September 3, 2009

Top 100 Warranty Providers at Midyear:

Was that the sound of the bottom of the recession? If so, financial data from the first half of 2009 provides a detailed record of how warranty providers reacted to a collapse in sales and a jump in claims. Though some of the largest warranty providers didn't make it, those that did are enjoying the benefits of recent claims processing automation projects and other cost-cutting efforts.

The recession has been hard on some top U.S.-based warranty providers, with reduced sales impacting their ability to pay for warranty work. And those claims arising from past sales continued to arrive, even if new sales orders aren't.

With commentators speculating that the recession has now ended, we're beginning to see what a bottom looks like in terms of warranty metrics. In hindsight, it looks like manufacturers gave a clear signal at the end of 2007 that they believed a recession was starting, when they began reducing their warranty accruals and allowed their warranty reserves to shrink.

Warranty in a Recession

American manufacturers didn't begin detailing their warranty expenses in their SEC filings until 2003, so this is perhaps the first time in history that anyone has gotten a detailed look at how companies managed their warranty accounting in the depths of a recession. Several major warranty providers took hundreds of millions of dollars out of their warranty reserves, and slashed their warranty accruals as claims declined. Others put profits first, reducing warranty accruals even as claims rose. They probably did it before in previous recessions, but this time they had to report it to the SEC.

We can't compare the major warranty providers to each other, especially if they're in different industries with different products and perhaps different ways of calculating warranty costs. In some industries, manufacturers might count a portion of their call center operations as a warranty cost. Others might count just the payments made to repair shops. And then there are numerous ways to calculate parts costs.

However, we can assume that each manufacturer has chosen an accounting methodology that fits their particular product line and their circumstances, and is sticking to it over time. So we can compare a company to itself over time, and measure changes in warranty costs as well as changes in sales, assuming that the accounting behind the numbers didn't change.

And then we can compare those changes to each other, looking for the anomalies and most extreme changes within the group. Whose warranty costs are up the most, and whose are down the most? Within a list of 100 companies, we can figure out which are the top 10 gainers or decliners in terms of any number of metrics.

Actually, this year, it's slightly more than 100 companies. In order to produce the six charts below, we examined the records of 103 U.S.-based companies that have reported $10 million or more in warranty claims paid during the first six months of 2009. Then we comparing each company to itself as it was during the first half of 2008. We calculated rates of change for each company over the past year and here we're listing the top 10 increases and the top 10 decreases for three different metrics: claims, accruals, and reserves.

Missing from the Midyear List

The reason for the lengthened list of candidates is to compensate for the absence of some major players. Among the top 100 warranty providers of 2008, at least 15 are missing from this midyear 2009 report, including General Motors Corp.; General Electric Co.; Motorola Inc.; Ingersoll-Rand Co. Ltd.; Emerson Electric Co.; Honeywell International Inc.; Black & Decker Corp.; Eaton Corp.; Exide Technologies; Fleetwood Enterprises Inc.; Illinois Tool Works Inc.; Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; Bruker Corp.; Fortune Brands Inc.; and Xerox Corp.

Most of these missing players detail their warranty expenses only once a year, in their annual reports. Most filed their quarterly financial reports for the first and second quarters of 2009 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, but those reports contained no warranty data, contrary to SEC rules. Those annual reporters will of course be part of our next year-end report, scheduled for publication in March 2010.

And then there are a few that have gone bankrupt or are unable to file their quarterly reports on time. Chief among them is General Motors Corp., which has actually changed its name to Motors Liquidation Company and has taken itself off the New York Stock Exchange. General Motors Company -- the new GM -- is majority-owned by the American and Canadian governments and neither trades its stock on Wall Street nor reports to the SEC. So we're in the unpleasant position of collectively owning the company but knowing nothing about its finances.

We also hope that by next March the new GM has returned to the stock market and to public accountability, and that all the other bankrupt manufacturers which have missed their most recent filing deadlines are also back on schedule by then. But right now, we'd rather lengthen the analysis pool just this once to 103 companies than report on only the 85 that we can carry over from the last top 100 report in the March 13 newsletter.

Warranty claims costs have been deeply impacted by the recession, which by the way, has now unofficially ended. Sales fell for 92 of these 103 top warranty providers, and fell by 50% or more at 11 of the companies. Those sales declines, in turn, caused claims rates to increase for many companies, because that percentage is calculated by dividing sales into claims. And because sales were falling, there was less cash available to pay for warranty work. And that meant more pain, and increased demands for cost cutting, and no money for new software projects.

