It isn't often that a public company's management will give you a sneak peek into how they run their business. But once a quarter companies have conference calls with analysts, and it's a rare chance to hear how the past quarter went and what the strategy is for the future.
During those conversations, few CEOs are more colorful than Las Vegas Sands' (NYSE:LVS) CEO Sheldon Adelson, who runs the largest gaming company in the world. Here are five things investors should take away from his fourth quarter 2014 conference call with analysts.
"Despite some obvious challenges in the Macau market, we delivered a strong set of financial results with companywide adjusted property EBITDA reaching $1.35 billion U.S. dollars, 11% higher than prior year and a fourth quarter record. Did I hear anybody talk about things slowing down?" -- CEO Sheldon Adelson
The slowdown in Macau has taken the media and stock market by storm, so this was Adelson's chance to jab that narrative just a little. But the truth is there is a slowdown in Macau, and without incredibly good luck in Singapore even Las Vegas Sands' earnings would have been down in the fourth quarter.
Let me put a few numbers behind that statement. In Macau, Las Vegas Sands' mass table win was down 9.2% in Q4, slot and electronic table game win fell 9.7%, rolling win (a measure of VIP play) fell 36.9%, and retail mall revenue dropped 10.4%. Yes, Macau is slowing down.
The drive for future growth is in Asia
"We remain focused on potential development opportunities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. We believe our unique convention-based integrated resort development model could bring meaningful benefits to these countries..." -- CEO Sheldon Adelson
One of the challenges when you're the size of Las Vegas Sands is finding places to grow. Adelson has targeted Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, which are all considering welcoming megaresort bids. Given the size and scope of these potential bids, Las Vegas Sands is one of only a handful of companies that could even compete, so it has a good shot at winning if each country opens up to them.
No doubt finding a place to expand, particularly in Japan, would be good for Las Vegas Sands. This also highlights one of the company's challenges long-term: Gaming is expanding across Asia and Macau, and Singapore's virtual duopoly on gaming in the region is slowly coming to an end. That could pressure revenue in both locations if gaming expands too quickly, something investors need to keep an eye on.
A smoking ban would stink
When discussing a potential smoking ban in Macau, Adelson had this to say:
"It's not a positive, that's for sure. I can't tell you the extent, because candidly who knows how big smoking has been. There's many factors in Macau that are changing currently. It's hard to ascertain, is it smoking? Is it anti-corruption? There's just a lot of factors in play here." -- CEO Sheldon Adelson
Macau is considering an all-out ban on smoking in casinos and Adelson, for one, is worried about the impact on his business. This is something that has been worried about before as U.S. states have barred smoking in bars and restaurants. But the impact has typically been minimal and very short-lived. If someone wants to gamble millions of dollars, I doubt not being able to smoke a cigarette is going to keep them away. Change is always tough, but this is one that I think gets too much attention, even from Adelson.
The Parisian is going to be delayed
"We don't have an opening date yet. It will be sometime in 2016. The question also comes up as to whether or not there will be a partial opening, rooms and casino and some restaurants, and maybe entertainment." -- CEO Sheldon Adelson
All six concessionaires in Macau have a new resort under construction in Cotai and The Parisian is Las Vegas Sands' resort, but it won't open as early as anticipated. Labor shortages have affected nearly every builder, and Las Vegas Sands has pushed the resort's opening into 2016.
That's probably not a big deal given the slowdown in Macau's gaming market, but it pushes back potential cash flow from another resort. This isn't a deal breaker for Las Vegas Sands, but it is a small negative for the company in 2015.
Cash is returning to shareholders in a big way
"For 2015, as previously announced, the Board of Directors has increased the LVS dividend by 30% to $2.60 per year or 65% per quarter.... In addition to dividend growth, we've returned $235 million of capital to all the shareholders this quarter to a stock buyback program. We have approximately $1.76 billion remaining under our current stock buyback authorization."
Oh, how the gaming industry has changed. It wasn't long ago that companies needed billions in debt just to fund expansion, and now they have so much cash that they're returning it to shareholders at record rates. Las Vegas Sands is not only paying dividends but buying back billions in stock -- two great reasons to own the stock.
At the current dividend rate of $2.60 annually, Las Vegas Sands shares yield 4.8%. That's more than double treasuries, and a payout investors should start considering more heavily when looking at gaming stocks.