4Q12 for Las Vegas Sands (LVS): Asian good times are back

the report

After the New York close yesterday, LVS reported its 4Q12 earnings results.  The company reported profits of $434.8 million, or $.54 a share, on revenues of $3.06 billion.  EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization–a measure of operating profits) was $1.002 billion.

Revenues were up 20% year on year, net income up 35%.

As regular readers know, casino company financials are unusual in that what counts as revenue for gambling companies is not the amount bet by customers but rather the portion of that amount that the casino retains or “holds”–that is to say, the amount that customers lose.  The amount bet, which appears nowhere on the income statement (but is normally somewhere in the company press release), is, in my experience, a relatively stable and pretictable function of customers’ income and casino floor space.  The “hold,” on the other hand, is also a function of luck, which can vary considerably over short periods of time.  The first thing an analyst will do in looking at casino earnings is to correct them for these luck variations.

As for LVS, the company was unusually lucky in Macau during 4Q12, but unlucky everywhere else.  Overall, EPS would have been $.63 if the company had had average luck throughout its operations.  That compares with the Wall Street consensus, which I’ve always read as being luck neutral, of $.59.

LVS has also raised its quarterly per share dividend from $.25 to $.35, starting with the March 2013 payout.

As I’m writing this, the stock is up by about 5% in after hours trading.

the details

Macau

Sands China generated EBITDA of $622.2 million during the quarter, up 44% year on year.  Subtracting out unusually good luck, EBITDA was $575.4 million, up 32.5% vs. 4Q11.

LVS’s aggressive expansion in developing the Cotai area appears to be paying off.  Because it has developed extra capacity, it stands to benefit disproportionately as both economic recovery on the mainland and better transportation links deliver increasing numbers of visitors to Macau.

Perhaps more important, LVS announced it has been granted permission by the Macau government to add 200 new tables to its casinos, a strong sign that the SAR approves of the way Sands China is doing business.

Singapore

After having hold-adjusted EBITDA stall, with a slight downward bias, for the last year at around $380 million, Marina Bay posted 4Q12 EBITDA of $406.4 million, up 6.8% yoy and 9.1% qoq.  Although this market is so new it’s impossible to interpret the figures with any confidence, the fact that EBITDA is moving up again is encouraging.

the US

Flattish EBITDA, which is all investors should want.  Hold-adjusted, Las Vegas was down by $8.1 million at $87.9 million.  Bethlehem was up $3.0 million at $25.6 million.

asset value

LVS has a market cap, at the aftermarket quote, of about $45 billion.  It’s ownership of Hong Kong-traded Sands China is worth $29 billion.  If we applied the same valuation to 100%-owned Marina Bay Sands, it would be worth about the same.  But Singapore doesn’t appear to have the explosive growth potential of Macau, at least as things stand now.  Remember, though, this time a year ago there seemed to be no limit to the upward trajectory of Marina Bay’s EBITDA, so we’ve got to keep an open mind.  Trying to be conservative, let’s say that current Singapore earnings are worth a multiple of .6x what Macau’s are.  That would give Marina Bay Sands an asset value of about $17 billion.

Together, the Asian properties explain the entire market value of LVS.

Over the next year, what might we reasonably expect from Asia?  Sands China could be trading at a price 20% higher than it is now, based on Macau market growth and increased Sands China market share.  Revival of the apparently more business cycle-sensitive Singapore gambling market might produce 10%-15% EBITDA growth and a mild expansion of the relative multiple.  If so, even if the market continues to value the US operations of LVS at the current zero, we should expect a substantially higher share price for LVS.

earnings

Full-year earnings for LVS in 2012 were $2.14/share.  To me, it seems reasonable to expect $2.50 in 2013–meaning LVS is currently trading on a forward earnings multiple of 22x.  Yes, that’s high, but it’s no longer in the stratosphere.  The stock also yields 2.6%.

Therefore, even on a conventional PE basis, which I don’t think is the right way to value the stock, LVS doesn’t look bad.

 

 

recent world currency movements: stock market implications

dramatic changes

Although currency movements sometimes can often be overlooked by a stock market investor immersed in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day trading action, there have been a couple of whopping big moves in major currencies over the past half-year.

Since late July 2012, the euro has risen by 12.5% against the dollar.  Over the same time span, the yen has fallen by about 16.5% against the greenback.  A quick bit of multiplication tells us this also means that the euro has risen by about 30% against the Japanese currency.