The claims rate percentage is a lagging indicator, however, in that it measures the current cost of repairing products sold in the past. When sales decline, the claims rate rises all by itself, even if quality is unchanged and products are failing at the same rate as before. If you spend $3 million a year on warranty work and sales are $100 million, your claims rate is a manageable 3%. However, if the next year you still spend $3 million on repairs but sales fall to $60 million, your claims rate rises to 5%. That's a 66% increase in the claims rate, but the increase is entirely caused by the sales decline. And nobody on earth will understand what you're talking about if you try to explain it at the next emergency cost-cutting meeting.

The problem is that most of the largest warranty providers fell into this pattern in the first half of 2009. Through no fault of their own, the claims rate rose because sales fell. The good news is that if sales recover soon, and if product quality remains constant or increases, next year the annual comparisons will show massive reductions in the claims rates. Just by keeping 2010 claims costs the same as in 2009, many warranty managers will show big percentage improvements next year -- if they still have jobs.

Not a Good Metric for Recessions?

The claims rate is probably not a good metric to use when sales are soaring or plummeting. The accrual rate should rise and fall proportionately with sales, so measuring the changes in that metric from year to year reveals more about changes in quality and repair costs. Still, the claims rate is something people want to measure.

So we'll measure it. Of the top 103 warranty providers of 2009, only 20 were able to reduce their claims rates -- the percentage calculated by dividing sales into claims paid. Figure 1 contains the top 10, which includes technology companies such as Lexmark and Novellus that have managed to reduce their claims rates from incredibly high levels to merely high levels over the past year.

Right below the top 10 and therefore not on the chart -- but still worth mentioning -- are Palm Inc., which reduced its claims rate from 8.3% to 7.8%, and Microsoft Corp., which reduced its claims rate from 6.9% to 6.6%. Both are still paying out comparatively high percentages of their revenue to fix broken equipment, but at least they're now also moving in the right direction.

Figure 1
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Claims Rate Reductions,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(claims paid in $ millions and claims rates in percent)

   Claims   Claims   Claims   Claims  Rate Now
  Paid Rate Paid Rate vs.
  Company  6mo08   Jun 08   6mo09   Jun 09   Year Ago 
  Boston Scientific Corp. $32 0.8% $18 0.4% -44%
  EMC Corp. $78 2.7% $67 1.7% -37%
  Joy Global Inc. $19 1.1% $12 0.7% -34%
  Lexmark International $89 15% $47 9.6% -34%
  Novellus Systems Inc. $43 9.3% $21 6.2% -33%
  Briggs & Stratton Corp. $18 2.3% $17 1.6% -30%
  Apple Inc. $162 1.3% $141 1.0% -26%
  United Technologies $318 1.5% $202 1.1% -26%
  Lennar Corp. $52 2.5% $29 1.9% -24%
  3Com Corp. $16 3.0% $15 2.5% -18%

Interestingly, although there were only 11 companies in entire the top 103 that saw sales increases, five of them also are on the list in Figure 1. Leaders in sales increases, including EMC, Joy Global, and Apple, were also towards the top of the list in terms of claims rate reductions. This might suggest that there is a correlation between rising sales and falling claims, which indeed there is. One is essentially using this year's revenue to fix last year's sales. So when times are good, the sales increases help reduce the pain, just as the sales declines magnify the pain when times are bad.

But don't think the claims rate reductions turned in by EMC, Joy Global, and Apple were purely the result of sales increases. Actual claims paid also fell. EMC saw its claims paid total fall from $78 million to $67 million from the first half of 2008 to the first half of 2009. Joy Global saw claims fall from $19 million to $12 million. And Apple saw claims fall from $162 million to $141 million. Of course, the sales increases helped too.

If only 20 of the top 103 warranty providers saw their claims rate fall in the first half of the year, it stands to reason that 83 of them saw their claims rate rise. And some of them saw spectacular rises, of which the top 10 are listed in Figure 2.

Nvidia's Nightmare

Nvidia, of course, is going through every warranty manager's nightmare scenario right now. Claims are soaring and sales are plummeting as its laptop-assembling customers grow tired of everything coming back broken. In Nvidia's case, claims rose from $14 million in the first half of 2008 to $67 million in the first half of 2009. Sales fell 42% in the second calendar quarter, and the combination drove the claims rate up by an incredible 655%, from 0.8% in June 2008 to 5.8% in June 2009.

Varian suffered a similar fate, with claims soaring from $2 million to $10 million while sales fell. Automotive companies Wabco and Paccar saw even steeper sales declines but less dramatic increases in warranty claims. But in each case, it was the dangerous combination of rising claims paid divided by falling sales totals that produced at least a doubling of the claims rate.

