Bill Lerner of Union Gaming Group
For a window on the challenges confronting Las Vegas just look at the roller coaster the share price of MGM Resorts International has been riding. In the last year, the big cap with the greatest exposure to the Strip has seen its price (NYSE: MGM) dip below $9 and soar past $16. The shares jumped 15 percent at one point last month, briefly topping $13, on news of a terrific August for Strip gambling revenues (up 21 percent year over year on the highest volume of baccarat play in state history, $1.9 billion). Casino Journal Editor James Rutherford caught up with equities expert Bill Lerner to talk about this in the context of the Strip’s shifting fortunes and Wall Street’s love-hate relationship with gaming.
Confidence in gaming stocks as a whole has been low for a while. What’s it going to take for investors to get behind the industry again?
Lerner: These stocks have actually done quite well year-to-date, or over the last 12 months or so, and that is a function, I think, of these companies surviving, and the equity markets recognizing the likelihood that most of them actually will survive. Whether it’s because they’ve amended their debt by pushing out maturities or they’re paying for more favorable covenants on their debt or buying back debt in the open markets at a discount to help their liquidity scenarios, and that goes for exchange offerings on their debt, too.
What’s next after survival?
Lerner: What gets these stocks to go higher from here is really now fully focused on recovery. If you look at Vegas, actually if you look at any regional casino market, these have become quite cyclical. In the past there had been a perception that casino gaming in the U.S. wasn’t cyclical. But because these are cyclical names you’re going to see the stocks trade that way. And people won’t buy these stocks or award a premium valuation until there is evidence of a recovery. We got a little glimpse of that with August numbers for Nevada, and the stocks, especially MGM, had a nice move. But people really need to see a recovery. And that goes for the regional operators too.
MGM a few weeks back was able to pull off a fairly large secondary offering in a tough market. How do you view that?
Lerner: I think MGM was going to be opportunistic here, and that’s probably what that was. The stock had started to run on the back of strong August numbers, and we suspected that an equity offering could be in the pipeline at that point. And by doing so they’re really helping themselves from a liquidity perspective beyond their comfort for 2012, in my view. To the extent that free cash flow doesn’t recover with a broader recovery. So a little bit of an insurance capital raise.
Are investors looking to MGM, and to CityCenter, as bellwethers of a Las Vegas recovery?
Lerner: CityCenter has lost money, and now it’s starting to break even. The economy, of course, has been a challenge. And all of this has been a function of timing. (Well, and others have criticized the budget.) So there’s this unfortunate sour view that we often hear when it comes to CityCenter. Otherwise, is MGM a bellwether of the Strip? Absolutely. The only public equity casino operator with the largest exposure to Vegas. Harrah’s would follow, but they have no public equity at the moment.
Union Gaming Group does not buy in to the prevailing pessimism.
Lerner:These are volatile stocks in volatile times, so you might characterize it that way. But for the most part I think the unwind of the bankruptcy trading has played out. … Yes, some of these companies have diluted themselves with equity offerings, they have more debt than perhaps in the past, in some cases; but they’ve cut costs, and I think these cuts are sustainable through a recovery. So we probably don’t need a full revenue recovery in order to see these stocks move materially higher. Especially because the cost reductions should start to show up in the cash flow story. So the stage is set to generate material cash flow growth. And that could be a couple of dollars in the room rate, that can do the trick, all other things being equal.
Your prognosis then for the Strip’s long-awaited recovery?
Lerner: We are cautiously optimistic. That’s probably how I would characterize it. We’re seeing a lot of signs of stabilization, if not the markings of an early recovery. It’s seeing the air lift in some cases, auto traffic, it’s convention bookings, delegate conversions - all these things are happening at stable to higher rates. And there are other segments of the business that feel OK. Room revenues are down less than room supply growth; that’s a healthy positive story to tell. Positive gaming revenues through the majority of the last year have been because of baccarat growth, but if you strip that out, the declines in revenues are very, very modest now. So I think it’s almost indisputable, if not indisputable, that we’ve stabilized. We’re not catching a falling knife here. The market has stabilized.
In terms of key indicators, what do you project?
Lerner: Mid-single-digit at most in visitation growth for 2011. And I think we could see that translate nicely to earnings. In other words, if that translates to low- to mid-single-digit gaming revenue growth, maybe it’s high single-digit or low double-digit cash flow growth for these companies.
How does Cosmopolitan’s added supply affect this?
Lerner: I’m not concerned about The Cosmopolitan’s 2,000 Phase 1 rooms shaking that story up whatsoever. The companies that operate here have much better balance sheets than they did a year or two years ago. So we’re in better shape than we were. And as an equity analyst that sets up really well for these stocks to capture a recovery. Especially if you believe that inflation is in the pipeline, these stocks should do particularly well capturing a recovery disproportionately.
Good news for the competition. But how does Cosmopolitan fare, given the timing?
Lerner: It’s a beautiful place. I like the physical plant. Obviously the location. The viability? If you take a look at the new projects over the last few years, whether they’ve been expansions or new builds, from Palazzo and Encore all the way through CityCenter, the return profile hasn’t been there. So I’m not sure why that would change in an environment where there’s a lot more supply that Cosmopolitan is bolting on to. But beyond that I know that they did a deal with Marriott [to market the hotel through Marriott’s data base], which is a positive thing. I know they swapped the physical plant around so the casino is downstairs instead of on the mezzanine level. So the walk-in traffic story will be very good. But they’re going to have to get a pretty notable room rate to justify a $4 billion property. I say “justify,” but it’s owned by a bank, and I don’t know how they necessarily view return hurdles and those things. I suspect for it to be an acceptable return for them the room rate story is going to have to make sense, and the gaming story is going to have to be meaningful. And that’s going to be difficult unless they’re willing to accept high-end play. And it doesn’t seem like the bank is interested in developing that kind of gaming. So the formula is going to be a little tricky.
Bill Lerner is an analyst with Las Vegas-based Union Gaming Group, an independent financial research and advisory firm he co-founded in 2009 to focus on the gaming industry worldwide. He spent 13 years on Wall Street in sell-side research prior to forming UGG, most recently as managing director and senior Gaming & Lodging analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities. He has been recognized by Institutional Investor as part of its “All American Research Team” and Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Street”.