Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Betting with Paulson

At times, investing in the gaming industry can be a gamble (/corny opening line). Not that it really has to be that way. Like any addiction, gaming produces quite stable cash flows once the business is up and running and a customer base and a location has been established.

The threats are there, of course, with the expansion of licenses from revenue-hungry governments and the ominous Internet. Still, “if you build it, they will come” has worked relatively well in the past, so who are we to question its future applicability.

That said, gaming is a place where high yield thrives, since, not unlike gamblers, casino operators love to “double down” with plenty of leverage.

Where there’s leverage, there’s “credits” (as the pundits like to call bonds these days) and opportunities for bond investors (somehow credit investors doesn’t sound right) to throw some chips into the fray.

Start with MGM Resorts International, which owns a good chunk of the Las Vegas Strip (Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Monte Carlo, Luxor, Grand, etc.) plus casinos and resorts around the rest of the world. Lots of property with a ton of debt, and booking substantial losses. Still, it’s a name I like, since the cash flow is good, and the company has shown financial agility. They have sold property to raise cash and recently announced they would issue new stock to the market. That’s always good for bond investors. In addition, Hedge fund manager John Paulson picked up a 9%+ equity stake earlier this year. Not fresh cash, but it’s always reassuring to have a guy like Paulson below you in the capital structure.

For MGM bonds, there are a number of choices, ranging from senior secured (the least risky in case of default) or the subordinated, which may not fare well in such a case. I listed a few on the table below. Personally, I like the subordinated 2013’s, because you might as well go “all in” if you think bankruptcy is looking like a long shot. But in any case, all these bonds have rallied over the last year and the easy money is over.

Second up is Harrah’s Entertainment, which is a behemoth like MGM, only larger and with less concentration in Las Vegas and more property in Atlantic City (not a good thing). Harrah’s was taken private in 2006 by private equity firms TPG and Apollo, which then proceeded to load it up with debt. That’s standard procedure in these cases. It’s also standard procedure for these takeover specialists to screw over those debt holders if necessary and convenient. That’s also not a good thing. Still, as we stated above, this is a business that generates cash, apparently even in Tunica, Mississippi (where Harrahs has THREE casinos).

Still, it’s not enough to make a bondholder comfortable (not that we ever are). So, once again Paulson to the rescue. Paulson’s fund(s) recently picked up a nice chunk of Harrah’s debt (over $800 mm) and agreed to exchange it for equity. For bondholders that’s a good thing since it means some deleveraging, if not a whole lot. Harrah’s LT debt is close to $20 billion. The company is planning to go public with its shares shortly, and from the preliminary prospectus, it appears they will be selling an additional $575 million in shares to the public. That would be a good thing, since it would mean more deleveraging.

Still, count me as a bit skeptical on Harrah’s, and I’d prefer the secured bonds, which still are offering a very hefty yield. That would make it good for a couple of chips.

Here's a BST oldie to get you in the gamblin' mood.