Carnival Cruise Lines (NYSE: CCL ) has charted back on course, but is it a good long-term investment? After an unbelievable number of issues ranging from stomach bugs ruining cruises to the Costa Concordia disaster, the world's largest cruise line clearly had a quality control issue. The PR nightmare had the potential to ruin the brand, but quick maneuvers and smart damage control have the company doing much better today. What's even better is its comfortable valuation and massive cash hoard to fuel expansion, both operationally and in the eyes of Mr. Market's expectations. Is this travel industry juggernaut set for smooth sailing in the years ahead?
What to expect
As management previously reported, Carnival foresees its first-quarter earnings to come in under last year's figures, but the detriments appear to be short-term -- higher operating costs and an expensive PR push (the latter being a very necessary burden). Those conditions may linger on through the second quarter as well, but for the long-term investor, it is an irrelevant matter.
Carnival's scale allows it to exploit international growth opportunities faster and with greater penetration than peers such as Royal Caribbean or Norwegian Cruise Lines. One region that is extremely (and predictably) compelling is Asia. Last year, the company opened a handful of offices in China to help push the Princess brand, a Carnival subsidiary. The now well-reported story of a burgeoning Chinese middle class bodes well for the cruise business; cruises are an affordable way to see the world.
While the waters and islands of the Caribbean have long been the most popular destination of the world's cruises, an increasing number of ports and tourist destinations in Asia and the South Pacific present tremendous opportunity and may tip the scales in favor of these regions. Carnival is in prime position to dominate the market as it leaves its tarnished image in the rearview.
Some investors and analysts remain concerned regarding the company's legal risk. There is a line out the door of class-action lawsuits full of passengers who got sick or were victims of one of Carnival's mishaps. Some are asking for $5,000 per month, for life, to help pay for medical bills and mental anguish.
While the risk is certainly something to keep an eye on, investors should keep in mind the scale of the company versus the scale of the suits. The situation is similar (though less horrific) to BP's Gulf oil disaster. Many claimed the billions spent in lawsuits and payouts would take the oil giant down, but that simply didn't make sense. BP makes billions every week -- the long-term financials will barely reflect the event. Carnival has $3 billion in cash right now and earns billions every year.
Another recent piece of news that generated some negative sentiment was Chairman Mickey Arison selling up to 10 million of his shares. Five million have already been sold. While the head of a company selling heaps of shares is rarely a good thing, this one is more of a nonevent. Arison seems to be doing some estate planning and trying to keep those Carnival dollars in the family. This is not uncommon for the very wealthy.
All in all, Carnival has a substantial future ahead of it. While the stock has already popped well off its lows from the prior years' issues, there is plenty more to run for the growth-seeking investor. With the bonus of a 2.5% dividend, this one is set to sail for a long time.
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