By Ben Strubel of Strubel Investment Management

H&R Block (HRB) is the largest tax preparer in the United States and prepares roughly one out of every seven tax returns filed. The company was founded in 1955 and has prepared 550 million tax returns since then. The company also offers consulting and accounting services through a small subsidiary, RSM McGladrey.

Over the past few years, HRB saw its share of the tax return market shrink. It moved into the mortgage and financial planning and investment products markets. Both moves turned out to be disastrous, with HRB getting caught in the subprime mess and selling its mortgage unit. The financial planning business also ended poorly with a flurry of lawsuits and the business being sold to Ameriprise. In 2007 after a proxy battle by Richard C. Breeden, a hedge fund manager and former SEC chairman, the previous CEO resigned. Former McDonald’s executive Russell P. Smyth was brought in. Last year Smyth left the company and HRB installed Alan Bennett as CEO.

Problems/Threats

HRB stock has dropped because the company is perceived to be under threat from three major items: (1) the loss of funding for Refund Anticipation Loans (RALs), (2) the growth in market share for TurboTax and other digital solutions, and (3) mortgage putbacks from its legacy mortgage origination activities.

Loss of RAL Funding

HRB stocked dropped precipitously when HSBC announced it was backing out of an agreement to fund RALs for HRB. HRB sued, but the stock fell even further when the Office of the Comptroller of Currency stepped in and banned HSBC from providing RALs.

As shown by the chart below, RAL and RAC fees (under the other category) make up 10% at most of revenues for HRB.

The biggest fear at the time seemed to be that the loss of RALs would lead customers to go to competitors who could offer RALs. The reality of the situation was different. It turns out there was just not a lot of RAL funding out there, although some competitors will have RALs that will not be nearly enough to meet the potential demand. HRB also offers numerous refund products that can take the place of RALs, including Refund Anticipation Checks (RACs) and various Emerald Card products. According to management, the RAL-to-RAC conversion will be neutral from an income standpoint.

Additionally, with the FDIC informing Republic Bank & Trust in February to exit the RAL business, it seems that the government has made it clear that RALs are no longer welcome in the marketplace and we are likely moving to a future where no tax preparer is able to offer RALs.

Digital and TurboTax

Many, including some sell-side analysts, have put forth the idea that H&R Block’s core business of tax preparation is in decline because of do-it-yourself at-home or online software, specifically TurboTax. Indeed, almost any media article about H&R Block mentions the company is losing market share to TurboTax. With TurboTax (or other digital solutions) gaining market share and HRB’s market share declining, many have simply assumed the two are related. This is not the case.

The chart below shows the percent of income tax returns filed using a paid preparer for that tax year.

(Source: IRS data, Forbes, and H&R Block company presentation)

Since the 1996 tax year, the percent of filers using a paid preparer has increased. The drops in 2003, 2007, and 2008 generally correspond to higher unemployment and or greater job or economic uncertainty. Also keep in mind that TurboTax debuted in 1983 and was bought by Intuit in 1993, so digital solutions have been in the market for the entire time period shown.

Instead of hurting HRB, the data shows that TurboTax and other digital solutions have been making large gains in market share at the expense of old “pencil and paper” filers. HRB’s core market of assisted tax preparation is growing. The real reason for HRB’s loss of market is due to a combination of poor service and higher unemployment. While the customer service issue is easily corrected, the greatest long-term threat is continued high unemployment.

Mortgage Putbacks

The largest short-term threat to HRB is mortgage putbacks. Mortgage putbacks occur when mortgage buyers force the mortgage originator to buy back the loan, typically due to misrepresentation or fraud. In order to attempt a putback, investors in the mortgages must gather 25% of the voting rights. HRB originated mortgages up to December 2007 via a subsidiary called Option One (now called Sand Canyon Corp or SCC). In 2008 HRB sold SCC to American Home Mortgage Servicing; however, HRB is still liable for any representations and warranties on mortgages originated by SCC while part of HRB.

The chart below shows the mortgage balances outstanding for mortgages originated from 2005 to 2007, which were the problem years. HRB has received almost no putback claims for mortgages originated outside that time period.

(Source: company presentation)

Understanding the Putback Threat

The threat of putbacks varies by the type of investor who bought the loans as well as the type of loan that was originated and the representations and warranties made by the originator. The mortgage investors can be broken down into four main types: GSEs, Private label securitizations, whole loan investors, and monolines. HRB’s quarter-to-date mortgage putback claims are shown below, broken down by counterparty type.

(Source: company presentation)

GSEs

For other mortgage originators GSEs have been the most active in putting back mortgages. The representations and warranties made to loans sold to GSE are the strongest, and the GSEs have slightly different standards for initiating putback claims than other investors. However, GSEs pose the smallest threat to HRB. SCC sold only approximately $500M worth of loans to FNMA. To date HRB has received claims totaling only $13M from GSEs. Putbacks by GSEs have been sporadic throughout 2009 and 2010 and show no signs of increasing.

Monolines

Some securitizations were sold with insurance “wrappers” where monoline insurance companies agreed to insure portions of the security against default. Like GSEs, monoline insurers have been very active in pursuing putbacks. There are at least two differences, however, between monolines (and private label and whole loan investors) and GSEs. First, SCC is only obligated to repurchase loans for an evidenced breach of representations and warranties that has adversely affected the loan. Second, the reps and warranties for monoline-insured loans were generally more discriminating than for GSE loans1. Here again HRB has little exposure with only $2B in loans having been sold with insurance.

Whole Loan Investors

Whole loan investors make up a small portion of overall loans at only $2B. Many loans sold to whoe loan investors included an early default provision whereby if a borrower defaulted on the first payment SCC was required to repurchase the loan. To date SCC has repurchased $1.3B in loans. However, the early default provisions have expired. There were some other reps and warranties provided that were not subject to a stated term. Altogether put backs from whole loan investors have steadily declined

Private Label Securitizations

Private label securitization investors previously were not very active in pursuing putbacks. This was mainly due to the difficulty of securing 25% of the voting rights

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