Why is the hedge fund owner of America’s third-largest newspaper chain investing millions in Las Vegas gaming concerns?
By Julie Reynolds
I recently wrote about Alden Global Capital’s multi-million-dollar spring shopping spree as the worldwide pandemic unfolded and as its MNG newspaper chain (formerly Digital First Media) unleashed across-the-board layoffs, buyouts and furloughs.
I focused on Alden’s interest in buying stock in more media companies in the first quarter of 2020, which ended March 31.
Separate of media, Alden has suddenly steered in a new direction, investing in casino chains and gambling equipment companies. To be sure, Alden has, for a few years, held just over 2 million shares in the Spanish gambling company Codere, but this year marks the first time I’ve found Alden dabbling in the U.S. gaming industry.
Here’s how Alden’s publicly traded stock investments break down:
Media $157.3 million
Banking and finance $61.8 million
Gambling and casinos $55.7 million
Airlines and travel $29.9 million
Misc: Firearms, billboards $12 million
Alden President Heath Freeman recently claimed in a letter to Illinois Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin that Alden has a deep commitment to local news.
“Alden is committed to local news coverage and to enabling local papers to serve their communities well into the future,” Freeman wrote.
But the hedge fund’s latest Securities and Exchange Commission filing demonstrates that Alden is still investing hundreds of millions in industries completely unrelated to media, while its newsrooms struggle to survive. In dollars, less than half of its portfolio shows investment in media.
Alden’s publicly traded U.S. investments, 1st quarter of 2020
Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc.
Las Vegas Sands
MGM Resorts International
Slot machines and other gambling technology
Scientific Games Corp.
International Game Technology
NOTE: All of the above firms are headquartered in Las Vegas or have offices there.
Delta Air Lines
Booking Holdings (Booking.com and other travel sites)
The SEC filing doesn’t indicate when in the first quarter Alden made these investments, so it’s hard to speculate what its motive is. If the stocks were purchased later in the quarter, when share prices were lower, it might have been a classic move to buy low and sell high later on – presumably when Vegas and the travel industry recover.
Nearly all of the gambling firms have had a similar trajectory: their stocks topped out on February 20, then began a steep slide to March 18, when they hit bottom. Since then, they’ve begun a slow, jagged rise, but have only made it halfway back to their mid-February high points.
The chart below shows the typical dive all these stocks took in March.
If Alden bought these stocks on March 18, it would have, in some cases, roughly doubled its money by May 18 — a smart move as casinos like MGM’s Bellagio begin to open up. In fact, many of these casino companies have fared better than real estate overall.
But if the investments were made before late February, that’s another story. Alden basically would have lost its shirt, at least over the short term.
Of course, the betting money says even if Alden does profit from these deals, it won’t reinvest a dime in its local newspapers.
Despite the existential threat its newspapers are experiencing, it’s clear that Alden has been investing lots of cash into the stock market – not local news. Its total publicly traded stock holdings as of March 31 were $316.8 million. That’s an increase of $124 million from the $193 million in assets it managed on December 31.
It’s impossible to tell from the SEC report how much Alden paid for the stocks, since the report only lists the firms’ stock prices as of March 31.
Alden has been buying up hundreds of millions’ worth of stocks while it has failed to make even minimal investments in its newspapers
Compared to its media and financial services purchases, which I’ll analyze in a minute, the gambling investments are smaller: as of March 31, they show a total value of $55.7 million, compared to the $157.3 million Alden holds in media stocks ($93.6 million of that is Tribune stock) and $61.8 million in the banking and investment industries. Its travel-related investments total $29.9 million.
Note that Alden’s largest holding, MNG newspapers, is not included in the totals because it’s not publicly traded and therefore its value is unknown.
Alden also picked up these news stocks from the following companies in the financial services and banking sector:
Ares Capital Group
Bank of America
Goldman Sachs Group
JP Morgan Chase and Co.
Oaktree Specialty Lending Co.
PNC Financial Services Group
TPG Specialty Lending
Wells Fargo Co.
These stocks all took very similar nosedives as the gaming and travel stocks, steeply declining in March. The chart below shows the abrupt drop:
Where did these millions come from?
The sheer number of stocks (34) in Alden’s early 2020 portfolio is a big switch from recent years, when Alden gradually scaled back to investing in fewer than a half-dozen publicly traded companies at a time.
Last year, for example, it held onto investments in companies like Peabody Energy (sold off in early 2020) and the parent company of Smith & Wesson firearms. It made large buys of stock in Gannett newspapers, the parent company of GateHouse Media and Tribune Publishing as part of media takeover efforts. (It’s still holding onto some of its Gannett stock and all of its Tribune stock as it positions for a takeover or Tribune-MNG merger soon.)
It’s also not clear in the SEC filing where the money came from to make these stock purchases. The Gannett and Tribune buys were large enough to require Alden to disclose that the Gannett purchase was made with money extracted from MNG Enterprises, while the Tribune purchase was made from Alden funds.
Last year, both the Gannett buy and the purchase of roughly $50 million in GateHouse stock were made through an Alden shell company called Strategic Investment Opportunities that Alden established in 2016 to extract cash from its MNG newspapers.
We don’t know, however, if the casino, banking and travel purchases were made with the newspapers’ monies.
What is clear, though, is that Alden has been buying up hundreds of millions’ worth of stocks while it has failed to make even minimal investments in its newspapers — and as demand for local news is at a new high because of the global pandemic.
Indeed, it is still gutting its newsrooms and ad sales and circulation departments as fast as ever. Which by my last calculation was roughly three and a half times the rate of other news chains.
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