a new casino for Connecticut, good or bad?

Shortly after I retired as a portfolio manager, I went to work part-time at the Rutgers business school in Newark.  No, it wasn’t to teach investing or portfolio management–accreditation rules effectively rule this out for anyone without a PhD in (the alternate reality of) academic finance.  Instead, it was in a practical management consulting class run by adjuncts with real-world experience and advising mostly small businesses.  (We were all fired several years later and the program–the only profitable area in a school dripping red ink–dissolved.   …but that’s another story).

Anyway, one of the projects I mentored involved a casual dining restaurant.  A student had a connection with a very successful pizza restaurant whose approach might serve as a model for our client.  The pizza owner said he had superior results.  How so?  …he had cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table; the food was good;  he spoke with every customer himself to make sure everyone knew they were welcome.  In fact, he drew customers from as far as 15 miles away.

How far was the closest competing pizza restaurant?   …30 miles.

Put a different way, in this state customers hungry for pizza went to the closest restaurant, despite what this owner thought was his special charm!

It’s the same with a lot of other things, including local casinos.

In the case of Connecticut, the two existing operators are coming under threat by the decision of Massachusetts to legalize gambling in that state.  In particular, it’s allowing MGM to open a casino just on the northern border of Connecticut in Springfield, MA.

Hartford has just responded by authorizing a new casino in East Windsor just on the Connecticut side of the border from Springfield, to be jointly run by the two incumbent operators.

This is an interesting case.  Let’s take a (simple) look:

My pizza rule says customers go to the closest casino.   If that’s correct, the new Massachusetts casino will reduce the existing Connecticut casinos’ revenue by a substantial amount.  Hartford estimates that amount at a quarter of the current business, about $1.6 billion.   If they want to keep the remaining 75%, however, it seems unlikely to me that the casino operators will be able to reduce their costs by much.  So their profits could easily be cut in half.

And when the proposed East Windsor casino opens?

Figure that East Windsor will take back from Springfield half of the revenue initially lost.   That’s $200 million a year.  From the state’s point of view, any revenue gain means higher tax collections–in this case, about another $35 million a year.  So it’s understandable why East Windsor has gotten a legislative seal of approval.  It’s not clear, however, that the casino operators are going to be better off–because they’re taking on the expense of a third location in order to protect 12% of their current revenue.

 

We’ve also seen this movie before in the northeast US, with the effect on Atlantic City of gambling legalization in Pennsylvania, and on Pennsylvania of legalization in Ohio and Maryland.  One additional complication in this instance is that both of the incumbent operators are Native American tribes, for whom maintaining/expanding employment may be more important than profits.  A second is that the new CT casino will be run by two in-state rivals.  That should be interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disney (DIS): the valuation issue

Long-time readers may recall that I became interested in DIS in late 2009, the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, a stock I held, for stock and cash.

corporate structure

I hadn’t looked at DIS for years before that.  I quickly learned that DIS was a conglomerate, that is, a type of company where the most useful analysis comes taking the sum of its constituent parts.

I knew the company’s movie business had been struggling for some time and the theme parks were being hit hard by recession.  Still, I was more than mildly surprised that ESPN (plus other media that we can safely ignore) made up somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of DIS’s operating earnings.  Why did they still call it Disney?

multiples

Given that the parks are a highly cyclical business and movies moderately so–meaning the PE applied to those earnings should be relatively low–and that ESPN was showing all the characteristics of a secular growth business–meaning high PE–I thought that ESPN represented at least 80% of the market capitalization of DIS.  (That’s despite the fact that the market would apply a higher than normal multiple to cyclically depressed results).

So DIS was basically ESPN with bells and whistles.

ESPN’s turning point

In 2012, ESPN made a major effort to enter the UK sports entertainment market.  To my mind, this wasn’t a particularly good sign, since it implied ESPN believed the domestic market was maturing.  Worse, ESPN lost the bidding, closing out its path to growth through geographic expansion.

It seemed to me that DIS management, which I regard as excellent, understood clearly what was happening.  It began to redirect corporate cash flow away from ESPN and toward the movie and theme park business, which had better growth prospects, and where it has since had unusually good success.

2014-16 results

Over the past two fiscal years (DIS’s accounting year ends in September), the company’s line of business results look like this:

ESPN +        revenues up by +11.9%, operating earnings by +6%

parks           revenues up by +12%, op earnings  +24%

movies        revenues up by +30%, op earnings +74%

merchandise   revenues up by +4.6%, op earnings +33%.

the valuation issue

ESPN has gone ex growth.  This implies these earnings no longer deserve a premium PE multiple.  To me, the fact that ESPN now treats WWE as a sport (!!) just underlines its troubles.

