Sheldon Adelson has left the Las Vegas Sands Corp. with a strategic legacy of unrivaled success and a management team more than capable of carrying it forward through uncertain times.
This isn’t expected to change, not internally, despite the multibillionaire’s death after a long battle with lymphatic cancer. Adelson died January 11 at the age of 87.
Looking outward, though, the world that Adelson’s global resort powerhouse was accustomed to bestriding like a titan has changed vastly.
In that larger world, Sheldon Adelson was best known as the most prolific individual contributor to political campaigns in U.S. history. He was bent on leveraging his fortune—he was 19th on the Forbes 400 at last count—to advance the cause of Zionism, champion conservative causes and keep unions out of his Las Vegas hotels.
While most analysts believe that Adelson’s death will not fundamentally change the strategy and direction of Las Vegas Sands, it couldn’t have come at a less opportune time. The worst pandemic in a century has shaken the foundations of the conventions and meetings trade upon which Adelson erected his gaming empire more than 20 years ago.
Bear in mind, the notion that you could sell hotel rooms on the Las Vegas Strip for hundreds of dollars a night was unheard-of as late as the 1990s. Then Adelson proved you could. His was an extraordinary vision𑁋as he once put in his colorful way, he had the “adventure gene.” Its power was such that the rest of corporate gaming in Las Vegas reinvented itself around it.
Now, it’s in tatters.
That Adelson was terribly ill was known publicly since before the Covid-19 crisis hit at the end of 2019. It’s not known how involved he was with day-to-day operations when Bloomberg revealed 10 months later that LVS was looking to get out from under the wreckage.
The story, which had it that talks were under way to sell the Venetian and Palazzo on the Strip, came less than a week after LVS reported an operating loss of $610 million for the three months that ended September 30 on net revenues that were down 82 percent to $586 million compared to the same period in 2019.
This was a huge improvement over the $985 million in red ink reported in the second quarter. But clearly something had changed. It may have come from the board of directors, perhaps from longtime President and COO Rob Goldstein, Adelson’s hand-picked No. 2 and his successor as interim chairman and CEO. Quite possibly it came from Adelson himself. In any case, as far as LVS is concerned, the Strip𑁋which constitutes a mere 15 percent of the company’s total revenues and 10 percent of EBITDA𑁋has become expendable.
As Alidad Tash, a Macau-based consultant and former advisor to LVS, put it at the time: “Adelson has three areas he makes money, Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau. If I have to sell an asset to pay for supporting the other two, if I have three horses and I need to kill one to feed the other two, it would be Las Vegas. It just doesn’t generate as much.”
The $6 billion Bloomberg said the company was asking, including the Sands Expo and Convention Center, implied at the time a not unreasonable multiple of 12 times’ 2019 pre-tax earnings. In other words, a deal could make sense.
But for who?
As Bank of America stated at the time, “The pool of potential buyers who can write US$6 billion cheques for any real estate asset is typically small, but post-Covid, and with negative earnings (currently), we think it is even smaller and is coupled with much less favorable capital markets.”
One scenario advanced by Hong Kong-based brokerage Sanford Bernstein, among others, is a sale-leaseback with a gaming REIT, and it was reported early in November that both MGM Growth Properties and Caesars’ VICI Properties were crunching the numbers. Since then, reports indicate that Hard Rock International and Tilman Fertitta’s Golden Nugget have also initiated conversations.
“We are not sure how much interest from strategic buyers there might be given the high absolute price, other reportedly available assets on the Strip, and the unique positioning of the properties,” said Morgan Stanley’s Thomas Allen. “However, given the potential for a cheaper OpCo price through a sale-leaseback and historically relatively steady EBITDA, there could be other interest.”
As Adelson was fond of saying, “A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
There’s a lot LVS could do with six of those billions, like pay down some of its $3.97 billion in debt, restart the payment of dividends, which were suspended due to the pandemic, and recycle capital back into its higher ROI holdings in Macau and Singapore, where some $5.5 billion worth of redevelopment and expansion work is under way and where the company’s invaluable Macau concession is set to expire in 18 months.
There are potentially greener pastures in the U.S., New York City being at the top of the list. The company is lobbying heavily there and has hired former New York Governor David Patterson to lead the campaign. LVS has hired lobbyist in Texas, always a potentially profitable location. And the company has also eyed an Atlanta casino as a game changer.
LVS also was viewed as a leading contender to develop a destination resort in Japan. Adelson famously said he’d spend $10 billion to get in, then the Covid crisis changed everything, and LVS announced last year that it was backing out, citing regulatory concerns. Yet, Japan remains one of the most potentially lucrative gaming markets in the world, and it’s been suggested the company could revisit its stance should conditions evolve more to its liking or Tokyo emerge as a candidate for a casino.
Then again, it’s possible LVS may prefer to exit the U.S. entirely with a view to rebranding itself as a “Chinese” company headquartered in Macau, where it makes most of its money.
Up until last year, LVS, like Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International, were able to fall back on a billion Chinese with an unquenchable appetite for gambling. But in the Covid era that, too, is less bankable than it used to be. For years, China’s government has been wrestling with chronic capital flight. Five years ago, the Communist Party launched a nationwide crackdown from which Macau’s vaunted VIP market has never fully recovered. Last year, Beijing called out gambling-related currency outflows as a national security risk, raising troubling questions about how much of it will be tolerated going forward for the sake of enriching a handful of junketeers and six casino companies, three of them owned by Americans.
“It’s definitely not fun to be in a ‘storm eye,’ positioned amidst a variety of disputes/tensions, both domestic and foreign,” as one Macau observer told industry news site Inside Asian Gaming. “What used to be ‘advantages’ during normal times can be harmful when the circumstances have changed substantially.”
There could be something of this underlying the about-face that surfaced in a recent Bloomberg News report that LVS was in discussions with potential partners to enter the sports betting business, a move that would take the company down the internet gambling path which Adelson so vehemently opposed.
Nineteen states now offer sports betting and six more have approved it and are awaiting implementation. Experts see the market approaching $10 billion over the next five years.
“There’s a real pressure to make sure you’re in position to cash in on the pretty substantial thirst for online gambling,” Chris Grove, an analyst at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, told Bloomberg. “A lot of companies were caught by surprise by the kind of explosion it’s received.”
The news was enough to bump LVS’ stock 2.8 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.
How much of this is guided by Goldstein’s hand is not known. As it stands, the company’s future still resides with the 57 percent of the stock controlled by Adelson’s wife, 75-year-old Miriam Adelson, and several family trusts. Adelson’s son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, is the company’s chief financial officer and has reportedly been groomed to take over the top spot when Goldstein decides to call it a career.
Miriam’s influence has never been far from the scene, showing up both in Adelson’s views on Middle East politics and his opposition to internet gambling. An Israeli-born physician specializing in addiction and substance abuse, she and Adelson met after one of Adelson’s adopted sons by his first marriage died of a drug overdose.
She and her husband were the largest donors to Trump’s presidential campaign, a largesse that was rewarded during Trump’s first year in office when he reversed decades of U.S. policy and moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In 2018, Trump bestowed on Miriam the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The question now becomes how much influence she will seek to wield over the future of Las Vegas Sands.