March 16, 2017

Top 100 Warranty Providers of 2016:

While we can't directly compare the warranty expenses of companies to each other, we can compare a company to itself over time, and can then make comparisons based on the rate of change. In doing so, we can spot the companies cutting their warranty expense rates significantly, as well as those whose warranty costs are beginning to spin out of control.

The first half of March is when most of the remaining manufacturers file their annual reports for the previous year with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the second half of the month is when Warranty Week begins to probe those documents for details on their warranty expenses.

The process begins with a look at all the annual reports and quarterly financial statements of U.S.-based manufacturers that issue product warranties and detail their warranty expenses in those SEC filings. We collected figures for the amount of warranty claims paid in 2015 and 2016, the corresponding warranty accruals they made, and the beginning and ending balances in their warranty reserve funds. And we collected annual sales figures for those warranted products, which means we subtracted whenever possible the amounts reported for things like service revenue, mortgage interest revenue, licensing fees, investment income, and any other non-warranted sources of revenue.

The goal was to be able to calculate not only the amounts of claims paid and accruals made, but also claims and accruals as a percent of revenue. And we wanted to be able to report the changes in warranty reserve balances over the course of both 2015 and 2016.

Once all the claims-paid totals were in, we shortened the list of reporting companies from the hundreds to merely the top 100 warranty providers, which meant basically any company reporting in excess of $23 million in claims paid during calendar 2016. Then we compared their claims rates, accrual rates, and warranty reserve balances at the end of 2015 to the same figures at the end of 2016, and calculated which companies changed the most over that year.

Comparing Companies to Themselves

The reason for doing it this way is because you simply can't compare one company to another. First of all, the products are very different -- everything from houses to airplanes -- so what might be a high or low expense rate for one type of product might be normal for another type of product. Second of all, no two companies calculate their warranty expenses the same way. Some might figure the cost of parts at their retail value, while others might list them at replacement cost. Some might include all the costs of operating call centers, while others might include just a fraction of those costs based on how much talk time is related to product warranty claims administration and how much is related to other types of customer assistance.

So what we do instead is compare each company to itself. And then we compare the rates of change to each other. So if one company's claims rate or accrual rate doubles over the course of a year, say from 2.0% to 4.0%, that might be a sign that expenses are out of control. And if another company's expense rates are cut in half, from 0.8% to 0.4%, that might be a sign that product quality is vastly improved.

For each metric, claims, accruals, and reserves, we found out which of the 100 companies had changed the most in an upward direction, and which had changed the most in a downward direction. So there are six top 10 lists below, with Figures 1, 3 and 5 being the largest decreases, and Figures 2, 4 and 6 being the largest increases.

Some companies made multiple appearances on multiple lists. But 59 of the 100 companies made no appearances at all, including most of the largest companies, meaning that their warranty expense rates were relatively steady. The largest manufacturer to make a single appearance was Caterpillar Inc. The largest manufacturer to make appearances on two top 10 lists was Whirlpool Corp.

Most Top Companies Remain Stable

Once again, Apple Inc. was the biggest warranty provider of all, whether it's measured by claims paid or accruals made. Many of the large manufacturers it passed along the way to the top, including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., HP Inc., Deere & Co., General Electric Co., and Cisco Systems Inc., were among the 59 companies that made no appearances on any top 10 list.

Out of the 41 companies that did make an appearances on a top 10 list, four made the maximum of three appearances each, and 11 made two appearances. And then 28 made just one appearance.

We would suggest that any company making multiple appearances is experiencing a meaningful change in its warranty expense rates. It's an outlier among its peers. But it's not always a manufacturing quality crisis or a breakthrough in improved reliability that causes it to show up on a top 10 list. Sometimes the changes are caused by an acquisition of a new product line that has a very different warranty expense profile than the existing product line. Or a company could have divested or shut down a problem-prone product line.

