Low confidence index hits gaming stocks - Saturday 22nd of October 2005

Just six months ago, the stocks of the biggest gaming companies were riding high on a wave of economic growth in Las Vegas that continues to defy the skeptics.

That was before two big hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast, decimating several casinos and damaging others. And before fuel prices rose faster than they had in years. And before the Conference Board released a consumer confidence index in September that had sunk to its lowest level since October 2003, a month-over-month drop sharper than that following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The combination of these events has investors fearing that consumers will take fewer gambling vacations or spend less than before. In spite of strong profit growth this year, (only somewhat less spectacular than last years growth rate, in some cases) the major Las Vegas gaming stocks have taken a hit.

Boyd Gaming is down about 27 percent for the six months ended Tuesday, Harrahs Entertainment is down 12 percent, Las Vegas Sands is down 25 percent and Wynn Resorts is down 26 percent. Even Station Casinos, an investor darling with a stronghold in the countrys best growth market, also fell victim to the selloff. The exception was MGM Mirage, which is still up 13 percent after an earlier 2-for-1 stock split.

Institutional investors such as hedge funds and mutual funds look at a declining consumer confidence index as a warning to cut and run from companies that rely on disposable income. Or else they stick around and sell those stocks short. Betting that a stock will fall further only increases that stocks downward spiral.

The gaming industry still has plenty of cheerleaders on Wall Street, including many of the analysts following the business for investment companies. The analysts have long said that gaming is one of those few industries that is relatively immune to big-picture spending concerns and even rising gas prices. Hurricane Katrina, which decimated an entire regional economy and left shattered casinos in its wake, has shaken that theory.

Las Vegas is still going strong, they say.

"I dont see any slowdown in Vegas, which should have a strong 2006," Deutsche Bank stock analyst Marc Falcone said.

The selloff is based mostly on investor sentiment than factual data, Falcone said. The gaming business has weathered other dips to reap long-term rewards for investors, he said.

"I see this as a good long-term buying opportunity," Falcone said.

Brian Gordon, a partner with Las Vegas consultant Applied Analysis, said his firm is monitoring the potential impact of market factors like rising gas prices on business volume and demand. So far theres no basis for concern, he said.

"The population as a whole generally tends to move forward with their travel plans," Gordon said. "They may defer other spending to take their one vacation of the year if it has already been planned."

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority also says tourism wont suffer if prices rise. Travel is considered more of a right rather than a disposable expense, with consumers learning to cut other costs to make room for trips, officials say.

Fuel prices tend to account for only 5 percent of a trip budget -- not enough to make or break travel plans, Gordon said. Moreover, airfares to Las Vegas didnt spike in the weeks following news of fuel price increases, he said.

In a research note to investors last month, Morgan Stanley stock analyst Celeste Brown suggested that some investors still need more certainty about where consumers will spend their money.

"The Strip, Las Vegas locals, Atlantic City and riverboat markets generally appear to be showing continued strong demand for gaming," Brown wrote. "We have all looked for cracks but have found no real evidence of weakness yet. We believe that the real problem facing the industry is that there is no visibility ... How much can the consumer sustain before spending patterns on gaming are noticeably impacted?"

For now, gas prices appear to be piping down in spite of disruption caused by shuttered or damaged oil refineries in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and earlier warnings that prices could shoot up to $5 per gallon. Theres also a recent indicator that the local economy is continuing to grow.

Station Casinos, the first of the big gaming companies to report quarterly earnings, announced Tuesday that profit rose 33 percent, once again beating analysts expectations.

Station stock still fell more than 4 percent that day but was back up more than 2.5 percent the following morning as this column went to press -- the latest evidence of investors displaying skittish, unpredictable behavior. (Or, as Falcone explained to investors Wednesday, a negative reaction by investors who had expected Station to increase its 2006 earnings estimates from current, relatively modest levels.)

Stock prices are a reflection of where were headed, not where we were. As long as investors continue to see a future thats as murky as floodwater, those numbers are anyones guess.

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