The other businesses are booming.  But they’re also cyclical.  So while improving efficiency implies multiple expansion, earnings approaching a cyclical high note implies at least some multiple contraction.

Because the two businesses are so different, I think Wall Street is making a mistake in treating earnings from the two as more or less equal.

calculating…

DIS will most likely earn $6 a share or so this fiscal year.  That will be something like $3 from ESPN and $3 from the rest.

Take the parks… first.  Let’s say I’d be willing to pay 18x earnings for their earnings.  If that’s the right number, then these businesses make up $54 a share in DIS value.

Now ESPN.  If we assume that the worst is over for ESPN in terms of subscriber and revenue-per-subscriber losses, we can argue that the future earnings stream looks like a bond’s.  If we think that ESPN should yield, say, 5% (a 20x earnings multiple), that would mean ESPN is worth $60 of DIS’s market cap.  If we’d still on the downslope, that figure could be a lot too high.

$54 + $60 = $114.  Current stock price:  $109.

my bottom line

My back of the envelope calculation for the parks… segment may be a bit too low.  I could also be persuaded that my figure for ESPN is too rich, but it would take a lot to make me want to move the needle higher for it.

Yes, most of DIS’s earnings are US-sourced, so the company could be a big winner from domestic income tax reform.

But if I were to be holding a fully valued stock on the idea of a tax reform boost, I’d prefer one with more solid underpinnings.  At $90, maybe the stock is interesting.  But I think ESPN–the multiple as much as the future earnings–remains a significant risk.

 

 

 

 

casino gambling in Japan

Last week the Japanese Diet approved the creation of the first Las Vegas-style casinos in Japan.  Most Japanese citizens appear to be indifferent, but introducing a new form of legal gambling has been a priority for the political establishment for some time.  Although the standard rationale for legalizing gambling anywhere in the world is to take money away from the local underworld, the main reason in Tokyo seems to be to attract more foreign tourists–and keep them in Japan longer.

It will be a while before gambling consortia of construction companies and resort developers, presumably with foreign partners providing the expertise, are formed and for the precise rules about allowed games and taxation to be articulated.  But two issues are already clear:

–over the past ten years or so, there has been a dramatic expansion of the casino business in Macau, as well as in Singapore/Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea and, to a lesser extent, in Australia.  At some point, the market in this part of the world will become saturated.  Then, the fact of gambling won’t be enough.  The quality of the operations will count for a lot more.  So I don’t think Japanese casinos are sure-fire winners.  We have seen this already in Macau, where SJM, once the monopoly operator, continues to lose market share.  Will Japan push the region as a whole into maturity?

–who will run the casinos?  Presumably Wynn, Las Vegas Sands and Galaxy Entertainment will all be interested.  My guess is that groups including each of the three will be the key contenders for licenses.  Will each get a license?  Will that be a good thing?  Will Wynn Macau and Sands China be involved?  Certainly, Galaxy will be, since the Macau operations and the main company are the same.  In the other cases, it’s not so clear.  If investment capital were no object, my guess would be no.

Macau and ATM machines

During its days as a Portuguese colony, Macau was reputed to be a key center used by the mainland underworld to launder its ill-gotten gains.  The main laundromat, as it were, was allegedly the  collection of casinos run under a monopoly granted to the Ho family.

After the return of Macau to Chinese rule, the government moved quickly to break the monopoly and to guide the casino industry toward the Las Vegas model through technology transfer by granting casino licenses mainly to prominent US Las gambling operators with a Disney-esque approach to business.

A second political problem threatening the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party began to arise during the last decade as fabulously wealthy political insiders began to flaunt their riches through elaborate, ostentatious gambling jaunts to Macau.  A crackdown ensued, which also served the long-term interests of Macau by strongly redirecting the emphasis of the Macau gambling industry away from high-roller VIPs toward middle class and upper middle class patrons.  This, by the way, follows the development of the gambling market in the US.

During US trading hours yesterday, media reports from Hong Kong surfaced suggesting Beijing was beginning to crack down on middle class gamblers as well as VIPs.  The stories said the daily limit that mainland residents vacationing in Macau are allowed to withdraw from their (renminbi-denominated) bank accounts through a local ATM would be cut in half from–MOP 10,000 ($1300) to MOP 5,000, effective tomorrow.

Given Beijing’s plans for Macau’s economic development, this report made little sense–although, realistically speaking, who knows what Beijing’s day-to-day thoughts are.