We won't try to do a lot of explaining why these companies are among the ones seeing the biggest changes in expense rates. We'll leave that to the companies themselves, prompted by questions from their investors, as to what might be going very well, or very badly, with their warranty expense rates. But sometimes the answer is too obvious to ignore.

For instance, there are four homebuilders in Figure 1, which is a list of the top 10 decreases in claims rates from 2015 to 2016. At the top of the list is Hovnanian Enterprises, which cut its claims rate in half, from 2.4% at the end of 2015 to 1.2% at the end of 2016. That's a result not only of a 25% jump in home sales revenue, but also a reduction in actual claims paid from $49 million in calendar 2015 to only $30 million in 2016. The other builders delivered similar combinations of rising sales and falling expenses, which means things are going well.

Acquisitions and Divestitures

And then there are others on the list below that are special cases. For instance, Danaher Corp. spun off multiple lines of business in July 2016 into a new company called Fortive Corp., and what was left behind was a company with much lower warranty expense rates. So Danaher is third on the list of claims rate reductions in Figure 1, as well as in Figure 3 for accrual rate reductions. And with the departure of all those warranty expenses, it's no surprise to see that it's also third on the list of warranty reserve reductions in Figure 5. But it's all related to that divestiture.

Similarly, Western Digital acquired the SanDisk Corp. in July, and added that company's flash memory business to its existing hard disk product line. Flash memory generates much less warranty expense per dollar of revenue than hard drives, so WDC saw a drop in its claims rate from 1.2% at the end of 2015 to 0.7% at the end of 2016. And, as you'll see in Figure 3, its accrual rate dropped from 1.3% to 0.9% over the same time period. But warranty reserves actually rose by about 40%, from $225 million to $313 million, and that wasn't enough to make it onto the list in Figure 6, where the cutoff for the top 10 was Tesla's 48% increase.

In Figure 1, the smallest annual change of claims rates was KB Home's one-quarter reduction, while the largest was Hovnanian's one-half reduction. In other words, these are the companies that for whatever reason reported the biggest reductions in claims rates out of all the largest warranty providers. And that's worth celebrating.

Figure 1
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Claims Rate Reductions,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(claims as a % of product sales)

   Claims   Latest  Rate
  Paid ($m) Claims Year
  Company  in 2016   Rate   Ago 
  Hovnanian Enterprises $30 1.2% 2.4%
  Western Digital Corp. $164 0.7% 1.2%
  Danaher Corp. $90 0.4% 0.6%
  General Dynamics Corp. $91 1.1% 1.7%
  Dover Corp. $48 0.5% 0.8%
  NetApp Inc. $44 1.1% 1.7%
  A.O. Smith Corp. $42 1.5% 2.4%
  PulteGroup Inc. $56 0.8% 1.1%
  NVR Inc. $44 0.8% 1.1%
  KB Home $23 0.6% 0.9%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Figure 2 is a list of the 10 biggest annual jumps in claims rates. It's not as much of a misfortune to land here as it might be to get onto the accrual rate increase list in Figure 4, but still, these are the biggest upward changes. Sometimes, they're caused primarily by a drop in sales or a massive divestiture, such as with Johnson Controls, Pentair, and Navistar, rather than a rise in actual claims paid. But sometimes it's a little of both.

For instance, Johnson Controls acquired parts of Tyco International last year and also spun-off its automotive seating product line into a completely separate company Adient plc, which caused its product revenue to drop by a net 34% from year to year. But the amount of claims paid stayed about the same. So the claims rate rose from 1.0% to 1.4%, because that rate is calculated by dividing claims paid by products sold.

Pentair also kept claims payments about the same from 2015 to 2016. Pentair also acquired parts of Tyco International, but it also sold parts of its business to Emerson Electric Co. last year. And that and other changes helped drive down sales by 24%. So its claims rate also rose from 1.0% to 1.4%.

Navistar was more of an organic decline in sales, and a corresponding rise in claims paid. Cree saw sales of its lighting products fall by 22% while the amount of claims paid doubled from $12 to $24 million. And so its claims rate rose from 0.9% to 2.0%, the biggest change of them all. But Cree also had a big divestiture in July, so maybe there's a reasonable way to explain away the bad news.

