housing exposure.


I will leave off at this point. You have an industry with concentrated market power, volumes at a trough but normalizing, and expense running at efficient levels. Note that I have not discussed valuation. However, if you have a positive view on housing in the long term, this should be the best sub-sector to look into, given the better risk blends compared to other housing plays.

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