The US-traded Macau names immediately dropped by around a tenth in a flattish market.  In today’s Hong Kong trading, Macau gambling stocks fell by 7% or so (expressing about half the negative sentiment in NY)–with the strongest (relative) performance by Ho-controlled SJM.

After the close of Hong Kong trading, mainland authorities “clarified” the initial report, saying that, yes, the per transaction limit on ATM withdrawals by mainlanders in Macau was being cut in half, but that the total daily limit would remain unchanged.  No reason why the clarification took 12 hours to be made.

In early US trading today, Macau-related stocks have made up about a third of their losses from yesterday.

As a holder of Wynn Resorts, Wynn Macau and Galaxy Entertainment, I’m going to sit on my hands.  If I held nothing, I’d be inclined to buy a bit.  My preference would be for the Hong Kong names, however, for two reasons:  the US market is being driven now by dreams of a domestic industrial revival, so foreign casinos aren’t at the top of institutions’ wish lists; and investors who dumped out their Macau holdings in a panic yesterday will be loathe to buy them back at a higher price, at least for a while.

developments in Macau gambling

Today’s Election Day.  Be sure to vote.

I think the results of the presidential election may have far-reaching effects on the US economy and stock market, with a Trump victory being especially bad.  But that’s a topic for another day.

 

There are three recent developments of note in the Macau casino gambling market, one whose recent decline I badly underestimated:

–after peaking at a monthly gambling win of MOP 30.7 billion (US$3.8 billion) in February 2014 and beginning negative year-on-year comparisons that June, the market finally bottomed in June 2016.   Win for that month was MOP 15.9 billion (US$2 .0 billion); yoy comparisons turned positive in August.  An obvious plus.

–18 marketing employees of Australia’s Crown Resorts were detained in China last month.  Their crime appears to be offering., while in China, larger-than-permitted inducements to Chinese high rollers to visit Crown Resorts properties in Australia.  Since Crown also has casino operations in Macau, however, it’s not 100% clear that this is the issue.  A similar situation occurred in 2015, when marketers for casinos in Korea offered illegal inducements in an effort to get high rollers to visit.  For the moment, at least, this has marketers for Macau erring on the side of caution.

It’s unclear whether this is good or bad for casino operators.  Running VIP gambling operations is all about controlling the cost of the rebates and amenities needed to get high rollers to commit to visit a casino and gamble a specified (large) amount.  In the past, Crown has initiated price competition in this arena.  At one point, the Macau government stepped in to set a cap on allowable rebates.  Whatever Beijing’s motivations, it may be having the same effect now.

–profits at existing Macau casinos generally have been surprisingly strong.  That’s both because of non-casino attractions like restaurants, shows and shopping, and the continuing strong evolution of a non-VIP market.  Two exceptions:  the Ho family legacy casinos and companies like Wynn Macau, which are opening substantial new capacity.  Contrary to what one might expect,new offerings are not immediately drawing gamblers looking for novelty.  Instead, the Macau experience has been slow but steady progress to full utilization, achieving that goal, say, a year after opening.

One other point:  Macau has been marching to its own drummer in stock market terms over the past couple of years, driven by the course of casino win.  That’s likely to continue   …but it will probably be a positive rather than a negative in 2017.  So Macau may act as a refuge in a time of choppy global markets.

(Note:  I own shares in Wynn Macau (HK1128) and Galaxy Entertainment (HK0027), as well as a tag end of a former Sands China (HK1928) position that I’ve mostly sold (and am not inclined at present to rebuy.))

 

Disney (DIS) from 30,000 feet

I’d only followed DIS from afar until the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, which I held in my portfolio, for a combination of stock and cash in late 2009.  I kept the shares I acquired and also bought more while DIS was depressed by critics doubting the wisdom of its move. I’m tempted to write about how wrong that view was, but that’s for another day (not soon).

As I studied DIS’s financials, I found that ESPN accounted for about 75% of the firm’s overall operating profit.  The movie studio, run by a former monorail driver at the theme parks, was a mess.  Income from the parks was depressed by recession.  The Disney brand was also almost completely dependent on female characters, making Disney attractions less appealing to half the adolescent population.  ESPN, on the other hand, was/is the dominant sports cable franchise in the US and was going from strength to strength.  For a moment–until I realized the marketing advantages of having the Disney name in the public eye–I wondered why the company didn’t just rename itself ESPN.

