online gambling in the US–stock market implications

diminishing returns

Internet gambling is just the latest symptom of the diminishing returns disease afflicting smaller casinos in the US.

More states in the US are deciding that casino gambling is a great source of generating tax revenue for them.  They may be reacting to decline in other sources of gambling revenue, like horse racing or lotteries.  Or they may just feel gambling is a good way to replace lost income tax inflow.  Whatever the reason, they’re granting more casino licenses.

For what one might call “generic” or “no-frills” gambling–that is, not Las Vegas-style resort casinos–there’s a diminishing returns aspect to this activity.  All other things being equal, a gambler seeking a “generic” experience will go to the casino that’s the closest to home.  So while  more plant and equipment gets added to the industry inventory, the new capacity results mainly in a reshuffling of revenues based on the new driving distance calculus.

Therefore, as new capacity is built,  industry-wide returns on capital diminish.  We can clearly see this in what has happened when competition emerged for Native American gambling in Connecticut, as well as when rivals began to sprout up casinos in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  No prizes for guessing what will take place when new casinos open in, for instance, New York and Massachusetts.  It doesn’t help the situation, either, that new casino licenses are often awarded to politically-connected amateurs who don’t utilize their facilities effectively.

adding new features, not just new floor space–where internet gambling comes in

The response of PA to flagging revenues once the novelty of the state’s slot machine-only casinos wore off was to add table games, which siphoned off additional business from surrounding states.  The main victim here was Atlantic City.

NJ’s initial fix-it attempt was unusual, to say the least.  Trenton authorized the addition of new capacity, in the form of a white-elephant hotel built as a speculation during the real estate bubble.  How this was supposed to help the seaside resort’s overcapacity situation is beyond me.  The casino in question, Revel, has just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Unfortunately for AC, the capacity won’t disappear.  The owners just change.

New Jersey’s second response has been to decide to add a new feature of its own–legalizing internet gambling for anyone located in New Jersey when he places a wager.  This action might, at least temporarily, keep gamblers from wandering into PA and bolster the local casino license holders, who will run the internet operations.  If so, however, success will trigger a reaction from the jurisdictions whose revenues are suddenly tailing off.

The investment point here is to expect a declining profitability trend for generic casinos of the save-the-local-racetrack-owner kind as the internet gambling trend develops.

exceptions

national/international tourist destinations

Las Vegas is one.  New York City, where Governor Cuomo appears to be dying to allow the Lim family to open a Las Vegas-style resort casino, is another.  Florida, the scene of intense lobbying reportedly from the Lims and LVS, is a third.  I’m not sure whether Boston counts, but it might be a fourth.

Yes, casinos in all of these places would be subject to the negative effects of the spread of generic gambling operations over more states.  But their location allows them to tap into a very large tourist market.

branded casinos

Think Wynn.  Think Las Vegas Sands.  

Companies like this understand how to run complex  casino-shopping-entertainment hotels.  They should be able earn much higher returns than a generic gambling-only establishment run by a local political donor.

In addition, the brand name may induce people to drive a bit farther than they would otherwise.

Combine brand name with an international resort location, and the attractions of a WYNN or LVS casino are magnified.  Visitors will likely pick the brand name.  They may already be customers in Las Vegas, Macau or Singapore.

On top of all that, assuming they have the requisite physical presence in a given state, the branded casinos have a large leg up in establishing online gambling businesses, in my view.

my take

—For a stock market investor, the easiest ways of dealing with the question of how quickly the US gambling business will deteriorate as internet gambling takes hold are:

–invest in other industries, or

–select companies like WYNN and LVS, where the US operations are an insignificant part of the whole.

—For a purely/mostly US gambling company, make sure that it has a strong brand name, high cash flow and low debt.  A Las Vegas base would be better than anywhere else.  High debt and weak Macau presence probably rule MGM out.

—There will also be companies who will act as hardware/software enablers for the internet efforts of the major gambling firms.  ZNGA, for one, has been the subject of speculation on this score for some time.  It’s not clear what role, if any, ZNGA will play, however.  Personally, I regard it as a “fool me once, fool me twice” kind of name.