Figure 2
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Claims Rate Increases,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(claims paid in $ millions and claims rates in percent)

   Claims   Claims   Claims   Claims  Rate Now
  Paid Rate Paid Rate vs.
  Company  6mo08   Jun 08   6mo09   Jun 09   Year Ago 
  Nvidia Corp. $14 0.8% $67 5.8% +655%
  Nortek Inc. $7.9 0.2% $13 1.4% +554%
  Varian Inc. $2.4 0.6% $10 3.1% +444%
  Wabco Holdings Inc. $13 0.8% $18 3.6% +381%
  BorgWarner Inc. $16 0.5% $30 1.7% +224%
  Mohawk Industries Inc. $38 2.0% $79 6.2% +215%
  Gardner Denver Inc. $6.7 0.6% $12 1.5% +154%
  Eastman Kodak Co. $24 1.4% $44 3.5% +144%
  Paccar Inc. $154 2.1% $163 4.9% +135%
  Medtronic Inc. $8.3 0.1% $15 0.2% +121%

There are three companies bubbling below Medtronic's tenth place ranking which aren't on the list in Figure 2 but which nevertheless saw their claims rate more than double. They are Cummins, Johnson Controls, and Terex. Cummins went from 2.4% to 5.0%. Johnson Controls went from 0.46% to 1.0%. And Terex went from 1.4% to 3.1%. All three also paid out more for claims settlements in dollar terms, and all three also saw significant sales declines. Ouch.

However, Medtronic's 121% rise isn't as bad as it looks. First, there were nine companies above it on the list. Second, the claims rate back in June 2008 was only 0.1%, so a rise to 0.2% isn't exactly a crisis, even though it represents a more-than-doubling. Third, Medtronic is actually a member of the select club of 11 warranty providers that saw sales increases in the first half of this year, so a rise in warranty costs from $8 million to $15 million could be more easily absorbed.

In fact, here's some evidence that refutes there being a correlation between rising sales and falling claims rates: We said only 11 of the 103 companies had sales increases and five of them were listed in Figure 1. Medtronic is on the Figure 2 list, so that's six accounted for.

The other five sales gainers, it turns out, all saw claims rate increases. Boeing saw a 2% gain in commercial sales and an 8% increase in its claims rate. Varian Medical Systems saw a 4% sales gain and a 15% increase in its claims rate. General Dynamics saw a 10% gain in civilian aviation sales and a 20% increase in its claims rate. L-3 Communications saw sales rise 8% and the claims rate rise 31%. And Bucyrus International saw sales rise 17% while the claims rate rose 65%.

This all suggests that perhaps the claims rate isn't the right metric to use during a recession. Because of the lag time between when a product is sold and when it is repaired, the claims rate is overly sensitive to rapid changes in sales volumes.

Accrual Rates in a Recession

Conversely, the accrual rate is not as sensitive to recessions. Though the formula is accruals made during a given period divided by sales made during the same period, the ratio compares current accruals to current sales. So there's no lag time. When sales fall, accruals fall. If the accrual is pegged at $500 per automobile, and 100,000 units are sold, the accrual should be $50 million. If sales fall to 60,000 units, the accrual should fall exactly in proportion, to $30 million, because it's still set at $500 per car.

In Figures 3 and 4, then, the changes should have nothing got to do with sales. The changes should be caused by finance managers changing their predictions about future failure rates and repair costs. Figure 3 should list the 10 most optimistic forecasts and Figure 4 should list the 10 most pessimistic forecasts.

Notice that four of the companies in the top 10 of Figure 3 are also in the top 10 of Figure 3. Boston Scientific, Apple, Lexmark, and EMC are in the fortunate position of responding to falling claims by reducing accruals. By the way, all four also allowed their warranty reserve balances to shrink. And all but Lexmark also saw sales increases.

Four of the other companies listed in Figure 3 actually saw claims rate increases. So we can't say what they were reacting to with their big accrual reductions, except perhaps their own need for lower expenses on the books. We'd also note that all four of those perplexing companies saw sales declines of 30% or better.

