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Is Harrah's Getting Ready to go Public Again?

By Howard Stutz, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 13, 2010 -Business is like a poker game. Sometimes you hit a flush on the river and other times you take a bad beat.

Harrah's Entertainment has experienced both ends of the table.

One of the casino operator's best business decisions was to buy the World Series of Poker from the Binion family at a fire sale in 2004.

The tournament is one of Harrah's most profitable ventures. This year's event is expected to shatter 2009's records of 60,875 players and $174 million in prize money.

A $25 billion gamble to go private in January 2008, however, hasn't worked out quite as well. The transaction, in which two private equity firms spent $17.7 billion to acquire Harrah's, left the company with a massive debt.

The new owners planned to sell casinos and redevelop the east side of the Strip without having their hands tied by stockholders.

Potential casino deals never panned out, the economy tanked and real estate values nosedived. Harrah's wouldn't part with casinos at lowball prices.

One analyst thinks Harrah's is getting ready to go public again.

Union Gaming Group principal Bill Lerner said a transaction by Harrah's owners may signal a quicker return to public markets. Apollo Management and TPG Capital, joined by hedge fund Paulson & Co., exchanged $1.12 billion in debt for 15.6 percent of the company's equity.

"This transaction is tantamount to an equity offering," Lerner told clients.

He suggested, however, that the effort could get derailed if certain goals are not met.

Macau is one of those challenges.

Harrah's spent $577.7 million in 2007 to buy a 175-acre golf course in Macau near the Cotai Strip. The company hoped to place a Caesars casino on the site.

The government has no plans for new gaming concessions beyond the current six. Harrah's has talked with Melco-PBL about a joint venture, but any deal is dead thanks to New Jersey gaming regulators.

Atlantic City authorities said MGM Mirage's Macau partner, Hong Kong businesswoman Pansy Ho, was unsuitable because of her father's alleged Chinese crime triad connections. Her brother, Lawrence Ho, is Melco's chief executive. If Pansy Ho is unsuitable, so is Lawrence Ho.

MGM Mirage is unloading its 50 percent stake in Atlantic City's Borgata and some vacant land holdings, a far easier task than it would be for Harrah's to sell four Atlantic City Casinos.

Lerner said Harrah's faces other issues before it can go public again.

We'll know soon if Harrah's is drawing dead.

Howard Stutz's Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz.

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