Also:  I’ve been taking the view for a couple of years that for companies like LVS and WYNN that have prospering Asian casinos, Wall Street places almost no value on their US operations.  I’ve thought that to be a gross underestimate, and, in effect, the shareholder gets the US casinos “for free.”  For both LVS and certainly for WYNN, I think this remains the case.  But if internet gambling takes off, Wall Street may have been closer to correct than I have imagined.

returns: capital changes vs. total return

Happy New Year!!

Like a stock that’s gone ex-dividend, my mind has gone ex-thoughts on the final day of the year.  My family might contend that this is not as unusual as I want to make it out to be.  Whatever the case, I can always hope that, like dividends, my absent thoughts will show up in my account as credits in a day or two.

Anyway, this is the best I can come up with on a sleepy New Year’s Eve.

Through last Friday, the S&P 500 was up 14.07% for 2012, year to date, on a total return basis.  The index was up 12.52% on a capital changes basis.

The difference?

Total return includes dividend payments as part of the return.  Capital changes doesn’t.

In figuring out your performance against the index, the total return figure is the one to use.  Looking at standard reference sources, like your broker’s website or the financial news, however, the figure that gets the most prominence is the capital changes one.

There are two historical reasons for this:

–from the mid-1980s until very recently, US Baby Boomers, who have been a major force in the domestic stock market, have been pretty much exclusively interested in capital gains, not in dividend income. So they paid the highest prices for growth companies.   Firms risked being typecast as dowdy and unimaginative if they paid large dividends, so they didn’t.  The result is that the dividend yield on the S&P has been small, and easily ignored.  No longer, though.

–keeping track on a daily basis of inflows and outflows of funds, account by account, is necessary for an accurate total return performance calculation.  This was beyond the computer capabilities of the custodian banks I knew for a considerable portion of my professional career.  Easier to ignore than to spend the time and money to upgrade staff and computer systems–especially when the calculation didn’t make that much difference.

2012 (and beyond): a different story

Dividends are again a significant component of the total return on US stocks.

2012 has seen a significant number of companies declare large special dividends, making the difference between their stocks’ capital changes and total returns especially large.  Take WYNN, which I own, as an example:

Through last Friday, WYNN is just about unchanged, year to date, meaning a capital changes return of 0.  The company has paid out dividends of $10, an $8 special dividend + four quarterly $.50 dividends.  On a total return basis, then, the stock is up a bit over 9%.  Yes, still an underperformer–but not by the margin that just looking at the figures Yahoo or Google offer would suggest.

I’m not sure that 2013 will be a year to write home about as far as capital change in the S&P 500 is concerned (more about this when I post my strategy for 2013).  Despite the absence of a spate of special payouts, I think dividends will be at least as important to next year’s total returns as they have been in 2012.

See you next year!

 

old soldiers fade away; what about old hotels?–how overcapacity shrinks

supply/demand imbalances…

In many cases, imbalances between supply and demand resolve themselves relatively quickly.

–Fresh produce goes bad.

–Clothing wears out, or is lost or damaged–or fashions shift–constantly creating new demand.

–Workers retrain and change careers.

–Technological change makes production equipment, as well as their output, obsolete.

…are difficult with long-lived assets like real estate

But what happens with real estate?

…where structures can be very expensive, are typically funded with borrowed money, may take years to build, generally can’t be relocated and can last for fifty years or more.  They’re also relatively low tech.

In this post, fresh from my visit to Las Vegas, I’m going to write about what happens with hotels/motels, a special case of this real estate question.

motels

These are easier to analyze than hotels, since they cost less and can be built faster.  Often, they’re designed in modular fashion so they can add extra wings of rooms at relatively low expense, if needed.  They also tend, in the US at least, to draw most of their customers from people who have business within a few miles of the motel.

Therefore, new capacity comes in lower increments and is visible to potential new entrants faster than with hotels.  So overcapacity tends to be less severe.

cost pressure points

There are two big costs for a motel operator that I don’t think are readily apparent–the price of affiliation with a national chain, and the need for periodic refurbishment of rooms.  These expenses end up being the big factors in eliminating existing capacity.

