Riding the Wave With Carnival Cruise Lines

Cruises have risen in popularity over the last few years as vacation options. Cruises are attractive vacation ideas because they require little planning, and are fairly inexpensive for the whole family or for a couples getaway. Because of this trend, cruise line industry revenues on whole have risen at 7.9% per year since 1980, with 20.3 million passengers having embarked on a cruise in 2013 alone.Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE: CCL  ) looks to be a great investment idea for 2014 and beyond to continue gaining on this vacationing trend.

The mother ship of the market
In Carnival's 2013 earnings release, CEO Arnold Donald spoke about the company's top market position saying that "With over 100 ships and more than 10 million guests we have a scale advantage that cannot be replicated in this industry. We are aggressively seeking opportunities to leverage that scale to drive top-line improvement and gain cost efficiencies." With a solid financial position, evolving leadership structures, and increased operating efficiency drivers bringing costs down in 2014, Carnival should be on par to grow.

The main competitor in the space is Royal Caribbean (NYSE: RCL  ) , which has a new ship coming out in 2014 that is expected to be a passenger pleaser. Royal Caribbean's soon to be operating Quantum of the Sea has been anticipated with much industry fan fare. The ship boasts skydiving, bumper cars, and an arm that extends from the top of the ship giving passengers a hovering view of passing islands.  While the new ship from Royal Caribbean looks impressive, the stock itself still looks overvalued. Trading at a P/E multiple of 149, this company will have to prove to investors that their future earnings growth will justify this high price.  The company reported a diluted earnings per share of $1.65 for the quarter ended September 30, 2013, but this is down from $1.68 for the same period last year. EPS has been shrinking in a time when the industry on the whole has been improving, which may indicate the stock is currently overvalued.

Low debt means less risk during low tides
With a debt/equity ratio of just .40, Carnival takes on much less risk in a down economy than many of its peers. These low levels of debt for Carnival will help to assure they are lean and safe should the economy slow down over the next few years and would-be passengers decide to save more of their discretionary income for a while.

Some of the competing on-land theme park debt levels have exploded over the last few years. For example, Seaworld Parks has 2.6 times as much debt as it does shareholders equity. Among the cruise industry, Royal Caribbean's debt/equity ratio of 0.56is also relatively low, comparable to that of Disney (NYSE: DIS  )  at 0.69. Disney, though not a pure play in the cruise industry as cruise operations are just one part of the company's broad diversification, has also done well with their cruise lines. Disney Parks and Resorts, which includes cruise operations, increased revenues 9% over the previous year, though the report didn't specify how much of that was directly from the cruise lines. However, in the earnings call, company CEO Iger stated that Disney is not planning to build another (would be fifth) cruise ship in near future and instead plans to focus on expanding itineraries of the existing lines.

Choppy waters for the short term
Due to increased advertising expenses and rising operating costs over the last few quarters, the company has given guidance that 2014 Q1 earnings per share will be down from the same period last year. However the company gave similar guidance for the most recent reported quarter and was able to beat those estimates. On that note, the CEO says that "Even in a challenging year, our company continued to produce strong cash from operations approaching $3 billion, funding our capital commitments and returning value to shareholders through regular dividend distributions of $775 million and share repurchases of $100 million."

The CEO warned that "First quarter revenue yields (constant dollars) are expected to decline 3 to 4 percent compared to the prior year..." but included good news that advanced bookings for 2014 shows signs that ticket sales at increased ticket prices should pick up in the second half of 2014, increasing revenue to levels higher than revenues last year.

Foolish take away: Looking for long-term value
The company has already warned of net losses in the first half of 2014. However, this is definitely a company to keep on your watchlist. With increased ticket prices and bookings, a top market position, and low levels of debt, this company has strong growth fundamentals. Assuming no major cruise ship mishaps (such as with last year's Concordia disaster, which occurred through a subsidiary of Carnival), this investment should look even more attractive in the third and forth quarter of the coming year.


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