In addition, the simple percentage of earnings seemed to me to understate the importance of ESPN to DIS.  The movie business is typically a hit-or-miss affair and therefore doesn’t merit a premium multiple.  Same with the hotels/theme parks, because they have a lot of operating leverage and are highly sensitive to the business cycle.  So I concluded the key to the DIS story was the progression of its secular powerhouse–and its one high-multiple business–ESPN.  Nothing else mattered that much.  (Of course, I didn’t understand the full power of Marvel, or the turnaround in the Disney studio, or the subsequent acquisition of the Star Wars franchise, but that’s a separate issue.)

In 2012, ESPN began an effort to expand its business in a major way into the EU by bidding large amounts for broadcast rights to major soccer games in the UK.  Incumbent broadcasters, however, realized (correctly) that no matter what the cost it would be cheaper to keep ESPN out of their market than to deal with it once it had a foothold.  So they bid crazy-high prices for the rights. ESPN withdrew.

ESPN’s failure was disappointing in two ways.  A new avenue of growth was closed off.  At the same time, the attempt itself signaled that ESPN believed its existing Americas business was nearing, or entering, maturity.  That’s when I began easing toward the door.

The issues for ESPN–cord-cutting and the high fees ESPN charges–are very clear today.  What I find most surprising is that it took the market three years, and an announcement of subscriber losses by DIS, for the stock market to focus on them.  So much for Wall Street’s ability to anticipate/discount future events, even for a major company.

I don’t think ESPN is helping its long-term future by seeking to boost ratings by having personalities shout at each other in faux debates.  Nor does covering WWE as if it were a real sport.  I think they’re further signs of decay.  My sports-fan sensibilities aside, the real issue is about price.

Suppose every cable subscriber pays $4 a month to get ESPN, but only 15% actually watch sports–or would pay for ESPN if it weren’t part of the basic package.  If so, the real cost per user is closer to $30 a month, most of which is being unwittingly subsidized by non-users.  There’s only one way to find out if current users would be willing to pay $30 for ESPN, which is by removing the service from the bundle everyone must buy, reducing the basic cable charge by $4 a month, and offering ESPN separately.  That’s what the cable companies want–and what ESPN is looking to avoid.

We’re nowhere near the end of this story.  I don’t think the final chapter will be pretty for ESPN.

On the other hand, as I see it, just after the UK rebuffed ESPN, DIS began to direct its ESPN cash flows away from cable and toward building up its film and theme park businesses.  For me, this was the sensible thing to do.  And it confirmed my analysis of the situation with ESPN.

My bottom line:  for four years ESPN has been the cash cow that’s funding DIS’s expansion elsewhere.  Wall Street only realized this twelve months ago.   But DIS’s reinvention of itself is still a work in progress.  Until the market begins to view DIS as an entertainment company that happens to own ESPN rather than ESPN-with-bells-and-whistles the stock will continue to struggle.

 

 

Atlantic City casino gambling

For a couple of years I was an adjunct at Rutgers business school.  I worked on a course where teams of MBA students provided management consulting services for actual companies.  For one project, one of my teams interviewed a pizza parlor owner about the key characteristics of his restaurant that attracted business.  He said:  good food, extensive menu, fast service, friendly staff, tablecloths on the tables.  These enabled him to get customers from as far as 7-8 miles away from his store.

How close was the nearest competitor?   …15 miles away.

All of the attributes he named may have been important to get any customers to his restaurant, but it’s hard not to think that distance is key to defining his market area.  That’s true of any generic bricks-and-mortar business.

…which brings us to Atlantic City.

That beach resort has had its annual gambling revenue cut in half since competing casinos began to open in neighboring Pennsylvania in late 2006.  Additions in Maryland and Delaware haven’t helped, either.  The issue is the same as with pizza. Absent some incredible attraction (think:  Las Vegas), the average gambler will typically choose the closest casino to patronize.

The response of government in New Jersey to the competitive threat has been quite odd, in my view.  It hasn’t been to build up the city as a resort destination or to improve transportation access.  The main thing I’ve seen has been the attempt several years ago to help yet another casino, the Revel, to open, adding new slot machines and table games to a market already awash in overcapacity.

Potential good news is that, after the closing of four casinos (Atlantic Club, Revel, Showboat and Trump Plaza) in 2014, the market appears to have stabilized.  Even online gambling is perking up, having brought in $16+ million in April (although this is still a far cry from the $80 million average monthly take the state had been touting when online was legalized).

The other side of the coin is that Trenton is again “helping” Atlantic City by opening the door to building two new casinos in northern New Jersey.  Local voters will vote on proposals later this year.  Maybe the idea is to stabilize the state’s gambling tax revenue at any cost.  But nothing seems to me more likely to snuff out a nascent recovery in AC than this.