Figure 3
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Accrual Rate Reductions,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(accruals made in $ millions and accrual rates in percent)

   Accruals   Accrual   Accruals   Accrual  Rate Now
  Made Rate Made Rate vs.
  Company  6mo08   Jun 08   6mo09   Jun 09   Year Ago 
  Boston Scientific Corp. $30 0.7% $10 0.2% -67%
  Apple Inc. $170 1.8% $101 0.7% -62%
  Dana Holding Corp. $37 1.0% $13 0.4% -57%
  Microsoft Corp. $95 4.5% $54 2.1% -54%
  Lexmark International $111 18% $44 9.1% -50%
  Lam Research Corp. $25 2.1% $5.6 1.2% -43%
  Harman International $93 3.2% $18 1.9% -42%
  NACCO Industries Inc. $41 2.3% $15 1.4% -40%
  Masco Corp. $23 0.6% $11 0.3% -39%
  EMC Corp. $89 3.2% $65 2.0% -39%

But isn't it good to see Microsoft on a list of companies reducing their warranty costs? Its claims rate was down by just a little bit. But its accrual rate fell from 4.5% to 2.1%, and its warranty reserve balance shrank from $692 million to $342 million. It's safe to say that the Xbox 360 crisis is now behind the company.

Microsoft Changes Lists

In years past, Microsoft would always be at the top of "up" lists like the one seen in Figure 4 below, thanks to its billion-dollar warranty fiasco. But now it's on the "down" lists, as the Xbox 360 failures become a distant memory. Meanwhile, the companies in Figure 4 are those which have signaled, by these massive annual changes in their accrual rates, that something has caused them to believe that future warranty costs are going to soar. Sometimes, as with Nvidia, the manufacturing crisis is all over the newspapers, so the reason is clear. But most times, there has been no external announcement at all.

For some companies, such as Johnson Controls, the reason for the rise is the acquisition of a new and more warranty-intensive product line (York International's HVAC units) that causes the new owners to increase accruals as the product mix changes. For others such as Nvidia, Varian, Nortek, and Gardner Denver, it's simply a matter of a big jump in claims, which they answer with a big jump in accruals. And then there are companies such as Pulte Homes and Tyco, which had reduced accrual rates to unrealistic levels last year and which are now raising them back where they should have been all along, even though claims are falling.

Figure 4
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Accrual Rate Increases,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(accruals made in $ millions and accrual rates in percent)

   Accruals   Accrual   Accruals   Accrual  Rate Now
  Made Rate Made Rate vs.
  Company  6mo08   Jun 08   6mo09   Jun 09   Year Ago 
  Nvidia Corp. $17 0.8% $54 6.3% +666%
  Varian Inc. $2.4 0.6% $11 3.0% +434%
  Building Materials Corp. $10 0.7% $26 2.6% +280%
  Nortek Inc. $11 0.5% $14 1.5% +193%
  Pulte Homes Inc. $10 0.3% $7.7 0.9% +166%
  Bucyrus International $4.1 0.4% $11 0.8% +128%
  Tyco International Ltd. $8.0 0.1% $13 0.3% +115%
  Gardner Denver Inc. $8.0 0.7% $11 1.5% +104%
  Johnson Controls Inc. $84 0.5% $116 1.0% +100%
  TRW Automotive Holdings $24 0.3% $26 0.5% +82%

The third warranty metric we're going to examine is the warranty reserve balance. This is the amount a company believes it will need in order to finance future warranty claims payments. It's the mathematical result of the additions from accruals and the subtractions from claims, adjusted by changes in the value of foreign currencies, by acquisitions or divestitures, and by differences between the predicted cost and the actual cost of repairs.

During the five-year period from 2003 to 2007, warranty reserve balances always grew from one year to the next. For the companies tracked by Warranty Week, the peak came at the very end of 2007, when $41.2 billion was counted to be in the warranty reserves of all U.S.-based warranty providers.

Declining Warranty Reserves Since 2007?

In 2008, perhaps as a forewarning of the recession to come, the warranty reserve balance began contracting. By the end of 2008, it was back to 2005 levels. In 2009, because of the GM bankruptcy, it's difficult to say where we are now in terms of totals, but it's instructive to note that 66% of all the other companies have cut their warranty reserve balances since the end of 2007 and 74% have cut their balances in the year since June 2008.

Of the 103 companies we're looking at in this grouping, only 24 actually allowed their warranty reserve balances to grow in the past year. The top 10 are listed in Figure 5. That list includes companies such as Nvidia, Nortek, and Building Materials Corp. of America, which have radically increased accruals, as well as companies such as Diebold, Manitowoc, and Trimble Navigation, which raised accruals by lesser amounts.