To my mind, there’s no really satisfactory general economic theory about how currencies work.  But to give a sense of perspective, inflation in Japan has been, say, -1% on an annual basis over the second half of 2012.  We’ve had +1.5% in the US.  Euroland has experienced a 2.5% rise in the price level.  Inflation differentials imply that the yen should be rising against the dollar at a 2.5% annual rate and against the euro by 3.5%.  The euro, in turn, should have weakened by 1% against the dollar and 3.5% against the yen.  The actual outcome has been far different.

Of course, there are reasons for the spectacular assent of the euro and the plunge of the yen.  Until around mid-year, many observers thought Euroland was coming apart at the seams and rushed to get their money out before the demise.  I’m sure there was more than a touch of flight capital mixed in the outflows.  Thanks to Mario Monti’s and Angela Merkel’s actions indicating the political will to save the euro, capital flows have reversed in spectacular fashion.

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it a central plank of his campaign for office that he intends to force the Bank of Japan to print lots of money.  Why?   …to weaken the yen and to create inflation.  The move could easily end in eventual economic disaster, but for now its main effect has been to drive the Japanese currency down a lot versus its trading partners’.

stock market implications

Generally speaking, a rising currency acts to slow down the domestic economy.  A falling currency gives the economy a temporary boost.

Currency changes can also rearrange the relative growth rates of different sectors.  The best-positioned companies will be those that have their sales in the strongest currencies and their costs (e.g., labor, raw materials, manufacturing) in the weakest.

Japan

The decline of the yen has given Japanese export-oriented firms a gigantic relative cost advantage against European competitors, and a significant, though smaller, one against US rivals–or those located in any country that ties its currency to the US$.  Anyone who sells products in Japan that are imported, or made with imported raw materials, has been crushed.

We’ve seen this movie before, however, on a couple of occasions.  It’s ugly.  Domestic firms lose.  Exporters will make substantial profit gains in the local currency.  But from a stock market view, that plus–with the possible exception of the autos–will be offset for foreigners by currency losses they have/will endure on their holdings.  Stocks in even the most advantaged sectors will deliver little better than breakeven to a $ investor, and will certainly rack up large losses to anyone interested in € returns, in my view.

Euroland

The EU has already had a return-from-the-dead rally, where stocks of all stripes in the economically challenged areas of southern Europe have done well.  The message of the stronger currency is that importers, or purely domestic firms in defensive industries will fare the best from here.    Although I think the preferred place to be from a long-term perspective is owning high quality export-oriented industrials, the rise of the euro has blunted their near-term attractiveness.  One exception:  multinationals based in the UK, because sterling hasn’t participated in the euro’s rocketship ride.

Ideally, you’d want a firm that imports Japanese goods into the EU.

the US

Americans are less accustomed to thinking about currency effects that investors in other areas, where their effects are more pervasive.  With the dollar being in the middle between an appreciating euro and a depreciating yen, currency effects will be two-sided. Firms with large Japanese businesses, like luxury goods companies, will be losers.  Firms with large European assets and profits, like many staples companies, will be winners.  Tourism from the EU will be up, from Japan, down.  One odd effect, which I don’t see any obvious American publicly listed beneficiary–the decline in the yen is causing the cost of living for ordinary Japanese to rise sharply, since that country imports so many dollar-price raw materials.  To offset that effect, Japan is beginning to weaken protective barriers that have kept much cheaper finished goods (like food) from entering the Japanese market.  Doubly bad for Japanese farmers, though.

is the income tax preference for private equity justified? …I don’t think so

simplified preliminaries

Private equity investors raise money from institutional investors.  Those funds become the equity portion of highly debt-leveraged capital cocktails used to purchase underperforming companies.  Once in control of a target company, private equity typically tries to streamline operations.  It cuts overhead (including marketing and R&D) and staff, with the intention of selling the made-over and hopefully more profitable project firm, as a whole or in pieces, within five-seven years. 

