Private prisons are big business and two big players with facilities in South Africa, US, Australia and the UK have just undergone REIT conversions. Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) and GEO Group (GEO) each received favourable Private Letter Rulings from the IRS and began operating under REIT rules.
By reducing their corporate tax liability, improving their access to capital and lowering the cost of capital the REIT structure provides more opportunities for these companies which are capital intensive by nature.
To zoom in on a South African example: MMSP( Mangaung Maximum Security Private Prison),was the first of two South African Private Prisons and the brainchild of the first Post-Apartheid Minister of Correctional Services, Dr. Sipo Mzimela, who, upon taking office in 1996, was appalled by South African Prison conditions, up to 300% overcrowded, and a seething hotbed of corruption. In such conditions reformation is impossible. The GEO Group promised and by all reports delivered, more humane conditions.
The South African government signed two 25-year concessions for maximum security prisons in Bloemfontein and Louis Trichardt (Makhado) as part of its Department of Public Works’ Asset Procurement and Operating Partnership Systems (APOPS) in 2000. The two winning consortia were responsible for designing, building, financing, operating and transferring the prisons. The facilities hold about 3,000 inmates each and were fully operational in 2002 at a cost of about $245 million (Bloemfontein) and $259 million (Louis Trichardt), respectively. The Geo Group now manage these.
The prison gets 60% of its revenue from company-owned or leased real estate.
The Geo Group is the second largest of the two big players in the US. It has a current market capitalization of $2.5 billion and/or manages 100 correctional, detention, and community re-entry centres with 73,000 beds across the US, Australia, South Africa, and the UK. (The prison gets 60% of its revenue from company-owned or leased real estate.) The company estimates $45 to $50 million in annual tax savings from its REIT conversion. In January, GEO raised its quarterly dividend from $0.20 in 2012 to $0.50 a share, resulting in an implied yield of 5.6%. Shares of GEO have more than doubled (+105%) during the past twelve months.
The bigger name on the block is one of the largest prison operators in the United States. CXW’s current market capitalization is $3.8 billion. The company operates 67 facilities and owns or controls 51 facilities in 20 states with a total capacity of about 92,500 beds. CXW’s REIT conversion greatly reduced corporate tax obligations. The company increased its quarterly dividend from $0.20 in 2012 to $0.53 after the conversion, resulting in a 5.5% implied dividend yield. Shares of CXW climbed 47% between March 2012 and March 2013, at least in part due to the REIT conversion.
No Shortage of Prisoners
Private prison facilities have increased their percentage of all prisoners growing steadily over the past few years, increasing from 7.9% in 2010 to 8.2% in 2011. Currently 10% per cent of total prison capacity in the US is operated under contract with private companies such as CXW and GEO. The remaining 90% of total prison capacity is operated by state and federal government. In light of government budget constraints, both federal and state governments have increasingly turned to private prisons. With only a few companies in the private sector and high barriers to entry, private prisons face limited competition.
Unaffected during a recession
The private prison industry is largely unaffected during a recession. States/countries may release some prisoners early to control costs, but overcrowding means demand is unlikely to fall significantly. According to a 2008 study by the Pew Centre, the US incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country and people are staying in prison longer, underscoring strong demand for facilities.
It’s worth noting that some of these facilities are controversial because their profit motive encourages incarceration. In contracts to operate state prisons, CXW requested a minimum guaranteed occupancy rate of 90%, which did not go over well with many public interest groups. Private prisons achieve profit margins by controlling costs and spending less for personnel than their public counterparts, which raises the issue of the quality of staffing at these privately-run facilities. By way of example CXW now faces a staffing scandal in its Boise, Idaho, facility where 4,800 hours of supposed work time were falsified. That’s a direct violation of its contract with the state, and an internal and external investigation is underway. We’ll see how it plays out.
REIT conversion for CXW and Geo Group has unequivocally improved their financial positions and contribute to sharp growth in their stock values during the past year. Although prisons are relatively immune to the negative impacts of a recession, inmate populations generally accelerate when economic growth resumes and governments have more to spend on incarcerations. With the recession behind us, demand for these REITs should improve.