Saturday, June 25, 2011

Casinos - A Moneymaking Machine!

One of the things I find interesting about casinos is how they expose people's odd ideas about what makes a good stock purchase.

In popular conception, the casino is the ultimate licence to print money. You can't fail! The house always wins! Suckers come in, spend money on gambling, suckers walk out, profit!

Because of this, so the reasoning goes, you should always want to own the casino. The best approximation is to own the casino's stock.

For some reason, people don't think this way about, say, the box factory. The reasoning, however, is just as (in)applicable. Wood pulp comes in, boxes get made, suckers come in, spend money on boxes, suckers walk out, profit!

The reality is that casinos are a business, just like any other. Sure, once you get people playing, the odds are in favour of the house. But if there's free entry into the casino market, there's going to be a lot of casinos cropping up to compete for gamblers. And to get them to come to you, you have to spend money - on subsidised hotel rooms and buffets, on lavish decoration, on complimentary drinks etc. All of these things cost money. And as long as you're making abnormal profits, new casinos are likely to keep entering until you're only making normal profits.

To give you a sense of this, let's compare some real casinos and box factorys. Let's start with the most basic measures of profitability. We'll compare a typical Casino (Las Vegas Sands corporation (LVS) with a typical box factory (International Paper (IP).

According to Yahoo, the box factory had a return on assets of 5.34%, and a return on equity of 16.38%. The Casino, by contrast, had a return of assets of 4.78%, and a return on equity of 13.55%.

Not exactly a slam dunk for the casino, is it?

But there's a bigger misconception here - most people don't make a distinction between a good company and a good stock. In the language of the common man, you're better off buying a crappy but underpriced company than a solid but overpriced company. Stock prices only react to news. If everyone already knows that Google is going to be an awesome company in the future, you'll have to pay extra for that fact now. And when it in fact becomes awesome, your stock price won't go up, because people had already taken that into account. The stock price will only go up if Google turns out to be an even better company than people thought.

In finance, one way to think about this idea is comparisons of price and asset value. Price-to-Book Value of Equity measures the ratio of the share price to the accounting value of equity. Price-to-Earnings measures the ratio of the share price to the previous year's earnings. Both of these capture a rough sense of how "cheap" or "expensive" the company is.* (I hope finance students will forgive my hand-waving here)

By this measure, our box factory has a price-to-book ratio of 1.73, and a price-to-earnings ratio of 10.94. The casino has a price-to-book ratio of 4.20, and a price-to-earnings ratio of 49.48. By both measures , the box factory is cheap and the casino is expensive.

According to no less an authority than Fama and French (1992) , this predicts that the box factory will also have higher stock returns in the future.

And this is in part due to the basic point at the start. Precisely because everyone thinks that casinos are a money-making machine, they bid up the stock price, making them a lousy purchase and forecasting low stock returns. And because the box factory isn't exciting to people, it has a lower price, making it a better purchase and forecasting high stock returns.

The moral of the story is that you should be wary of pop-culture perceptions of what makes a good stock purchase. And if you need a rule of thumb, boring is better.

*Fama and French claim that book-to-market could also be a measure of risk, and it might be. In my anecdotal experience, if there's someone other than Fama or French who deep-down truly believes this, I'm yet to meet them.

No comments:

Post a Comment