Buying into a well-run conglomerate can be incredibly rewarding. Not only can investors possibly beat the market (or at least put up quality returns) over the long haul, but they can do so with minimal effort, increasing the return on time spent. Berkshire Hathaway is the most famous modern conglomerate, run by one of the most well-known investors ever: Warren Buffett.
One smaller company with similar characteristics to Berkshire Hathaway is Nelnet (NNI -1.87%), a conglomerate focused on financial services based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The stock is currently trading around its all-time highs above $81 per share, but it's still cheap relative to the value of all its assets, providing a great buying opportunity for long-term investors.
Slowly melting loan book
Nelnet's legacy business is a book of around $20 billion in student loans. It was barred in 2010 from originating new loans when the federal government took the business in-house, but it still has an existing portfolio that will generate cash over the next decade. And the best part about this loan portfolio? Nelnet doesn't take on any material default risk, since all loans are backed by the U.S. government.
At the end of the second quarter, Nelnet estimated that through 2025, including the last two quarters of this year, this loan book will generate $1.39 billion in cash for the company. After 2025, it will become a much smaller part of the company, but it is still estimated to add another $830 million in cash over the life of the portfolio. Nelnet is using this cash stream to reinvest into its other businesses and return cash to shareholders through dividends (the stock currently yields a little over 1%) and share repurchases.
Education software and payments
Nelnet's second-largest business is Nelnet Business Services. This segment does tuition payment processing and software for administrative departments at K-12 schools and colleges and is growing at a steady clip. In 2020, NBS produced $66 million in operating income, and that was in a down year with COVID-19-related school closures and postponements. In the first half of this year, NBS had $48 million in operating income, giving the segment a 39% operating margin. Compare that to 2016, when NBS did $34 million in operating income for the full year. This segment is growing steadily for Nelnet and is likely on pace to blow by $100 million in annual operating profits within the next few years.
Nelnet has a lot of smaller businesses and investments that round out the company. One is its loan servicing business, which did $15 million in operating income last quarter. This business requires winning contracts from the federal government, and there is a risk Nelnet won't win future contracts and this entire segment will go away. But with two competitors calling it quits this year, and only Navient remaining as a scaled student loan servicer, it is unlikely that Nelnet will lose this business.
In 2020, Nelnet sold 48% of its stake in ALLO Communications, a broadband/fiber business, to SDC Capital Partners. Nelnet owns 45% of the business after the transaction, which is valued at $180 million. Under its venture arm, Nelnet owns 20% of sports highlights and film software company Hudl, which is sitting on its balance sheet at $78 million but would likely be worth many times that if Hudl started trading publicly today. Lastly, since 2013, Nelnet has invested $725 million into solar projects, real estate, and venture investments. All these projects are held at cost on Nelnet's balance sheet.
So what's Nelnet worth to the market today? The measly sum of $3.1 billion. That's right, this group of high-quality businesses and a loan book that is guaranteed to spit out $1.39 billion in cash over the next five years can be bought for a market cap of $3.1 billion. Since Nelnet is anti-promotional (it doesn't do conference calls and rarely highlights its Hudl investment), it may take years for investors to realize the true value of this business, which will require patience.
Nelnet looks fantastically undervalued at the moment and is poised to provide market-beating returns for any investor planning to hold for a decade or longer.