Gambling companies poised to turn page after year of sharp declines - Monday 12th of January 2009

Good riddance 2008.

The average daily share prices of most of the major publicly traded casino operators and slot machine makers ended the year on a positive note. Companies such as MGM Mirage, Penn National Gaming and Pinnacle Entertainment showed upticks during December.

However, on the whole, shares in the gaming sector lost anywhere from 23 percent to 95 percent of their value over the past 12 months. Most Wall Street analysts think the prices may be at or near the bottom of the cycle.

The economic downturn has kept potential casino customers at home, lowering consumer spending and reducing visitation to the major gaming markets. Casino company revenues and earnings have been demolished along with stock prices.

"We believe these challenges are already well reflected in the stocks, which explains our unchanged rating views," Macquarie Capital gaming analyst Joel Simkins said in a recent note to investors. "Many regional markets continue to face challenging times."

Las Vegas-based financial consultant Applied Analysis, which charts the average daily share prices of seven casino operators and three slot machine manufacturers for its gaming index, reported an increase in the index for the first time since August.

The index, which updates more than 300 market variables and economic indicators, closed at 230.01, up more than four points. A year ago, however, the index was at 569.67.

The average daily stock prices of casino operators and slot makers, when compared with December 2007, show the group is no longer among Wall Streets most active issues.

"The gaming sectors performance in the stock market remained slow-moving during the final month of 2008 due to a souring economy, record-low consumer confidence levels and a general sense of uncertainty given the latest discussion surrounding an official recession," Applied Analysis principal Brian Gordon wrote in the year-end report.

Although casino giant MGM Mirage showed a gain of almost 2.5 percent in its average daily stock price, regional casino operators such as Penn National, Pinnacle Entertainment and Ameristar Casinos had double-digit percentage increases.

Simkins said Penn National, which has $1.48 billion in cash on its books thanks to an aborted buyout attempt in the summer, could be a buyer on the Strip. Published reports have the company exploring a possible purchase Strip casinos, including The Mirage from MGM Mirage. He thought the company might have wanted Treasure Island, which MGM Mirage on Dec. 15 agreed to sell to former New Frontier owner Phil Ruffin for $775 million.

"We believe Penn may have taken a close look at the recently sold Treasure Island but could have bid well below the final sale price," Simkins said. "We continue to believe that Penn will actively pursue industry consolidation and, given current sector distress, we see an abundance of opportunities in 2009."

Only three casino operators showed a decline in their average daily stock prices in December: Wynn Resorts Ltd., Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Boyd Gaming Corp.

Wynn Resorts opened the $2.3 billion Encore next to Wynn Las Vegas on Dec. 22.

"Timing for the property opening remains a challenge given the current economic climate, yet Wynns balance sheet is well-positioned," Gordon said.

Slot machine makers Bally Technologies and WMS Industries had double-digit jumps in their average daily stock prices, while shares of slot machine giant International Game Technology, which is trying to cut expenses by more than $100 million annually, climbed slightly.

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