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Norwegian Cruise Line Breaks Hearts, but Not Portfolios

By Rick Munarriz - Jan 20, 2021 at 8:05AM

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The country's third-largest cruise line operator cancels sailings through the end of April. The stock continues to defy gravity.

It's time to wipe another month of reservations off of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' (NCLH -0.80%) books: The country's third-largest cruise line operator has canceled all sailings through the end of April.

If Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sails again in May -- and that's a big "if" -- it will mark 414 days since its last embarkation. Norwegian and larger peers Carnival (CCL -1.33%)(CUK -1.20%) and Royal Caribbean (RCL -0.39%) are playing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's demanding guidelines to resume operations. The cancelations are understandably necessary, but still disappointing for many passengers. A growing number of would-be cruise-goers are requesting cash refunds instead of enhanced credit on future sailings.  

Shareholders are doing just fine. The stock plummeted through the first few weeks of 2020 when it became clear the pandemic was going to rattle the global travel industry. Still, if you'd bought at the close of March 12 last year -- the last day that a Norwegian Cruise Line ship set sail with paying passengers -- you'd be sitting pretty right now. The stock has more than doubled since then, up 162%. The disconnect between the business and the stock is bizarre.

Two couples walking along the shore of a beach with a cruise ship behind them.

Image source: Getty Images.

Diver down

Bulls will concede that Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is in shakier shape than it was when it suspended sailings last year. The cruise line operator originally nixed just four weeks of cruises, expecting to set sail again by mid-April of 2020. Still, the bulls might argue that using last March as the starting line isn't fair.

Norwegian Cruise Line plummeted from late February through mid-March. From the beginning of 2020 through close on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, the stock has plummeted 57%. Bulls will argue that a company losing more than half of its value since the end of 2019 is an overreaction, but they're wrong. 

The shares may have fallen steeply since the end of 2019, but thanks to new stock Norwegian Cruise Line issued and fresh debt it took on, its enterprise value has only dipped 9% from $18.3 billion to $16.6 billion. In short, investors think that the stock deserves to lose less than 10% of its enterprise value, despite being out of business for more than a year. It's the distant bronze medalist in an industry that has suffered huge blows. 

Things are more difficult than the recently buoyant shares suggest. The industry is contracting. Carnival unloaded several of its less-efficient ships last year. This week, Royal Caribbean announced that it's selling its Azamara business -- complete with the line's three-ship fleet -- in a $201 million transaction that will still find it taking a one-time, noncash impairment hit of $170 million. 

Taking a step back now makes sense. When cruise ships resume sailing at some point later this year, we'll still be in a worldwide recession. Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival will still have to woo passengers and invest in applying a thick coat of marketing paint to restore the appeal of cruising.

Delaying sailings until May gives Norwegian Cruise Line time that it still has with its current liquidity. Still, the company needs to do more in this lull than simply break passengers' hearts if it wants to keep investors around.

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Stocks Mentioned

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Stock Quote
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
$16.09 (-0.80%) $0.13
Carnival Corporation Stock Quote
Carnival Corporation
$14.09 (-1.33%) $0.19
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Stock Quote
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
$61.39 (-0.39%) $0.24
Carnival Corporation Stock Quote
Carnival Corporation
$13.15 (-1.20%) $0.16

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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