Tempted by the Provident Financial share price? I think these small-cap stocks are far better buys

Provident Financial plc (LON:PFG) announced a return to profit last week, but ongoing uncertainty over the takeover bid is keeping this Fool away.

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The attempted takeover of doorstep lender Provider Financial (LSE: PFG) by less-well-known rival Non-Standard Finance — as summarised here by my Foolish colleague Rupert Hargreaves and supported by fund manager Neil Woodford — was firmly rebuffed by the former’s management team again in last week’s full-year results. 

According to CEO Malcolm Le May and co, the £1.3bn offer undervalues the company and its prospects as well as presenting “significant operational and execution risks given NSF’s track record of value destruction“. Ouch. 

Instead, shareholders are being asked to put their faith in Provident’s management team and their strategy to return the business to growth.

Based on last week’s numbers, they do appear to be making at least some progress. The mid-cap reported a statutory pre-tax profit of £90.7m for 2018 compared to a £147.9m loss the year before.

Shares understandably reacted well to the news, although they’re still worth 75% less than the 2,300p-a-pop valuation hit back in April 2017. 

Quite what happens next is anyone’s guess, particularly as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has confirmed that it will investigate Non-Standard Finance’s bid and Provident has refused to comment on whether it is in talks with other companies on a possible merger.

Personally, I can do without the hassle of wondering how this increasingly hostile state of affairs will resolve itself. Investing is hard at the best of times and attempting to profit from such uncertainty (as opposed to the more general ‘be greedy when others are fearful’ maxim) is fraught with risk. 

Moreover, the dividends aren’t really worth the bother. A 10p total cash return for the last financial year gives a trailing yield of just 1.7% — far less than you can get elsewhere in the market

All things considered, I certainly won’t be joining the queue for Provident’s stock.

Hassle-free

Right now, I still favour a different set of alternative ‘financial’ stocks, namely pawnbrokers Ramsdens Holdings (LSE: RCX) and H&T Group (LSE: HAT).

Last week, the latter released another encouraging set of full-year numbers, which included a 13.4% rise in pre-tax profit to £13.5m and, interestingly, a 37.6% rise in its net loan book from £14.9m to £20.5m.

For its part, Ramsdens recently revealed that it had bought 18 stores trading as The Money Shop for a total consideration of £1.5m. Management expects these will make “a small contribution” to pre-tax profit in FY 2020 and “approximately £0.6m” the following year. More deals like this are expected. 

To be clear, these are not glamour stocks whose share prices will rocket. They are, however, well run, diversified businesses (both also offer foreign exchange currency services and are involved in gold purchasing and jewellery retail) and should do well if the economy takes a turn for the worse in the next few years.

Another positive is that both still trade on the same reasonable valuation of around 11 times forecast earnings. Dividend yields are pretty much identical at 4.1% and are covered over twice by expected profits at each company. 

That said, I’m perfectly happy to stick with only owning stock in Ramsdens for now. Returns on capital and operating margins are higher at H&T’s smaller rival and it also had net cash of £12.4m at the half-year point back at the end of November. Expect an end-of-year trading update in early April.

Should you invest, the value of your investment may rise or fall and your capital is at risk. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be assessed. Consider taking independent financial advice.

Paul Summers owns shares in Ramsdens Holdings. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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