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Breakingviews - Equifax hack damage is only the start
November 10, 2017 / 7:13 PM / 7 days ago

Breakingviews - Equifax hack damage is only the start

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Equifax has suffered a new intrusion: into its profitability. Costs relating to the $13 billion U.S. consumer-credit scorer’s recent massive cyber breach helped knock earnings down 27 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier. Revenue also took a big hit. And the likely biggest expenses – including a long list of unquantified legal exposures – are yet to rain down.

Trading information and the company logo are displayed on a screen where the stock is traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The Atlanta-based outfit led by interim Chief Executive Paulino Barros reported $87.5 million of pre-tax expenses in the period related to the hack that affected nearly 150 million U.S. consumers. Some are one-offs, and others won’t be. The company expects up to $75 million in additional expenses this quarter.

That may only be the tip of the iceberg. Equifax is one of a handful of credit-scoring companies that collect people’s data on a massive scale and sell it to lenders, making it almost systemically important. That arguably means the bar for protecting its data is higher than for other corporations. It now faces 240 class-action lawsuits in North America, and investigations by a who’s who of watchdogs, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the UK Financial Conduct Authority, and the attorneys general of all 50 U.S. states. Equifax says it cannot yet estimate damages and fines, but there are likely to be some of both.

Although group-wide revenue was up in the third quarter, sales in its biggest division, which handles U.S. consumer-credit reports, fell 3 percent. That was a sharp turnaround from a 7 percent growth pace in the first half considering that the breach was made public only on Sept. 7. To give that result, the unit’s revenue in the last three weeks of the quarter would have had to slump by about a third from what was expected, according to Breakingviews calculations. Executives expect group revenue to decline by 3 to 4 percent in the fourth quarter as customers defer more orders.

Investors have lopped off about a quarter of Equifax’s market capitalization since the breach. That’s consistent with a sustained drop in profit on the scale of the third quarter, but it doesn’t allow for an extended slide in revenue or big legal outlays. They may be too sanguine.

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