Figure 2
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Claims Rate Increases,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(claims as a % of product sales)

   Claims   Latest  Rate
  Paid ($m) Claims Year
  Company  in 2016   Rate   Ago 
  Cree Inc. $24 2.0% 0.9%
  Polaris Industries Inc. $132 2.9% 1.5%
  Netgear Inc. $110 8.3% 5.2%
  Westinghouse Air Brake $39 1.3% 0.9%
  Wabco Holdings Inc. $38 1.4% 0.9%
  Navistar International $442 5.5% 3.9%
  Johnson Controls $296 1.4% 1.0%
  Boston Scientific Corp. $26 0.3% 0.2%
  Pentair plc $67 1.4% 1.0%
  Caterpillar Inc. $909 2.5% 2.0%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Overall, 57 of the top 100 warranty providers saw their claims rates rise, while 42 saw their claims rates decline from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016. And one -- Medtronic plc -- reported its warranty expenses for the year ended April 29, 2016, but not since then, so its expense rates could not be determined.

And then there were a handful of departures from the top 100 list we used in 2015. FCA US LLC stopped reporting its warranty expenses in late 2015 after it redeemed the bonds that caused it to begin reporting them. Hewlett-Packard Co. split into two pieces, both of which we now count separately in the top 100. EMC Corp. was acquired by Dell Inc., Nortek Inc. was acquired by Melrose Industries, and Jarden Corp. was acquired by Newell Rubbermaid. Lexmark International Inc. and Keurig Green Mountain Inc. were acquired by investors and taken private.

And that in turn created some openings for newcomers to the top 100. Among the companies making a first-time appearance among the top 100 were Cavco Industries Inc., Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc., Boston Scientific Corp., and Wabco Holdings Inc. Only the latter two made any appearances on any of the top 10 lists, however.

Claims vs. Accruals

The biggest difference between claims and accruals is the way they're affected by changes in sales. With claims, there is always some amount of lag time between when a product is sold and when it needs warranty work. So if the warranty periods are relatively long, we might be comparing the repair costs of products sold in 2012 or 2013 to sales made in 2016. And that might be unfair, because the products sold in 2016 might not even have the same problems as the older generations.

Conversely, if revenue is soaring, as is the case with new home sales, then we might be comparing repairs made on relatively fewer homes sold in 2014 or 2015 with the relatively higher revenues generated in 2016. So that's why there were so many builders listed in Figure 1.

Accruals, however, are made at the time of sale. So there's no lag time between when a product is sold and when an accrual is made to finance its predicted warranty expenses. And changes in sales can't be used as an excuse. If sales double, accruals double. If sales fall by half, so do accruals.

Therefore, if there has been a massive change in a company's accrual rate, it's probably got more to do with the characteristics of the product than with the amount of products sold. It could still be affected by massive acquisitions or divestitures, as with Western Digital, but that's just another way to change the product mix.

Figure 3 is a list of the biggest reductions in accrual rates. Figure 4 is a list of the biggest increases. The companies listed in Figure 3 have something to celebrate. The companies in Figure 4 are in pain.

Then again, some of the companies listed in Figure 3 were in pain in 2015, with things getting back to normal in 2016. For instance, Whirlpool acquired a European company whose clothes dryers had a habit of bursting into flames. Now that problem has been addressed, so its accrual rate plummeted from 3.6% to 2.1%.

And then there's yet another way to change your accrual rate, which is simply not to make any. For instance, NetApp listed accruals of $38 million in calendar 2015 and $18 million in calendar 2016. But in the fourth calendar quarter of 2016, which is the midpoint of its fiscal year, it made only $1 million in accruals, versus $13 million in the same quarter of 2015. So since we're comparing the accrual rates at the end of December of each year, the comparison looks really good: 0.1% versus 1.6%. So the improvement is artificial, caused by a quirky and temporary drop in accruals, not an improvement in product quality.

