a new casino for Connecticut, good or bad?

Shortly after I retired as a portfolio manager, I went to work part-time at the Rutgers business school in Newark.  No, it wasn’t to teach investing or portfolio management–accreditation rules effectively rule this out for anyone without a PhD in (the alternate reality of) academic finance.  Instead, it was in a practical management consulting class run by adjuncts with real-world experience and advising mostly small businesses.  (We were all fired several years later and the program–the only profitable area in a school dripping red ink–dissolved.   …but that’s another story).

Anyway, one of the projects I mentored involved a casual dining restaurant.  A student had a connection with a very successful pizza restaurant whose approach might serve as a model for our client.  The pizza owner said he had superior results.  How so?  …he had cloth tablecloths and fresh flowers on each table; the food was good;  he spoke with every customer himself to make sure everyone knew they were welcome.  In fact, he drew customers from as far as 15 miles away.

How far was the closest competing pizza restaurant?   …30 miles.

Put a different way, in this state customers hungry for pizza went to the closest restaurant, despite what this owner thought was his special charm!

It’s the same with a lot of other things, including local casinos.

In the case of Connecticut, the two existing operators are coming under threat by the decision of Massachusetts to legalize gambling in that state.  In particular, it’s allowing MGM to open a casino just on the northern border of Connecticut in Springfield, MA.

Hartford has just responded by authorizing a new casino in East Windsor just on the Connecticut side of the border from Springfield, to be jointly run by the two incumbent operators.

This is an interesting case.  Let’s take a (simple) look:

My pizza rule says customers go to the closest casino.   If that’s correct, the new Massachusetts casino will reduce the existing Connecticut casinos’ revenue by a substantial amount.  Hartford estimates that amount at a quarter of the current business, about $1.6 billion.   If they want to keep the remaining 75%, however, it seems unlikely to me that the casino operators will be able to reduce their costs by much.  So their profits could easily be cut in half.

And when the proposed East Windsor casino opens?

Figure that East Windsor will take back from Springfield half of the revenue initially lost.   That’s $200 million a year.  From the state’s point of view, any revenue gain means higher tax collections–in this case, about another $35 million a year.  So it’s understandable why East Windsor has gotten a legislative seal of approval.  It’s not clear, however, that the casino operators are going to be better off–because they’re taking on the expense of a third location in order to protect 12% of their current revenue.

 

We’ve also seen this movie before in the northeast US, with the effect on Atlantic City of gambling legalization in Pennsylvania, and on Pennsylvania of legalization in Ohio and Maryland.  One additional complication in this instance is that both of the incumbent operators are Native American tribes, for whom maintaining/expanding employment may be more important than profits.  A second is that the new CT casino will be run by two in-state rivals.  That should be interesting to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

casino gambling in Japan

Last week the Japanese Diet approved the creation of the first Las Vegas-style casinos in Japan.  Most Japanese citizens appear to be indifferent, but introducing a new form of legal gambling has been a priority for the political establishment for some time.  Although the standard rationale for legalizing gambling anywhere in the world is to take money away from the local underworld, the main reason in Tokyo seems to be to attract more foreign tourists–and keep them in Japan longer.

It will be a while before gambling consortia of construction companies and resort developers, presumably with foreign partners providing the expertise, are formed and for the precise rules about allowed games and taxation to be articulated.  But two issues are already clear:

–over the past ten years or so, there has been a dramatic expansion of the casino business in Macau, as well as in Singapore/Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea and, to a lesser extent, in Australia.  At some point, the market in this part of the world will become saturated.  Then, the fact of gambling won’t be enough.  The quality of the operations will count for a lot more.  So I don’t think Japanese casinos are sure-fire winners.  We have seen this already in Macau, where SJM, once the monopoly operator, continues to lose market share.  Will Japan push the region as a whole into maturity?

–who will run the casinos?  Presumably Wynn, Las Vegas Sands and Galaxy Entertainment will all be interested.  My guess is that groups including each of the three will be the key contenders for licenses.  Will each get a license?  Will that be a good thing?  Will Wynn Macau and Sands China be involved?  Certainly, Galaxy will be, since the Macau operations and the main company are the same.  In the other cases, it’s not so clear.  If investment capital were no object, my guess would be no.

Macau and ATM machines

During its days as a Portuguese colony, Macau was reputed to be a key center used by the mainland underworld to launder its ill-gotten gains.  The main laundromat, as it were, was allegedly the  collection of casinos run under a monopoly granted to the Ho family.

After the return of Macau to Chinese rule, the government moved quickly to break the monopoly and to guide the casino industry toward the Las Vegas model through technology transfer by granting casino licenses mainly to prominent US Las gambling operators with a Disney-esque approach to business.

A second political problem threatening the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party began to arise during the last decade as fabulously wealthy political insiders began to flaunt their riches through elaborate, ostentatious gambling jaunts to Macau.  A crackdown ensued, which also served the long-term interests of Macau by strongly redirecting the emphasis of the Macau gambling industry away from high-roller VIPs toward middle class and upper middle class patrons.  This, by the way, follows the development of the gambling market in the US.

During US trading hours yesterday, media reports from Hong Kong surfaced suggesting Beijing was beginning to crack down on middle class gamblers as well as VIPs.  The stories said the daily limit that mainland residents vacationing in Macau are allowed to withdraw from their (renminbi-denominated) bank accounts through a local ATM would be cut in half from–MOP 10,000 ($1300) to MOP 5,000, effective tomorrow.

Given Beijing’s plans for Macau’s economic development, this report made little sense–although, realistically speaking, who knows what Beijing’s day-to-day thoughts are.

The US-traded Macau names immediately dropped by around a tenth in a flattish market.  In today’s Hong Kong trading, Macau gambling stocks fell by 7% or so (expressing about half the negative sentiment in NY)–with the strongest (relative) performance by Ho-controlled SJM.

