The Proper Care & Feeding of the Golden Goose
Under the new paradigm of declining economic conditions across a broad spectrum of consumer spending, casinos face a unique challenge in addressing how they both maintain profitability while also remaining competitive. These factors are further complicated within the commercial gaming sector with increasing tax rates, and within the Indian gaming sector by self imposed contributions to tribal general funds, and/or per capita distributions, in addition to a growing trend in state imposed fees.
Determining how much to “render unto Caesar,” while reserving the requisite funds to maintain market share, grow market penetration and improve profitability, is a daunting task that must be well planned and executed.
It is within this context and the author’s perspective that includes time and grade hands-on experience in the development and management of these types of investments, that this article relates ways in which to plan and prioritize a casino reinvestment strategy.
Although it would seem axiomatic not to cook the goose that lays the golden eggs, it is amazing how little thought is oft times given to its on-going proper care and feeding. With the advent of a new casino, developers/tribal councils, investors & financiers are rightfully anxious to reap the rewards and there is a tendency not to allocate a sufficient amount of the profits towards asset maintenance & enhancement. Thereby begging the question of just how much of the profits should be allocated to reinvestment, and towards what goals.
Inasmuch as each project has its own particular set of circumstances, there are no hard and fast rules. For the most part, many of the major commercial casino operators do not distribute net profits as dividends to their stockholders, but rather reinvest them in improvements to their existing venues while also seeking new locations. Some of these programs are also funded through additional debt instruments and/or equity stock offerings. The lowered tax rates on corporate dividends will likely shift the emphasis of these financing methods, while still maintaining the core business prudence of on-going reinvestment.
As a group, and prior to the current economic conditions, the publicly held companies had a net profit ratio (earnings before income taxes & depreciation) that averages 25% of income after deduction of the gross revenue taxes and interest payments. On average, almost two thirds of the remaining profits are utilized for reinvestment and asset replacement.
Casino operations in low gross gaming tax rate jurisdictions are more readily able to reinvest in their properties, thereby further enhancing revenues that will eventually benefit the tax base. New Jersey is a good example, as it mandates certain reinvestment allocations, as a revenue stimulant. Other states, such as Illinois and Indiana with higher effective rates, run the risk of reducing reinvestment that may eventually erode the ability of the casinos to grow market demand penetrations, especially as neighboring states become more competitive. Moreover, effective management can generate higher available profit for reinvestment, stemming from both efficient operations and favorable borrowing & equity offerings.
How a casino enterprise decides to allocate its casino profits is a critical element in determining its long-term viability, and should be an integral aspect of the initial development strategy. While short term loan amortization/debt prepayment programs may at first seem desirable so as to quickly come out from under the obligation, they can also sharply reduce the ability to reinvest/expand on a timely basis. This is also true for any profit distribution, whether to investors or in the case of Indian gaming projects, distributions to a tribe’s general fund for infrastructure/per capita payments.
Moreover, many lenders make the mistake of requiring excessive debt service reserves and place restrictions on reinvestment or further leverage which can seriously limit a given project’s ability to maintain its competitiveness and/or meet available opportunities.
Whereas we are not advocating that all profits be plowed-back into the operation, we are encouraging the consideration of an allocation program that takes into account the “real” costs of maintaining the asset and maximizing its impact.
There are three essential areas of capital allocation that should be considered, as shown below and in order of priority.
1. Maintenance and Replacement
2. Cost Savings
3. Revenue Enhancement/Growth
The first two priorities are easy enough to appreciate, in that they have a direct affect on maintaining market positioning and improving profitability, whereas, the third is somewhat problematical in that it has more of an indirect affect that requires an understanding of the market dynamics and greater investment risk. All aspects that are herewith further discussed.