Investors looking to double down on gaming stocks should look for rising earnings guidance when casino operators release first-quarter earnings this week, or take profits and find a new sector to bet on.

Optimism and bullishness has reigned supreme since Caesars Entertainment ( CZR), which reports on Thursday, raised guidance on March 10 . In the five weeks since, earnings estimates and analyst ratings on many gaming stocks have been rising along with share prices. Through last Friday's close, the Dow Jones Casino Index was up 23.2% year to date, the fourth-best performing sector of the market and far better than the S&P 500.

But with optimism high, investors may opt to sell on the earnings news, especially with companies that have already guided higher, and shift their investments toward sectors where valuations aren't so tight. MGM Mirage ( MGG), the world's largest gaming company, and Harrah's Entertainment Group ( HET) are set to release on Wednesday, giving investors their first look at the large-cap gaming space.

Judging from Tuesday's first-quarter earnings release from Station Casinos ( STN), gaming stocks could be in for even better news ahead. Station, which caters to the Las Vegas locals' market, beat analyst estimates and guided higher for 2004.

The initial market reaction to Station's earnings indicated investors were willing to buy on the good news. Station was up $1.72, or 3.6%, to $48.99 Tuesday on more than 800,000 shares traded, nearly double its average daily volume of 422,000.

"Given the gaming revenue results reported thus far, we suggest that there is significant potential for first-quarter earnings to surprise to the upside across the board," said William Schmitt, gaming analyst at CIBC World Markets.

Betting on the Economy

With operators already reporting strong monthly results in the first quarter, gaming earnings are starting to accelerate as the economic recovery appears sustainable. But this week, investors should look for proof of the trend, in the form of rising guidance or positive comments on room rates, group bookings and occupancy levels.

Great Expectations for Gaming
With one exception, gaming operators are expected to show large gains in earnings per share.
Company Release Date 2004 Q1
EPS Est.
2003 Q1
EPS Act.
% Change EPS Est.
Station Casinos Tuesday $0.51* $0.23 +122%*
Harrah's Wednesday 0.66 0.74 -11
MGM Mirage Wednesday 0.46 0.39 +18
Caesars Thursday 0.18 0.14 +29
IGT Thursday 0.32 0.24 +33
Boyd Gaming Thursday 0.29 0.28 +4
*Actual result Source: Thomson One Analytics, TSC Research

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