By Drew FitzGerald
TAKING THE PULSE: Much like last year, the biggest casino operators' upcoming first-quarter results are expected to benefit from economic growth that has driven more well-heeled gamblers from East Asia to properties in Singapore and Macau. A modest but marked economic recovery in the U.S. has also pumped up visitor numbers on the Las Vegas Strip to levels close to their 2007 peak, before the economic downturn, though rising fuel prices still threaten to damp demand. Some regional casino operators are also facing stiff competition from an increasingly crowded field in some parts of the U.S. That's not the case in Macau, where demand easily outstrips the tightly-controlled supply of table games.
COMPANIES TO WATCH:
Penn National Gaming Inc. (>> Penn National Gaming, Inc) - reports April 19
Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters project a 59-cent per-share profit with $701 million of revenue. A year earlier, the company earned 48 cents a share and generated $667 million of revenue.
Key Issues: Penn National's February earnings outlook revealed how cautious the U.S. casino operator remains about the domestic economy. Still-high unemployment remains a drag on its top line, while cannibalization from competing casinos threatens to hurt margins in some East Coast markets. Wall Street is a little more sanguine, with analysts' consensus first-quarter profit view already ahead of the company's target. Net revenue has steadily climbed for more than a year, and Penn National recently reached a deal with the state of Ohio to relocate two racetracks, which the company had previously said it wanted to do.
Caesars Entertainment Corp. (>> Caesars Entertainment Corp) - TBA
Wall Street Expectations: Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect a $1.02 per-share loss with $2.11 billion of revenue. A year earlier, Caesars's closely held predecessor posted a loss of $2.05 for each share held with $2.18 billion of revenue.
Key Issues: Investors snapped up shares of the U.S. casino giant after it managed a tiny initial public offering in February, even though the company said its owners would continue to float more shares. Improvements on the Las Vegas Strip have been helpful to Caesars and its properties there, but performance has lagged at other properties in Atlantic City, Louisiana and Mississippi. The company remains highly levered, and interest expenses will continue to take a big bite out of earnings in the near term. In future quarters, Caesars is hoping to see gains if Internet gambling becomes legal in the U.S., but that is still murky.
Las Vegas Sands Corp. (>> Las Vegas Sands Corp.) - TBA
Wall Street Expectations: Forecasts call for a 59-cent per-share profit on $2.57 billion in revenue. The company a year earlier reported a profit of 28 cents a share, or 37 cents excluding the impact of preferred dividends and other items, as revenue reached $2.11 billion.
Key Issues: Las Vegas Sands gained a bigger foothold in Macau this month with the official launch of Sands Cotai Central, its fourth casino in the Chinese gambling enclave. The company is in a good position with Macau gambling revenue still posting double-digit increases, though advisory firm Janney has raised questions about the company's near-term growth rate in Singapore, which benefited in the fourth quarter because customers took home less in winnings. The company's Las Vegas Strip casinos are also poised to benefit from improving market fundamentals, though growth will be more modest than in Macau.
MGM Resorts International (>> MGM Resorts International) - TBA
Wall Street Expectations: Analysts forecast a loss of 16 cents a share with $2.26 billion of revenue. A year earlier, MGM posted an 18-cent per-share loss--a loss of 16 cents excluding certain items--on $1.5 billion in revenue.
Key Issues: MGM's heavy exposure to the Las Vegas Strip should help its bottom line as visitor numbers improve and its joint-venture stake in the newer CityCenter property--a source of punishing write-downs in the past--delivers stronger revenue. The company is gradually climbing out from under a heavy debt load and recently sought consents from some bondholders that would allow its biggest shareholder to cut its stake to less than 15% without triggering a change of control.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. (WYNN) - TBA
Wall Street Expectations: Analysts project a $1.41 per-share profit with $1.34 billion of revenue. A year ago, the casino operator reported a $1.39 per-share profit--$1.38 excluding certain items--as net revenue reached $1.26 billion.
Key Issues: Wynn's continued earnings growth has been overshadowed in recent months by the company's headline-grabbing spat with Japanese gambling tycoon Kazuo Okada. The company in February forcibly bought out Okada's 20% stake in the company at a steep discount and accused him of making improper payments to gambling regulators in the Philippines. Okada has filed a counterclaim. The risk of further litigation hasn't brought down Wynn's stock price, however, as still-strong growth in Macau and improving convention-related visits in Las Vegas help its top line.
-By Drew FitzGerald, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2909; firstname.lastname@example.org