Figure 3
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Accrual Rate Reductions,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(accruals as a % of product sales)

   Accruals   Latest  Rate
  Paid ($m) Accrual Year
  Company  in 2016   Rate   Ago 
  NetApp Inc. $18 0.1% 1.6%
  Whirlpool Corp. $316 2.1% 3.6%
  Danaher Corp. $88 0.4% 0.6%
  A.O. Smith Corp. $43 1.6% 2.5%
  Western Digital Corp. $165 0.9% 1.3%
  L-3 Technologies Inc. $51 0.8% 1.1%
  Illumina Inc. $21 1.0% 1.5%
  General Dynamics Corp. $140 1.7% 2.2%
  Fortune Brands Home & Security $26 0.5% 0.7%
  LKQ Corp. $32 0.4% 0.5%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Still, there are probably companies listed in Figure 3 that were able to cut their accrual rates because the products they sold in 2016 were much better than the products they sold in 2015. We doubt they'd put that news into a press release or an annual report, because doing so would make their 2015 customers upset. But maybe they want to boast. If so, our phone lines are open.

Conversely, the companies listed in Figure 4 are in pain. It might be a quiet sort of suffering, but no doubt they have convened some meetings where executives demanded answers. Of the six tables in this week's newsletter, this is the one nobody wants to be on. Seven of these companies saw their accrual rates rise by half or more. Cree saw its accrual rate quadruple. For warranty professionals, that's not good for job security.

Recall-Related Expenses

Some of these are linked to product safety recalls, as is the case at Polaris Industries. Last year, the company had to recall certain RZR off-road vehicles manufactured in 2013 because they were prone to catching fire. The expense of that recall is now largely behind them, so expense rates should return to normal in the future.

Other massive increases can be blamed on acquisitions. For instance, BorgWarner acquired Remy International in 2015, and when that company's starters and alternators were added to BorgWarner's own product line, its accrual rate almost doubled, from 0.4% to 0.7%.

Arris International's big jump in accruals is actually linked to the formation of the company. The Arris Group acquired a British company called Pace, and changed its name to Arris International. That acquisition came with $43.7 million in acquired warranty reserves. But it also helped boost the need for warranty accruals from $19.1 million in 2015 to $51.9 million in 2016. And that nearly doubled the company's accrual rate. Ouch.

But whatever the various ways to explain these increases, the bottom line is that while 59 of the top 100 warranty providers saw their accrual rates rise, these were the 10 biggest increases of all.

Figure 4
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Accrual Rate Increases,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(accruals as a % of product sales)

   Accruals   Latest  Rate
  Paid ($m) Accrual Year
  Company  in 2016   Rate   Ago 
  Cree Inc. $34 3.0% 0.7%
  Polaris Industries Inc. $195 4.3% 1.6%
  BorgWarner Inc. $62 0.7% 0.4%
  Arris International plc $52 0.8% 0.4%
  Wabco Holdings Inc. $49 1.7% 0.9%
  Juniper Networks Inc. $43 1.2% 0.8%
  Honeywell International $326 1.0% 0.7%
  Boston Scientific Corp. $25 0.3% 0.2%
  AGCO Corp. $215 2.9% 2.0%
  Terex Corp. $72 1.6% 1.2%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Now come the changes in warranty reserve balances, which might or might not be worth celebrating or lamenting. If a company makes a significant acquisition or divestiture, some warranty reserves will no doubt arrive or depart as part of that transaction. If a company sees claims fall but keeps accruals steady, reserves will rise. If a company's claims rate stays the same but it cuts accruals to the bone, reserves will fall.

In other words, you have to look at multiple metrics together to get a clear picture of why the warranty reserve balance might be changing. And out of the 20 companies that make an appearance in either Figures 5 or 6, for half of them that's their only appearance on any chart. In other words, they're not of much consequence, because they weren't accompanied by either a massive change in claims or accrual rates that earned them an appearance in one of the four charts above.

