Smooth seas for Royal Caribbean?

WASHINGTON Fri Nov 13, 2009 7:39am EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a nine-month surge, can Royal Caribbean's stock keep cruising?

Shares of Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL.N)(RCL.OL) have more than tripled since early March, spurred by an upswing in the broader market and signs that ticket prices are starting to stabilize.

While Royal Caribbean executives said last week that there was still little evidence of an economic rebound in its business, they do not see a need to discount prices to the levels seen earlier this year.

The world's No. 2 cruise operator expects to post a loss for the fourth quarter -- missing Wall Street expectations for a profitable quarter, but reiterated its outlook for positive net revenue yields in 2010.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Of the 24 analysts who cover Royal Caribbean, 15 rate the stock the equivalent of a "buy" or a "strong buy," according to StarMine data. That figure has grown in the past 90 days, reflecting growing bullish sentiment about the stock.

"We're starting to see the initial signs of pricing firming," said William Blair & Company analyst Sharon Zackfia, who has an "outperform" rating on the stock. This is the first step to improved earnings, she said.

Zackfia noted that the cruise operator is also positioned to benefit from a rebound in spending from wealthier consumers, which the company caters to through two of its cruise lines: Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.

"What's very apparent in our coverage is that the upper middle-class consumer has started to rebound pretty markedly," Zackfia said.

Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Robert LaFleur said in a research note last week that he forecasts the company will double its earnings per share in 2010.

ROUGH SEAS

But while shares have surged in recent months, short interest has also risen, suggesting that some investors are banking on a drop in the stock price.

Short interest represented 14.1 percent of the overall float as of October 12, according to the most recently available data from the New York Stock Exchange.

Goldman Sachs analyst Steve Kent points out that the company has cut its outlook four times in the past five months. Kent, who has a "sell" on the stock, maintains that the cruise industry is still facing some serious long-term risks, including rising fuel costs and oversupply.

"We believe the company's visibility into future bookings remains low and its leverage remains high," he wrote in a research note.

Societe Generale analyst Simon Mezzanotte, who also rates the company a "sell," noted that U.S. consumer confidence has not seen substantial improvement and pricing power next year remains "very limited."

Industry capacity will grow 7 percent in both 2009 and 2010 and another 4 percent in 2011, wrote Kent, who also has a "sell" on Carnival Corp (CCL.N) (CCL.L).

That growth "will further pressure results and Street estimates will continue to come down," he said.

The maiden voyage of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise liner, is slated for early December.

(Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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