| LOS ANGELES/HONG KONG
LOS ANGELES/HONG KONG Las Vegas Sands Corp (LVS.N), owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, posted much worse-than-expected quarterly earnings, hit by lower profits at casinos in its key Asian markets that had previously helped offset flagging U.S. revenue.
Adelson, the most active donor in U.S. Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign, has benefited from the company's sizable footprint in Asia compared with rivals such as Wynn Resorts (WYNN.O) and MGM Resorts (MGM.N), but global economic malaise is now taking a toll in Macau and Singapore.
The latest results from the company's Marina Bay Sands property in Singapore were a "substantial miss," Wells Fargo analysts said, noting a clear slowdown in growth. Initial earnings from Sands' new Macau casino that opened in April, the Sands Cotai Central, were also weaker than anticipated due to subdued appetite from Chinese gamblers.
"Macau growth is slowing down a little bit and there is increased competition," said Gregg Klein, an analyst with Imperial Capital. "Sands Cotai has taken longer to ramp up than anyone expected, including them."
Las Vegas Sands, best known for its Italian-themed Venetian resort in Las Vegas and Macau, reported second-quarter net income of $240.6 million, or 29 cents a share, down from $367.6 million or 45 cents a share a year earlier.
That was well below analysts' expectations of 60 cents a share in a survey by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The news sent shares of the gambling company, the world's biggest by market capitalization, down 5.8 percent or $2.19 to $35.32 in after-hours trade in the United States. Shares of Sands China (1928.HK), Adelson's Macau unit, fell to a seven-month low, down 6.5 percent at $20.80 by midday in Hong Kong.
The company said its "hold," or money won from gamblers, fell at its casinos in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore. Higher provisions for money owed to the casino and legal fees also ate into the company's profitability for the first half of the year.
Adelson acknowledged that the results did not meet his expectations but said it was premature to label the quarter's performance as a trend.
"One quarter does not a trend make. Anybody who thinks that the cultural habits of the Asian people is changing because of ... one reduction in the hold, even though it amounted to over $100 million at the top line, anybody who thinks that this is a change of culture is just missing the boat," he said on a conference call.
Net income for Sands China, which operates four casinos in Macau, the only place in China where casino-gambling is legal, fell 40 percent to $160.5 million due to higher-than-expected opening expenses at its Cotai Central and a $100.8 million impairment charge on two land parcels.
Growth in Macau, which is highly reliant on wealthy Chinese gamblers, has slowed significantly in the past three months due to lower visitation and diminished spending appetite.
Earnings in Singapore, which typically attracts more premium-end customers who spend more, were weighed down by Sands' higher provisions for extended gambling credit to customers.
In Singapore, most of the credit for Sands' VIP, or high-roller business, comes directly from the company. By contrast, junkets, or middle men, bear the credit risk in Macau.
"In Singapore the company has to face the VIP customers directly and use their own reserves to deal with it. With direct VIP customers, of course the risk is larger," said Victor Yip, an analyst at UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.
NO SYSTEMIC PROBLEM
Las Vegas Sands executives said business at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands remained in good shape and that receivables had grown from a prudency standpoint. The company said it remains very cash-rich, and expects to return more than $800 million in cash to shareholders as dividends.
"Any slower collection issues we have encountered are really specific to isolated cases as opposed to a systemic problem across the portfolio of accounts," said Robert Goldstein, executive vice president and president of Global Gaming Operations, referring to Sands.
Fitch Ratings said it revised its 2012 Macau industry revenue growth forecast to 10-12 percent from 15 percent, "reflecting our more cautious view with respect to the near-term impact of the slowdown in China. This is our second downward revision over the last couple of months."
Wynn Resorts reported weaker-than-expected second-quarter earnings last week due to a poor performance at its Macau and Vegas properties. MGM Resorts (MGM.N) and local Macau players such as Galaxy Entertainment (0027.HK) will report in August.
Elevated legal expenses have also negatively impacted earnings. Adelson has had to spend millions for lawyers working on a range of cases that include defending allegations from a former Macau casino executive that he personally approved prostitution at his companies' properties in the Chinese gambling enclave.
(Editing by Chris Gallagher)