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When gaming in Macau opened to Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS ) , Sheldon Adelson talked about building a Las Vegas-style strip in the region. It was an ambitious idea that Macau could someday be the next Las Vegas, but after years of astonishing growth Macau has passed Las Vegas so far that the comparison for gaming's former capital has changed to a far less flattering one: Atlantic City.
There once was a time when casinos were profitable in the East Coast town, but they eventually became overbuilt and run down, falling to competition from Las Vegas. Could we be seeing the same movie playing out with Las Vegas's competitor half a world away?
What happened in Vegas
The short-term story is just the continuation of a long-term trend: visitors looking for deals and unwilling to throw down big dollars on gambling. Visitation to Las Vegas was actually up 1% in February year over year and is up 4.8% in the first two months of 2011 -- positives that haven't translated to slots and table play.
Gaming, which drives everything in Las Vegas, was down 9.6% on the Las Vegas Strip and 6.7% statewide in February. This was partly because of a bad hold percentage and lower revenue on sports betting, but to keep up with supply, gaming dollars need to be increasing. So while the figures might not be as bad as they appear, there's no good news here.
MGM Resorts (NYSE: MGM ) and Caesars Entertainment will be the hardest hit by a weak first quarter because of their reliance on Las Vegas for revenue. It will also hurt Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts (Nasdaq: WYNN ) , but with most of their revenue coming from fast-expanding Macau, they should still experience considerable growth. And Las Vegas Sands is still finding ways to squeeze more profit from its Marina Bay Sands property in Singapore, the world's most profitable casino.
Know when to fold 'em
I've been leery of Las Vegas for quite a while, and it looks like staying cautious there will continue to be the way to go. Despite analysts upgrading Vegas-centric MGM Resorts and Boyd Gaming (NYSE: BYD ) in February, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of value there. I would stick to more profitable markets with Las Vegas Sands or a company with no ties to Las Vegas: Melco Crown (Nasdaq: MPEL ) . Las Vegas just isn't worth the gamble right now.