Gaming stocks have had a fabulous start to 2013, with each of the top five publicly traded U.S. companies beating the S&P 500. Caesars Entertainment is leading the pack after announcing the spinoff of its "growth assets," and the four companies with operations in Macau have made slow and steady gains.

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The steady economic recovery in the U.S. has helped MGM Resorts , Las Vegas Sands , and Wynn Resorts turn Las Vegas from a drag to a positive line on the income statement. But for each, Macau continues to be the most important.

In Macau, Cotai continues to take share, which is why MGM and Wynn are giving up share to Melco Crown and Las Vegas Sands. With all of these dynamics playing out, the big question now is: What's the best bet for investors?

The best value in gaming
As always, gaming stocks aren't just about whose revenues are growing, it's about what you pay for those revenues. Based on the numbers below, Caesars is trading for a higher enterprise value/EBITDA multiple than MGM, which eliminates it right off the bat. Caesars is struggling in regional gaming and has $19 billion of debt to contend with, so I just don't like the stock at this price.

Operationally speaking, Melco Crown and Las Vegas Sands are in the best position, with a majority of revenue and EBITDA coming from Cotai. Both will continue to grow until MGM and Wynn are able to finish resorts that are slated for 2016.

The problem is that both Las Vegas Sands and Melco Crown trade for 40% premiums to Wynn and MGM, so investors have priced in a lot of growth for both companies.

Company 

EBITDA (TTM)

Net Debt

Market Cap

EV/EBITDA

Las Vegas Sands

$3.89 billion

$7.44 billion

$48.52 billion

14.4

Wynn Resorts

$1.64 billion

$2.63 billion

$14.34 billion

10.4

Melco Crown

$951 million

$213 million

$13.51 billion

14.4

MGM Resorts

$2.06 billion

$12.42 billion

$7.59 billion

9.7

Caesars Entertainment

$1.92 billion

$19.18 billion

$1.97 billion

11.0

Source: Yahoo! Finance and company earnings releases. TTM = trailing 12 months.

To put these values into some context, if Wynn's and MGM's numbers didn't change for the next three years (before expanding onto Cotai), Las Vegas Sands and Melco Crown would have to grow EBITDA at about 13% annually to reach a 10 EB/EBITDA ratio. This is very possible and even likely given the trends in gaming right now, but when we get three years down the road, the game changes.

The big difference in the four Macau companies is the scale of their growth opportunities. Las Vegas Sands already has five major resorts worldwide (not including Four Seasons Macau), and when the Parisian is built it will only increase the company's percentage of major resorts by 20%. Wynn and Melco Crown have just two major resorts worldwide, and another will increase their total by 50%. So, it's easy to see that the impact of one additional resort will be bigger for Melco Crown and Wynn.

MGM is also diluted because of its massive U.S. operations, but unlike the others it has a lot of financial leverage, goosing returns for shareholders. This is a lot to contend with, and there's no clear-cut winner, unlike in years past.

And the winner is...
The best stock in gaming really depends on your time frame. Gaming stocks can swing wildly from month to month, and Macau's gaming numbers will drive stocks short-term despite the new projects I highlight above driving them long-term.

Over the next year I think Las Vegas Sands will be the best stock in gaming because it will continue to generate more revenue from Sands Cotai Central and will benefit from the trends toward Cotai.

If your holding period is longer -- like mine is -- I think Wynn is the best bet because its new Cotai resort could easily double revenue and EBITDA. The problem is, it's a three-year wait to see the financial impact, and you never know when the market will start pricing the resort into expectations. If you're feeling extra-bullish, MGM Resorts adds a lot of leverage and its stock could easily be the best performer if Macau continues to grow and the U.S. economy improves. MGM is the highest risk but has the highest upside as well.

Foolish bottom line
All gaming stocks are currently on the expensive side and I would be a cautious buyer right now. Caesars and Melco Crown are way overpriced in my opinion, but the other three are about equally valued. If I had to pick one for the next year it would be Las Vegas Sands, but there's a choice for everyone's time frame and the biggest factor to remember is that high valuation doesn't have any of these stocks screaming "buy" right now.

How fast can Las Vegas Sands grow?
For many companies, successfully capitalizing on a booming Chinese economy is like winning the jackpot. That's indeed the case for gaming company Las Vegas Sands, which made a big bet on Macau gaming about a decade ago that's paid off in spades. The company is now looking to spread its empire further, but will it be able to replicate its prior successes? Learn about all these opportunities, and the risks they pose, in our premium report on Las Vegas Sands. Be sure to claim your copy today by clicking here.

The article The Top Stock in Gaming originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of Wynn Resorts. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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