Private Equity’s Newest Bet

2 Oct

Harrah’s Entertainment (HET) shares got a big boost today, up about 14%, having received an $81/share buyout proposal from two private-equity firms. That price values Harrah’s at 20 times forward earnings and about 10 times operating cash flow. At market close, the shares were still trading about 7% under the deal price. Does the market not think this deal will consummate?

It’s a cash deal, which means that the newly private firm will be saddled with large amounts of new debt (Harrah’s market cap at the deal price is $15 billion) while assuming over $10 billion of existing debt. Interest expense currently totals around 25% of EBITDA. My primary worry in the near-term is that adding significantly to its debt load would limit its flexibility during a downturn.

True, at this point Harrah’s generates a healthy amount of operating cash flow that could service additional debt, but in recent years that cash flow has been used to fund considerable capital expenditures. Could more debt meaningfully restrict their ability, for instance, to develop their properties on the Vegas Strip to better compete with MGM’s upcoming City Center?

Typically, these private equity deals work out the best when a firm can slash costs, wringing out extra cash to pay down the new debt. Yet this could be detrimental to Harrah’s, where capital spending is vital not only to maintain its growth track, but also to keep its casinos relevant and its competitive position in place.

It’ll be interesting to watch. With insiders owning over 4% of the shares, shareholders can bet the board has their interests in mind. Feel like a gamble? Go long Harrah’s shares and bet the deal goes through.


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