There is huge pent-up demand for hedonistic holidays like cruising the Caribbean. Stocks like Royal Caribbean (NYSE:RCL) have remained stuck in the market’s drydock waiting for an all-clear. Paradoxically, omicron could set RCL stock free to sail the seas again.
While the omicron variant of Covid-19 is very scary, especially to the unvaccinated, it’s possible this “fifth wave” of infection could be the last. If that is true, cruise stocks could be ready to lift off.
In the pre-pandemic year of 2019, Royal Caribbean, which also owns the Celebrity and Azamara lines, did $11 billion in business and brought nearly $1.9 billion of that revenue to the net income line. What can investors expect if it does that again?
To survive the pandemic Royal Caribbean, which while based in Miami has ships registered in Panama, the Bahamas and Malta, took on a ton of debt. Long-term debt, meant to buy giant cruise liners, was $9 billion in 2019. By last September it was about $20 billion, half meant to just keep boats afloat. The bonds are classed as “junk,” and a recent sale carried an interest rate of 5.38%.
This represents an enormous strain on cash flow, most of which is put to either paying on or paying off that debt. Between $376 million in negative investment cash flow and $180 million in negative financing cash flow, Royal Caribbean had a negative cash flow of $961 million in the third quarter.
The business, however, is coming back to life.
There was $454 million in revenue during that September quarter, up from $51 million in the June quarter. Royal Caribbean also reported that bookings for 2022 were back around historical levels, pricing “remains strong” and that the company expects to be profitable again in 2022.
It sounds like the company is already on the right path.
The CDC vs. Cruising
While customers and politicians have been rooting for the cruise lines, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been warning them away.
The CDC recently elevated its warnings about cruising, telling people Dec. 30 to avoid all cruise travel. The industry has lost patience with the agency and, given the fact that passengers are still boarding cruise ships, so have many customers.
But the CDC might have a point here. Two Royal Caribbean ships are now being used to quarantine sick crew. One of its recent cruises was dubbed a super-spreader event. A January sailing out of Hong Kong has been cancelled due to an outbreak on its current cruise.
The Prospects for RCL Stock
Royal Caribbean stock was volatile in 2021. It peaked three times at over $95/share but also bottomed out three times at about $70. Overall, however, it is up 10% over the last 12 months. That’s still well short of the 29% gain in the S&P 500, but there’s an enormous amount of potential energy for 2022.
Sentiment has washed out. There are only five analysts left following the stock, and none are saying you should buy it. Their 12-month price target is below the current price. Like the other big cruise lines, Carnival (NYSE:CCL) and Norwegian Cruise Lines (NASDAQ:NCLH), the stock has become an early warning system of pandemic hope and fear. Shares plunged in November and have been rising unsteadily since.
Given its relative success in handling debt, now less than twice its normal operating revenue, RCL stock has been the favorite play among the cruise lines. Pricewise, Carnival is up only 3% over the last year, and Norwegian is down 11%.
The Bottom Line on RCL Stock
Cruise stocks today are the best way to play the omicron variant. They are a way to take the pandemic’s “temperature” in the markets. If you’re scared, stay away. If you’re confident, jump in and speculate.
For people who have been vaccinated and boosted against Covid-19, and who don’t have underlying health problems, cruising already seems safe. For the unvaccinated, and for children whose vaccinations are not yet approved, the pandemic goes on.
Since the start of 2022, RCL stock is up 7% and was still rising on Jan. 5. That’s not just good news for Royal Caribbean investors. It means hope for the 2022 economy.
On the date of publication, Dana Blankenhorn held no positions in any company mentioned in this story. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a financial journalist since 1978. His latest book is Technology’s Big Bang: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Moore’s Law, essays on technology available at the Amazon Kindle store. Follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn.