Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Risk of Snake Eyes for Las Vegas Sands

By Eric Jackson

11/10/2009 2:36 PM EST

With its stock price is up over 800% since its March lows, Las Vegas Sands (LVS - commentary - Trade Now) plans to raise up to $3.3 billion in a Hong Kong IPO listing of its Asian assets later this month. While it has great potential upside from its properties in gambling territory Macau, there are still a number of risk factors facing the casino that could cause it to trip its debt covenants on its massive $12 billion in liabilities over the next 18 months. Because of those risks and lax corporate governance oversight, I've initiated a short position on the stock. Here's why.

Risk 1: Losses will persist without a meaningful upturn in operating performance. Despite a surge in Macau-based profits and management claims of cutting $500 million in operating costs from the business, Sands still is losing money, and at an increased rate year-on-year. It had over $1 billion in operating expenses in the recent quarter alone. The bet that bulls on the stock are making is that we've hit bottom and that rooms, banqueting and convention revenue will all come back from current levels. On the recent earnings call, management noted that Macau had done particularly well recently, partially because of increased traffic over the October Golden Week holiday. The company pointed out that Las Vegas room bookings were up for January and February. However, the likelihood of a continued soft market in Vegas (especially with MGM's new CityCenter dumping 5,000 new rooms on the strip next month) seems high, even with Macau. It appears reasonable to assume that losses will persist over the next two years, at a time when it's vital for LVS to navigate its way through its debt obligations.

Risk 2: Debt requirements will only get tighter over the next year. Like its losses, Las Vegas Sands' debt and liabilities have increased over the last year. It had $12 billion in debt as of the end of September -- up 13% from a year ago. LVS's biggest risk in holding such a high amount of debt while losing money is meeting its debt covenants, which include tightening the allowed ratio between debt and EBITDA, currently at a ceiling of 6.5:1 for US-related debt. Management says it is now running a ratio of 5.78:1. Starting July 1 2010, the allowed ratio will drop to 6:1. Then, on January 1, 2011, it will drop again to 5.5:1 and stay there.

Sands has been able to sell stock and debt in order to supplement its EBITDA and stay within its debt covenants. Recently, it pre-sold $600 million in projected proceeds from the planned Hong Kong IPO of its Asian assets later this month, presumably because it needed the extra cash early. Once it completes its public offering, it should receive another $1.7-2.5 billion (net of the already-sold $600 million and the bankers' underwriting fees).

The company has three types of debt related to its US, Macau and Singapore (Marina Bay) developments and operations. All senior debt is held by Lehman Brothers Commercial Paper (or affiliated entities). It appears that Alvarez & Marsal (overseeing the wind-down of Lehman) is now in charge of Sands' debt obligations and they have more incentive to play hardball on enforcing terms compared to a troubled Citibank, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo. In an interview with CNBC in July, Bryan Marsal talked -- in general terms, not specifically about Las Vegas Sands -- about how many companies were in phase one of a three-phase discussion with their creditors: (1) extend and pretend (that they will somehow be able to bounce back in order to re-pay their debts), (2) amend (the terms of their covenants -- or at least try), and (3) send (as in, send in the keys for the properties to the creditors).

If Sands defaults on one debt obligation, it triggers a cross-default across all its debts. Assuming the losses continue, its new IPO proceeds will help, but the company will still face potential problems later next year, as its debt-to-EBITDA ratio ratchets down.

Risk 3: Continued development in Macau. According to its most recent 10-Q, Sands estimates it will need approximately $2.6 billion to complete development at Macau. It currently has about $3 billion in cash (about the same level as a year ago), plus the new funds coming in from the Hong Kong IPO. It's likely that Sands will need to keep a certain amount of cash on its balance sheet to satisfy its lenders. This means that, even using all the IPO proceeds, Sands will not necessarily have sufficient cash to finish off Macau -- if losses persist.

Las Vegas Sands is required to finish completion of Parcel 3 of the Cotai strip by mid-2011, or risk passing over the keys to all of its Macau assets to the Chinese government. It also needs to build out parcels 4 to 8 (and receive permission from the government), but not as quickly. It is obviously trying to do everything it can to minimize its development costs (right out of the "extend-and-pretend" playbook). Sheldon Adelson is known for slipping delivery deadlines.

However, there are a number of Macau risks (let alone Singapore) that remain, including the potential for less strong traffic in current and future quarters compared with the recent Golden Week-aided quarter, restrictions on travel to Macau by the Chinese government for fear of over-gambling, Sands's need to spend more on ferry access or face reduced traffic, potential cost overruns on existing development and any potential health scare (like heightened concern about the H1N1 virus) that could reduce traffic. Taken together, it seems likely that one or two of these risks might occur in the next year, with a sharp impact on the stock.

Risk 4: Poor corporate governance oversight. You would think that Sands would be holding on to every dollar of cash possible, seeing as how the stock dropped from $140 to $1 and was being questioned as a going concern less than a year ago. But, you'd be wrong. Corporate governance has and likely always will be very poor at this company. On October 29, Sands declared a quarterly dividend of $2.50 per share to the holders of 10% Series A Cumulative Perpetual Preferred Stock. It's not clear how much of this stock Chairman and Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson himself owns, but we know (from the Sands 2009 proxy statement) that his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, bought 5.25 million of these shares from the company on November 14, 2008. That means Adelson's wife will collect $13 million on just this one quarterly dividend payment, or $50 million annually -- roughly 10% of their recent $500 million in total cost savings Sands management boasted about.

My personal favorite egregious expense at Las Vegas Sands involves SVP Rob Goldstein. Goldstein is in charge of Sands' Vegas properties and was front and center on the recent earnings calls. He was paid $3.8 million in total compensation in 2006, $3.2 million in 2007 and $2.6 million in 2008. In the spring of this year, in its proxy statement, Sands disclosed that: "During 2008, a subsidiary of the Company performed work at a home owned by Mr. Goldstein, the Company's Senior Vice President. The Company's cost and overhead for the job was $364,000. Mr. Goldstein believes and the Company agrees that some of the work was not performed in an appropriate manner. The Company and Mr. Goldstein are working together to determine the amount that may be due."

Later, in its second-quarter10-Q release in August, Sands buried in the back under "Other Matters" the following: "As previously disclosed, during 2008, a subsidiary of the Company performed work at a home owned by Robert G. Goldstein, the Company's Executive Vice President. Mr. Goldstein believed, and the Company acknowledged, that some of the work was not performed in an appropriate manner. The matter was referred to an independent expert, who concurred about the quality of the work and concluded that Mr. Goldstein should not be obligated to pay the $0.4 million incurred by the Company for costs and overhead on the job. These findings have been accepted by the Company and Mr. Goldstein."

So, to review, a Sands subsidiary got to do $360,000 worth of remodeling construction work on Goldstein's house - paid for out of the Sands' shareholders' coffers and Goldstein gets to enjoy the benefits of the work for free. Who is this "independent expert" and how can I arrange for him to come and adjudicate some faulty remodeling work paid for by Sands at my house?

Clearly, it's "buyer beware" for shareholders at Las Vegas Sands, and Sands makes no bones about it. One of its "risk factors" listed in their 10-K is that "[t] he interests of Mr. Adelson may conflict with your interests."

The bottom line is that Las Vegas Sands' management is betting that the Macau market will stay hot and that Vegas will come back from historic lows this year. My belief is that one or more of the risks cited above will surprise to the downside within the next year - and that's why I think it's more likely the stock will go lower than this, rather than higher, over the next 12 months.

At the time of publication, Jackson's fund held a net short position in LVS and a long position in WYNN.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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