Even Debt Collectors Have Hit Hard Times
This should be the best of times for America's debt collectors, since never has a society been so in hock. But ironically, much of the debt-collection industry is struggling because there's little cash left to squeeze from strapped consumers.
'People joke with me that my business must be great,' said Mark Neeb, president of Affiliated Group, an Omaha, Neb., collection agency. 'I would say the opposite is true. Our business flourishes when the consumer has money.'
Debt collectors either work on consignment for creditors, keeping 20% to 25% of what they collect, or buy portfolios of unpaid debt from creditors and then try to collect enough to make a profit. When the people behind on their bills aren't classic deadbeats but are truly tapped out, debt collectors also get pinched.
NCO Group Inc. of Horsham, Pa., which is owned by an investment arm of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., said it posted a $14.8 million net loss in the quarter ended June 30 because of 'lower-than-expected collections' on accounts receivable it had acquired.
Asta Funding Inc. of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., said its profit for the nine months ended June 30 fell 79% to $8 million. The decline partly reflected a revaluation of the collectibility of a $300 million debt portfolio it had acquired the year before.
Encore Capital Group Inc., a San Diego debt buyer, said third-quarter profit fell 30% to $3.8 million after its impairment provision for debt -- an accounting term for debt it doesn't think it can collect -- rose to $7.3 million from $2.4 million. And Debt Resolve Inc. of White Plains, N.Y., said big losses at its debt-collection unit led to a second-quarter loss of $4.2 million.
'More and more accounts are going out to debt collectors, but it's harder than ever to collect,' said John Nemo, a spokesman for ACA International, a Minneapolis-based trade group that includes 3,500 of the country's estimated 4,500 collection agencies.
Last year, bill collectors recovered $40 billion in bad debt, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The state of the U.S. collection industry, with $17.5 billion in annual revenue, provides a window into the economic downturn and how consumers are faring.
'There may be no other industry that has such immediate knowledge of consumer liquidity,' said Paul Legrady of Kaulkin Ginsberg Co., a Rockville, Md., consulting firm that advises collectors and others who manage accounts-receivable. The company publishes the Kaulkin Ginsberg Index of indicators such as corporate charge-offs of unpaid debt. 'There's been a clear downward trend for the past year,' Mr. Legrady said.
Critics say that as debt-collection agencies struggle to recover the costs of bad debt they have acquired, some are abusing debtors with harassing phone calls or illegal threats.
The national association of state attorneys general reported in September that complaints about debt collectors had vaulted to No. 1 on its annual survey of consumer complaints, replacing home repair and construction. The Federal Trade Commission said that last year it received some 70,000 consumer complaints about bill collectors, about double the number of five years ago.
Debt collectors are governed by federal and state regulations designed to prevent misleading or harassing consumers.
Bad information about bills can also lead collectors into problems. In some cases, bad-debt portfolios that collectors purchase haven't been well managed by previous owners, and they may show debts as unpaid even if they were paid or forgiven.
Collection agencies, which are required to inform debtors when they acquire a debt, often keep track of debtors even if they are unable to pay for several years, and then pursue payment after they start working again.
Because collecting on unpaid bills has become more difficult, debt buyers have become more cautious about what they purchase, and the price of unpaid debt portfolios has fallen.
Mr. Neeb of Affiliated in Omaha says that public utilities used to be able to sell uncollected debt that was 12 to 24 months old for three to four cents on the dollar. 'Now, you're looking at two to three cents,' he said.
The slump also hurts businesses that supply equipment and services to debt collectors. Soundbite Communications Inc., a Bedford, Mass., company that makes automated robo-callers for debt collectors, told investors recently that it expects sales to agencies to decline in the second half of this year.
'Their ability to actually collect payment is significantly reduced because more and more debtors are simply unable to pay,' said Soundbite's chief executive, Peter Shields. he said. As a result, debt-collection agencies are 'becoming more selective in their spending.'
William M. Bulkeley
内布拉斯加州债务催收公司Affiliated Group总裁马克•尼伯(Mark Neeb)说：“人们跟我开玩笑说，我的生意一定很好。不过我得说，实际情况正相反。顾客有钱的时候我们才会红火。”
宾夕法尼亚州的NCO Group说，截至6月30日的这个季度，它净亏损1,480万美元，原因是它从所收购的应收帐款帐户中收缴回来的债款额低于预期。NCO是摩根大通(J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.)旗下一家投资分公司的下属机构。
新泽西州的Asta Funding Inc.说，截至6月30日的9个月，其利润额只有800万美元，下降了79%。这种局面在一定程度上是因为它上年收购的3亿美元债务资产的估价发生了变化。
圣地牙哥债务催收公司Encore Capital Group说，其三季度利润在对其认为可能难以收回的债务计入坏帐损失准备金后下滑了30%，为380万美元。其坏帐准备金从之前的240万美元增加到了730万美元。纽约州的Debt Resolve Inc.说，其债务催收子公司的严重亏损导致公司二季度亏损420万美元。
明尼阿波利斯行业组织ACA International的发言人尼莫(John Nemo)说，越来越多的应收款帐户流入催收公司手中，但要收缴这些债务也变得越来越难了。该组织旗下成员包括全美大约4,500家债务催收公司中的3,500家。
面向债务催收公司和其他应收帐款管理企业提供咨询的马里兰州Kaulkin Ginsberg Co.的莱格拉迪(Paul Legrady)说，或许没有任何一个其他行业像债务催收行业这样能迅速察觉客户的流动资金状况。该公司发布有关企业欠款冲销等指标的Kaulkin Ginsberg指数。莱格拉迪说，过去一年来这一市场出现了明显的下行趋势。
据全美州级司法部长协会9月份公布说，在其有关消费者投诉的年度调查中，针对债务催收公司的投诉已超过住房维修和建造方面的问题跃居第一。联邦贸易委员会(Federal Trade Commission)说，去年它收到70,000起针对催收公司的投诉，这个数字几乎是5年前的两倍。
这种局面也影响到向债务催收公司提供设备和服务的企业。生产催收公司使用的自动呼叫器的马萨诸塞州Soundbite Communications Inc.最近向投资者透露，它预计今年下半年对债务催收公司的销售额将出现下滑。
William M. Bulkeley