Portfolio Recovery Associates (NASDAQ:PRAA), a two-time Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation, hit the trifecta in its first quarter.

  1. Results smashed analyst expectations (including my own).
  2. Shareholders are getting a one-time special dividend of $1 per share.
  3. And the company is repurchasing 1 million shares (about 6.2% of total outstanding).

These latter two moves came in response to a trial balloon Portfolio's management floated last quarter about taking on some leverage (read: debt) to enhance shareholder returns. Making an even greater splash, earnings were surprisingly released a day early, after an exchange filing was inadvertently made public. Given the breadth of good news the company reported, I doubt many were complaining about the early release.

The business and results
Another quick primer for newcomers: Portfolio Recovery buys defaulted consumer debt from credit card providers like MasterCard (NYSE:MA), Visa, or Discover Card (a division of Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS)). It also picks up bankruptcy paper, telecom debt from providers like Verizon (NYSE:VZ), auto loans, student loans, mortgage deficiency paper, etc. -- all for pennies on the face value dollar. The company then works this debt through its own collector workforce, collecting two to three times the purchase price over the next seven years.

It's simple in theory, but in practice, the business requires experience to appropriately value debt, discipline to purchase debt only at reasonable prices, and well-trained collectors to work the paper. Overpaying for debt is akin to burning money, and excellent pricing models aren't much use if collectors can't cajole debtors to pony up.

Now that we've established how the firm does business, let's see how well it does that business:





Cash Collections




Portfolio Amortization Rate




Cash Collections Recognized as Revenues




Other Cash Receipts




Total Revenues




Net Income




EPS (Diluted)




New Purchased Receivables




Operating Margin




The "Other Cash Receipts" line stems from Portfolio's three wholly owned fee-for-service businesses. Anchor Receivables collects on debt owned by others. IGS Nevada specializes in "asset location," also known as skip-tracing. And RDS collects debts owed to local, state, and federal governments.

What's good for shareholders...
Fools almost universally seem to admire Portfolio Recovery. Witness CAPS, where bull ratings for the stock outnumber bears 1,843 to 43. Management does an excellent job focusing on building its business, paying little attention to short-term Wall Street concerns. Yet the stock price has admittedly stagnated over the past year

Portfolio Recovery's dividend and share repurchase announcement was matched by its chief competitor Asset Acceptance (NASDAQ:AACC). Both companies are extremely conservative with their equity. No options have been granted at Portfolio since 2003, and page 25 of the proxy statement from Asset Acceptance actually spells out that the company considers shares already owned by executives sufficient motivation to increase the company's value. Thus, these repurchases will actually benefit outside investors, not simply divert shareholder capital into management's pockets.

Overall, Portfolio's dividend and share repurchase will cost about $70 million. Investors might worry that management isn't finding enough new debt to purchase with the cash it's collecting, but fear not, Fools. Portfolio Recovery's level of new charged-off debt purchasing was the second-highest quarterly amount ever, eclipsed only by the massive purchasing the company did in Q4 2005, in the wake of new bankruptcy legislation. I'm eagerly awaiting the 10-Q to see how collection performance for past portfolios has evolved -- particularly for those 2005 purchases. Meanwhile, operating margin, which had been depressed over the past few quarters, rebounded nicely.

Valuation station
I suppose I'm going to take a bit of a victory lap right now. I maintain a fairly detailed valuation model on Portfolio Recovery, which I updated for Hidden Gems subscribers on our message board earlier this month. With Portfolio bouncing around in the low $40s through much of March and April, I recrunched the numbers, bringing in as many pessimistic assumptions as I could (with a single exception, perhaps, which I'll get to in a moment).

The result? As of the end of 2006, I couldn't get my estimate of a reasonable intrinsic value below $51. The one optimistic assumption I allowed myself was that Portfolio would continue to grow new purchases of debt by 20% annually for the next seven years. While it's certainly too early to infer a long-term trend, the company's Q1 2007 purchasing suggests it's off to a rousing start.

Given Q1's outstanding results, my estimate of fair value will only rise. (I can't get more specific until I've seen the company's 10-Q.) But even after Wednesday's 14% rise -- part of a 34% run since its early March nadir -- the stock isn't priced outlandishly. Portfolio Recovery's been steadily trending lower on a relative valuation basis for most of the last year. Today, I'd call it reasonable, though not cheap.

P/E Ratio

Enterprise Value/Cash Collections (trailing)

Enterprise Value/Expected Remaining Cash Collections

















*Since December 2002 IPO. All calculations use month-ending prices, and are calculated on a rolling twelve-month basis.

What to watch for
To temper enthusiasms (particularly my own), remember that the first quarter is always the seasonal best for Portfolio's business. Also, while new receivables purchases were strong, the end of the first quarter concluded a "forward flow" agreement the company entered a year ago, which was responsible for a large percentage of its purchasing over the past 12 months. That "flow" has been renewed for a single quarter, but there's no guarantee beyond Q2; afterward, Portfolio will have to rebid for it. True, the company signed another forward flow agreement with a second party for a similar amount in the first quarter, but if it loses that original agreement, the company will be sprinting just to stand still. On the positive side, management seemed quietly pleased that tight prices in the charged-off debt market might be loosening a little.

The Foolish bottom line
In the three years since its first Hidden Gems recommendation, Portfolio Recovery is up 115%. Yet that return has largely come in stutter-steps -- brief, rapid gains amid long stretches of stagnation. This latest flat interlude has lasted a year, with management focusing on the business at hand while the market bid the company ever lower. Given its continued excellence, it seems that the share repurchase and special dividend represent the company saying "Enough!" Wall Street, show a little respect, please. This company has done nothing but execute.

Portfolio Recovery is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. If you're interested in small-cap companies with great potential, take a free 30-day trial to Hidden Gems.

Fool contributor Jim Gillies owns shares of Portfolio Recovery. He is also short Sep07 $45 PRAA puts. Send him feedback. MasterCard is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.