Private equity is paid in two ways:  through recurring management fees for its projects, and through a share of the profits when the project company is sold.  Applied to private equity, carried interest refers to the practice of having the private equity managers’ compensation structured, either mostly or entirely, as equity–ownership interests in projects.  As a result, although the compensation sounds a lot like what hedge funds charge, it is taxed as long-term capital gains rather than ordinary income.   This “tax shelter” feature of private equity was highlighted in last year’s presidential campaign, which showed that Mitt Romney’s paid Federal income tax at about a third of the normal salary rate.

most investment professionals pay normal income tax

Last year, Representative Sander Levin of Michigan introduced a bill to close the tax loophole that private equity uses.  Mr. Levin has been quoted as saying that it isn’t fair for investment professionals to pay taxes at a lower rate than workers in other industries.  I agree.  I should point out, though, that Mr. Levin is wrong about one thing.  The income of the vast majority of investment professionals–private equity being the only notable exception–is already taxed as ordinary income.

is there reason for a tax preference for private equity managers?

Do private equity managers perform an important economic and social function that would not be accomplished if their compensation were taxed at normal rates?

The two potentially positive arguments that I can see are :

1.  that private equity managers are an essential part of the “creative destruction” that continually reinvigorates the US economy.  They take idle capital out of the hands of those who use it badly and put  those corporate assets into the hands of people who can employ it more effectively.  Sounds good.  But I haven’t read a single study of the private equity industry that shows conclusively that private equity makes the companies they acquire very much better.  Yes, barnacles get scraped off the bottoms.  But researchers I’ve read conclude that any supernormal returns generated by private equity projects come from the debt-heavy (read: very risky) financial structure they fashion in their project companies.

2.  that they provide counterbidders to trade buyers ( i.e., industrial companies) who would otherwise capture M&A targets too cheaply.  That’s probably true.  But this doesn’t man any extra social good is created.  This is more an issue of into whose pockets the purchase premium goes–the buyers’ or the sellers’.  Private equity tilts the field toward the sellers–who, by the way, happen to be the guys who have spawned and tolerated the inefficient entity.

lobbying legislators has been the key to preserving carried interest (no surprise here)

Heavy lobbying by the private equity industry, both in the US and in Europe, has protected the carried interest tax avoidance device so far.  Not for long, though, in my opinion.  Mitt Romney, a key figure in private equity a generation ago,  became a public illustration of how private equity mega-millionaires use the carried interest loophole to make their tax bills from Uncle Sam all but disappear.  It didn’t help, either, that Mr. Romney was inarticulate and disorganized during the campaign–and completely blown away organizationally and in the use of technology by Mr. Obama.  And Mr. Romney was supposed to be the cream of the private equity crop.  

luxury goods companies, including Apple: changes in the wind

background

Luxury goods customers fall into two camps:  the truly wealthy, and aspirational buyers.

The difference is this:

For the truly wealthy, price isn’t a determinant of what they buy.  The truly wealthy choose, say, a Bentley rather than a Hyundai because they like the way the motor sounds or because the seats are comfortable, or because it’s what they’ve always bought.  The fact that the Bentley costs 5x+ what the most expensive Hyundai sells for makes no difference.  Why?  It’s because the amount of money involved is–for them–insignificant.  It’s the same as the choice  between buying a so-so $5 t-shirt vs. a cooler $15 one as a travel souvenir might be for most of us.

Aspirational buyers, in contrast, are conscious of the price they’re paying.  And it may well be more than they can really afford.  But they buy the luxury brand anyway, as a way of announcing to the world that they have the wealth, or good taste or high social standing they aspire to.

For luxury goods companies, the wealthy remain steady customers through thick and thin.  Aspirational purchases ebb and flow with the economic cycle.

what’s happening today

By the way, Chinese customers, who have been avid buyers of most American and European luxury goods are beginning to turn to their own domestic brands.  I’m not sure how to make money from this, so for now it’s only an (interesting, I think) observation.

In the US, even as the economy continues to plod ahead–and evidence is accumulating that it may be shifting into a higher gear–aspirational buyers appear to be spending less on luxury goods rather than more.  Not so good for luxury goods companies, as we’ve seen in recent earnings reports from TIF, COH and AAPL.

But the more important investment question is:

–given that the aspirational buyer will have more money this year than last, and

–given that his largest source of wealth, his house, is starting to rise in value after five years in the doldrums,

where is he now spending his discretionary income?

I don’t know for sure.  If you have any ideas, please post a comment.

My preliminary guess is that aspirational buyers are doing home renovations and buying furniture.  This is what usually happens at the very start of an economic upturn, where Americans typically buy a house in year one and divert a lot of their income to fixing it up in year two.

Vacations?

At any rate, recent earnings reports from luxury goods companies seem to me to be another sign that the market pattern of focusing on companies that cater to the wealthy as hotspots of growth is over.