Household International Inc. reported the highest yearly and quarterly earnings per share in its history Wednesday, and a 10th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth.
The Prospect Heights, Ill., consumer finance company last year had a net income of $1.7 billion, up 14%, and earnings per share of $3.55, up 16%. For the quarter, Household's earnings per share and net income both grew 12%, to $1.03 and $492.7 million, the highest in any quarter.
William F. Aldinger, Household's chairman and chief executive officer, attributed the performance to strong growth in revenues and receivables, which increased 18% and 22%, and to strong management of credit quality. "We've built this business and this franchise very carefully over the last few years," Mr. Aldinger said in a conference call with other Household executives.
"We've focused on fewer businesses," he said - those in which "we had big market share, leading-edge technology, and the lowest cost structure in the industry."
This year, Mr. Aldinger said, he expects Household to increase earnings per share by between 13% and 15%.
He said the company has considered multiple scenarios for the year and is prepared for any turn in the economy, from a "Goldilocks" situation - not too hot, not too cold - to average to a recession. Mr. Aldinger and the other executives said they are approaching the current economic uncertainty like a football game.
"You may go into the game saying we're going to pass today, but if it turns out the other team shuts down the pass, you have to run and play great defense," Mr. Aldinger said. "And that's the way we run this company."
Another official characterized the company's strategy as a blocking and tackling approach. "We're going to be conservative and not throw any Hail Mary passes," he said.
Officials pointed out that Household maintains high loss reserves and capital levels and has dramatically improved its credit quality, bankruptcy, and credit models. It has recently hired 1,200 collection agents, they said, for a total of 5,200.
And in the event of a recession, Household officials said, the company is in a great position to pick up portfolios and pieces of other companies that trip up in a downturn. "We see great opportunity in a recession environment," said Mr. Aldinger. "We're going to have a chance to buy [assets] to compliment our growth, and effectively take advantage of a down cycle."
They said the company will buy back seven million shares in the first quarter of this year, building on a strategy it initiated last March to buy back $2 billion of stock. In the fourth quarter it bought 1.8 million shares for $76 million.
Yet since February, Household's stock has soared more than 80%, trading above $56 on Wednesday. Several companies have been criticized in recent months for buying back shares at inflated prices, and high-profile investors such as Warren Buffet have argued against these strategies.
Nonetheless, Household officials say that the company's stock is greatly undervalued, and that the company will continue to buy it. Officials said that prior arrangements allow the company to scoop up the seven million shares at $42, 25% less than the current market price.
Furthermore, one official said, the company is better off using its excess capital to buy back shares, especially at the $42 price, than letting it sit on the balance sheet.
"It's a better total return for us at this point to be doing that," said Craig A. Streem, Household's vice president of investor relations. Mr. Aldinger added: "We stand at one of the highest levels of capital even after the buybacks."
Mr. Aldinger noted that Household's costs increased 20% last year, reflecting investments such as sales incentives, bonuses, and staff additions, as well as significant investments in the business. He said Household took advantage of its profitability to invest in its technology and create a new e-commerce system.
"We're feeling very good," said Mr. Aldinger. "I feel a little bit like [New York Giants coach] Jim Fassel. He said, 'I'll guarantee we get to the playoffs.' I'm going to guarantee we deliver these earnings this year."