the evolution of Macau gambling

an old fashioned winter here

We woke up to see  two foot snow boulders blocking our driveway this morning, a product of the second of three snowstorms hitting the northeast US this week.

Macau gambling stocks sold off sharply in Hong Kong overnight on reports that the year-on-year revenue gains are starting to shrink in percentage terms.  I find this a little weird.  Of course the comparisons are narrowing.  We’re cycling past the period of weakness surrounding the change in Communist Party leadership in later 2011 – early 2012.  Who didn’t know this?  In particular, who didn’t know this when the stocks were shooting through the roof less than a month ago?

Anyway, on to today’s topic, the evolution of Macau gambling.

— When Macau was a Portuguese colony, it had a single monopoly casino operator, Stanley Ho.  Although I’ve visited a lot of Asian casinos, I never made it to Macau.  Friends told me operations were dull, potentially dangerous and with a strong influence from the Chinese underworld.  …sort of  like Las Vegas in the very early days.

–When Macau reverted to Chinese rule, the new government decided to remake its gambling industry into a Pacific clone of present-day Las Vegas.  To do so, it invited in WYNN–and later LVS–among others, to set up shop.

–The early focus was on the high-roller gambling niche.  This required the least infrastructure.  It tapped an already existing clientele that was able to sidestep the considerable administrative hassle involved at that time in leaving the mainland.  The government intention was always to create a large mass-market gambling result in the SAR, however.

–The high roller business isn’t as easy as it might seem.  Clients are typically highly skilled gamblers, who lose, at high stakes baccarat  (the dominant game in Macau), around 3% of the money they bet.  However, they require perks while they’re gambling.  The intermediaries who steer them to a given casino (sometimes the high rollers themselves) also collect commissions for doing so.  The commissions can amount to half the pre-amenities take by the casino.

At one point, a potentially ruinous bidding war broke out in Macau, as less successful entrants sought to “buy” high roller business by conceding virtually all their profits to junket operators who brought the VIPs.  The government stepped in, though, and set limits on commission payments, saying its goal was to ensure that all the casinos remained profitable.

–During the past year or so, Macau reached the tipping point where there were enough hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment to foster a mass market tourist business.  There were also much better transportation links (even better ones to come) and a much more relaxed attitude by Beijing toward travel to Macau.

The important thing to note is that mass market gambling operates by different rules.  It’s much more a “normal” resort hotel business.  Negotiation with the client is at a minimum.  Very little personal attention is required.  Gamblers bet less–but they’re generally not very skilled, so they can lose 20% – 30% of the money they wager.  Therefore, allocating casino space to them can still be very lucrative–especially so for operators who don’t have a knack for running high roller operations.

Put in different terms, you no longer need to be Steve Wynn to succeed in Macau.  The market is expanding to include Sheldon Adelson’s wheelhouse, as well.

Two investment consequences:

–most casinos are increasing their allocation of floor space to mass market gamblers because, for them at least, it’s much more profitable to do so.  So they’re making more money.

–the reduction in the number of casinos using price as their main tool to attract VIPs means that downward pressure on the profits for Wynn Macau-like operations is abating, as well.

Everyone becomes more profitable!

PS:  When I wrote this post I hadn’t yet looked at the website of the Macau casino authority.  The DICJ reports that monthly revenue from the SAR’s casinos was up only 7% year-on-year in January.  I think the true run rate is well more than double that figure.  The main reason for the weak reported outcome, I think, is the timing of the Lunar New Year.  As the New York market works this out, both WYNN and LVS, which were each down by over five percent in early trading, have rallied close to breakeven.

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