Figure 5
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Warranty Reserve Increases,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(balance in $ millions and change in $ millions and percent)

   Warranty   Warranty   $ Change   % Change 
  Reserve Reserve vs. Year vs. Year
  Company  Jun 08   Jun 09   Before   Before 
  Nvidia Corp. $25 $112 +$87 +346%
  Mohawk Industries Inc. $42 $110 +$68 +160%
  Diebold Inc. $30 $54 +$24 +78%
  Nortek Inc. $38 $53 +$16 +41%
  Building Materials Corp. $47 $60 +$13 +27%
  NCR Corp. $15 $19 +$4 +27%
  Manitowoc Co. Inc. $98 $121 +$23 +24%
  Advance Auto Parts Inc. $25 $30 +$5 +22%
  Deere & Co. $656 $799 +$143 +22%
  Trimble Navigation Ltd. $12 $14 +$2 +19%

As mentioned, the vast majority of companies have reduced their warranty reserves in the past year, whether or not the need to pay claims was also reduced. For some such as Lexmark, Novellus, and Microsoft, there was obviously a lowered need for reserves as claims and accrual rates also fell. For others such as KLA-Tencor, Netgear, and Lam Research, claims rose but accruals fell, so of course the balance contracted.

The companies in Figures 5 and 6 are ranked in order of the percentage change in the balance, but figures for the change in terms of dollars are also included. For instance, Deere made the rankings with a $143 million increase, and Lexmark, Microsoft, and Delphi made the list below for their declines of $209 million, $350 million, and $213 million, respectively.

Figure 6
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Warranty Reserve Decreases,
First Half of 2009 vs. First Half of 2008
(balance in $ millions and change in $ millions and percent)

   Warranty   Warranty   $ Change   % Change 
  Reserve Reserve vs. Year vs. Year
  Company  Jun 08   Jun 09   Before   Before 
  Lexmark International $256 $47 -$209 -82%
  Lam Research Corp. $61 $21 -$40 -65%
  Novellus Systems Inc. $41 $18 -$23 -56%
  KLA-Tencor Corp. $39 $18 -$20 -53%
  Microsoft Corp. $692 $342 -$350 -51%
  Delphi Corp. $544 $331 -$213 -39%
  Pulte Homes Inc. $66 $42 -$24 -36%
  Netgear Inc. $36 $24 -$13 -35%
  Tyco International Ltd. $115 $76 -$39 -34%
  Nortel Networks Corp. $208 $144 -$64 -31%

Companies with massive nine-figure changes in their warranty balances that didn't make the cut include: Boeing and Cummins, for increases of $114 million and $104 million, respectively, and HP, United Technologies, and Paccar, for their respective declines of $164 million, $159 million, and $113 million since June 2008. And we can't help but make a special mention of Ford, which reduced its warranty reserve by $1.25 billion over the past year, not to mention equally massive reductions in claims and accrual dollars. Sales fell 40%, so all is not happy, but at least warranty cost is moving in the right direction.

Of the 103 companies examined, 42 made one or more of these six lists. The maximum possible was three lists, and Nvidia, Nortek, and Lexmark were the only three companies to do that. But while Nvidia and Nortek made all three "up" lists, Lexmark was fortunate to make all three "down" lists.

Gardner Denver, Varian, Nortek, and Nvidia were the only four to see both claims and accrual rates soar into the top 10. Boston Scientific, EMC, Lexmark, and Apple were the only four to see claims and accruals plummet at top 10 rates. A total of 67 of the 103 companies saw claims and accrual rates change in the same direction: 50 saw both rates rise together and 17 saw both rates fall together.

Incredibly, 32 of the 103 companies saw claims rates rise but they cut their accrual rates anyway. Even allowing for the distortions caused by falling sales, six allowed their accrual rates to fall by 20% or more even though their claims rates rose by 20% or more. And of those six, Lam Research and KLA-Tencor take the crown for recklessness by allowing their warranty reserve to contract by half or more in the face of massive increases in claims and massive cuts in accruals. The only reason they didn't make more of the top 10 lists is because so many other companies were even more impacted by falling sales.

That's the thing about comparing companies against themselves and then comparing the comparisons. It makes it easy to see who's in the thick part of the bell curve and who's on its fringes. It doesn't decide what level is appropriate, but it does show what's unusual. And by looking at all three metrics separately and then together, one can make a list of those who should be celebrating (companies such as Ford, Microsoft, Lexmark, EMC, and Apple) and those who should be worried (companies such as Nvidia, Lam Research, KLA-Tencor, Nortek, and Wabco).

Part One: Top 100 Warranty Providers
Part Two: Automotive Industry
Part Three: Computer & Disk Drive Industries
Part Four: New Home Builders
Part Five: Aerospace Industry
Part Six: Medical Equipment & Scientific Instruments
Part Seven: Telecom & Data Networking Equipment
Part Eight: HVAC, Appliances & Building Materials

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