Multiple Appearances

However, there are six companies in the charts below that also made one other appearance in one of the charts above, and there are four companies that made two additional appearances in the charts above. For them, their multiple appearances serve to confirm that they are undergoing some sort of large-scale change in their warranty profile, either positive or negative.

For instance, both NetApp and Danaher made it into the "good" lists of Figures 1 and 3, and they also made it into Figure 5. Cree and Polaris made it into the "bad" lists of Figures 2 and 4, and they're also in Figure 6.

In terms of companies with dual appearances, Whirlpool and Illumina made it into the "good" list of Figure 3, and also made it into Figure 5. That's a good combination. However, Pentair saw its claims rise and therefore reserves fell. That's not so good a combination, because it means the balance fell because expenses rose, not because those reserves were no longer needed.

Figure 5
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Warranty Reserve Reductions,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(reserves in US dollars)

   Warranty   Warranty  vs.
  Reserve Reserve Year
  Company  12/31/15   12/31/16   Ago 
  Manitowoc Co. Inc. $84 $29 -66%
  Whirlpool Corp. $493 $251 -49%
  Danaher Corp. $135 $76 -44%
  Emerson Electric Co. $162 $96 -41%
  Pentair plc $60 $39 -35%
  NetApp Inc. $80 $54 -33%
  Medtronic plc $122 $95 -22%
  Joy Global Inc. $52 $41 -22%
  Illumina Inc. $17 $13 -21%
  Allison Transmission $78 $63 -20%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Figure 6 is a list of the top 10 reserve balance increases. Besides Cree and Polaris, which made triple appearances, double appearances were made by Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp., Arris International plc, and Dover Corp. The latter was also on a "good" list but the other two were on "bad" lists. In other words, Dover made it because claims fell while accruals rose, and reserves increased as a result. Arris doubled its accrual rate while claims actually fell, so reserves rose. Wabtec saw claims rise dramatically due to multiple railroad-related acquisitions, which also brought a net $60 million in acquired reserves with them. So of course its warranty reserve balance rose.

Sometimes warranty reserves increase because of a major acquisition, as they did for Xylem Inc., which itself is a spin-off of ITT's water equipment and services businesses. In October 2016, it paid $1.7 billion to acquire Sensus Worldwide Ltd., which came with $66 million in additional warranty reserves. So although its warranty reserves tripled as a result, it was neither good nor bad in terms of warranty expense rates. And Xylem didn't come close to making another top 10 list.

Unexpected Warranty Expenses

And then there are a few companies that made only one appearance on any of these top 10 lists, but even all by itself it was a sign of trouble. For instance, Toll Brothers said it had to unexpectedly add a net $267 million to its warranty reserves last year, because both the cost of repairing water intrusion damage to some of the stucco homes it had bought and the number of homes affected had risen. The actual amount of additional spending will be higher, but some of it will be covered by insurance and supplier recoveries, the company said.

Figure 6
Top 100 U.S.-based Warranty Providers:
Top Ten Warranty Reserve Increases,
Calendar Year 2016 vs. 2015
(reserves in US dollars)

   Warranty   Warranty  vs.
  Reserve Reserve Year
  Company  12/31/15   12/31/16   Ago 
  Toll Brothers Inc. $93 $371 +299%
  Xylem Inc. $33 $99 +200%
  Cree Inc. $13 $28 +117%
  Polaris Industries Inc. $56 $119 +111%
  Thor Industries Inc. $108 $209 +94%
  Dover Corp. $44 $85 +91%
  Arris International plc $49 $88 +80%
  Westinghouse Air Brake $92 $139 +51%
  Acuity Brands Inc. $12 $18 +51%
  Tesla Inc. $181 $267 +48%

    Source: Warranty Week from SEC data

Next week, we'll reorganize all this warranty data by industry, and in the weeks thereafter we'll begin to take apart each of the 17 industry groupings individually. And then, by June, many of the largest international manufacturers will have filed their annual reports, so we'll open up the warranty data gathering to a worldwide scope.

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