Chain affiliation, which may cost 5% or more of revenues, brings two benefits:  a brand image and access to a reservation system to direct potential guests to the motel.

Although guests don’t think about it much, hotels and motels suffer a lot of wear and tear, both in the rooms themselves and in common areas.  So they require a considerable amount of spending on maintenance.  In addition, to keep the rooms new looking in a way that justifies a higher rate, rooms have to be refurbished periodically–say every five years.

The two expense items are interconnected, since maintaining a specified standard of appearance will also be a condition for retaining affiliation with a chain.

When profits are under pressure, in my experience the first area to suffer cutbacks will be maintenance/room refurbishment.  Once these expenditures begin being postponed, it becomes progressively more difficult to catch up, since returning to the former standard is increasingly more expensive.  At the same time, less favorable online user reviews translate into less repeat business.  This compounds the financial problem.

At some point, a motel may fall below the standards necessary to maintain its affiliation with, say, the Marriott chain.  It may, however, still qualify to be a Best Western or Comfort Inn affiliate.   So it “solves” its maintenance/refurbishment problem by switching affiliations.  The motel effectively removes capacity from a higher-price market segment and introduces new capacity to another, lower-price one.

For a given motel, this journey to less expensive market segments may have several steps.  At some point, the building may be sold for alternate use as, for example, a nursing home.  If so, the capacity disappears entirely.

hotels

The same principles apply.  Three differences, however:

–hotels need to achieve a certain amount of occupancy–generally thought of as 30%–regardless of profits, so the building will feel “alive” and safe

–hotels are much larger in scale

–there are no alternate uses.

In Las Vegas, scene of immense overcapacity currently, two additional patterns are evident:

–older and new, but not as conveniently located, properties had been competing on lower price.  Given the new hotels’ need to generate occupancy to create a favorable ambiance, that advantage is diminished.  WYNN, for instance, had been planning to charge $300+/night for its new rooms.  But average room rates are currently around $200, with mid-week rates considerably below that.

–in the case of WYNN, LVS and to a lesser extent MGM,  management fees from Asian operations to the US are supplementing US cash flows, thereby enhancing the location advantage the three have.

signs of strain

You can already see signs of strain–and of capacity leaving the premium segment of the market.  The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, for example, that Hilton is planning to end its affiliation with the Las Vegas hotel owned by private equity investor Colony Capital.

And MGM is also hoping to be able to blow up its as yet unopened Harmon hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

walking around in Las Vegas last week

My wife and I went to San Francisco to see the Giants play two weeks ago.  Then we drove down the coast to Los Angeles to visit relatives.  And we stopped in Las Vegas for a day on the way home, just to see how the city looked compared with our last trip early in the year.

Over the years, I’ve learned that you have to be careful in drawing any firm conclusions about the hustle and bustle you see.  As I’ve already mentioned a long while ago in this blog, I once was in Caesars in Atlantic City at a time when the casino was packed to the gills.   (By the way, I’m not a big casino gambler myself.  I find it too much like work.  But the stocks are simple to analyze and usually generate huge amounts of cash flow.)

I called the company the next day and found out that their profits in Atlantic City were weaker than usual, not stronger.  A main set of doors had broken and no one could get in or out easily.  Few people were actually gambling; most were just stuck, and preventing fresh money from getting in.

Nevertheless, for what it’s worth:

–the city seemed to have far more foreign visitors than in January

–WYNN had a lot more casino patrons

–the Fashion Mall across the street was bustling

–the Bellagio seemed quieter; the visibly worn carpeting in retail areas hasn’t been replaced

–CityCenter appeared a lot quieter than in January

–I didn’t detect much difference with LVS

–every retail complex I saw had at least one vacancy, even WYNN;  CityCenter, understandably had the most empty space.

 

One of the odder aspects of my trip was the controversy that flared up last week over the yet-to-be-completed Harmon hotel in the CityCenter.  MGM is proposing to blow the structure up. (VegasInc has a comprehensive account).  It says the building is a potential hazard in an earthquake, because of construction defects.  Contractor Perini Building Co., which says MGM owes it $200 million+ for its work on the building, asserts any problems are design defects caused by MGM.   Just another day in the desert.