After the close of Hong Kong trading, mainland authorities “clarified” the initial report, saying that, yes, the per transaction limit on ATM withdrawals by mainlanders in Macau was being cut in half, but that the total daily limit would remain unchanged.  No reason why the clarification took 12 hours to be made.

In early US trading today, Macau-related stocks have made up about a third of their losses from yesterday.

As a holder of Wynn Resorts, Wynn Macau and Galaxy Entertainment, I’m going to sit on my hands.  If I held nothing, I’d be inclined to buy a bit.  My preference would be for the Hong Kong names, however, for two reasons:  the US market is being driven now by dreams of a domestic industrial revival, so foreign casinos aren’t at the top of institutions’ wish lists; and investors who dumped out their Macau holdings in a panic yesterday will be loathe to buy them back at a higher price, at least for a while.

developments in Macau gambling

Today’s Election Day.  Be sure to vote.

I think the results of the presidential election may have far-reaching effects on the US economy and stock market, with a Trump victory being especially bad.  But that’s a topic for another day.

 

There are three recent developments of note in the Macau casino gambling market, one whose recent decline I badly underestimated:

–after peaking at a monthly gambling win of MOP 30.7 billion (US$3.8 billion) in February 2014 and beginning negative year-on-year comparisons that June, the market finally bottomed in June 2016.   Win for that month was MOP 15.9 billion (US$2 .0 billion); yoy comparisons turned positive in August.  An obvious plus.

–18 marketing employees of Australia’s Crown Resorts were detained in China last month.  Their crime appears to be offering., while in China, larger-than-permitted inducements to Chinese high rollers to visit Crown Resorts properties in Australia.  Since Crown also has casino operations in Macau, however, it’s not 100% clear that this is the issue.  A similar situation occurred in 2015, when marketers for casinos in Korea offered illegal inducements in an effort to get high rollers to visit.  For the moment, at least, this has marketers for Macau erring on the side of caution.

It’s unclear whether this is good or bad for casino operators.  Running VIP gambling operations is all about controlling the cost of the rebates and amenities needed to get high rollers to commit to visit a casino and gamble a specified (large) amount.  In the past, Crown has initiated price competition in this arena.  At one point, the Macau government stepped in to set a cap on allowable rebates.  Whatever Beijing’s motivations, it may be having the same effect now.

–profits at existing Macau casinos generally have been surprisingly strong.  That’s both because of non-casino attractions like restaurants, shows and shopping, and the continuing strong evolution of a non-VIP market.  Two exceptions:  the Ho family legacy casinos and companies like Wynn Macau, which are opening substantial new capacity.  Contrary to what one might expect,new offerings are not immediately drawing gamblers looking for novelty.  Instead, the Macau experience has been slow but steady progress to full utilization, achieving that goal, say, a year after opening.

One other point:  Macau has been marching to its own drummer in stock market terms over the past couple of years, driven by the course of casino win.  That’s likely to continue   …but it will probably be a positive rather than a negative in 2017.  So Macau may act as a refuge in a time of choppy global markets.

(Note:  I own shares in Wynn Macau (HK1128) and Galaxy Entertainment (HK0027), as well as a tag end of a former Sands China (HK1928) position that I’ve mostly sold (and am not inclined at present to rebuy.))

 

Atlantic City casino gambling

For a couple of years I was an adjunct at Rutgers business school.  I worked on a course where teams of MBA students provided management consulting services for actual companies.  For one project, one of my teams interviewed a pizza parlor owner about the key characteristics of his restaurant that attracted business.  He said:  good food, extensive menu, fast service, friendly staff, tablecloths on the tables.  These enabled him to get customers from as far as 7-8 miles away from his store.

How close was the nearest competitor?   …15 miles away.

All of the attributes he named may have been important to get any customers to his restaurant, but it’s hard not to think that distance is key to defining his market area.  That’s true of any generic bricks-and-mortar business.

…which brings us to Atlantic City.

That beach resort has had its annual gambling revenue cut in half since competing casinos began to open in neighboring Pennsylvania in late 2006.  Additions in Maryland and Delaware haven’t helped, either.  The issue is the same as with pizza. Absent some incredible attraction (think:  Las Vegas), the average gambler will typically choose the closest casino to patronize.

The response of government in New Jersey to the competitive threat has been quite odd, in my view.  It hasn’t been to build up the city as a resort destination or to improve transportation access.  The main thing I’ve seen has been the attempt several years ago to help yet another casino, the Revel, to open, adding new slot machines and table games to a market already awash in overcapacity.

Potential good news is that, after the closing of four casinos (Atlantic Club, Revel, Showboat and Trump Plaza) in 2014, the market appears to have stabilized.  Even online gambling is perking up, having brought in $16+ million in April (although this is still a far cry from the $80 million average monthly take the state had been touting when online was legalized).

The other side of the coin is that Trenton is again “helping” Atlantic City by opening the door to building two new casinos in northern New Jersey.  Local voters will vote on proposals later this year.  Maybe the idea is to stabilize the state’s gambling tax revenue at any cost.  But nothing seems to me more likely to snuff out a nascent recovery in AC than this.

 

Macau casinos

I haven’t written about the Macau casinos for some time, mostly because I haven’t had anything useful to say.  The fact that I’ve called this group horribly wrongly over the past year or so hasn’t encouraged me to make predictions, either.

I’ve traded around in the group (and, in the case of Wynn Macau and Sands China, their US parents, as well) but have kept my overall position size by and large intact.  Shows what I know.

It has seemed to me, wrongly, that all of the bad news about the casinos in Macau has been in the public domain for some time.  The anti-corruption campaign being waged by Beijing–that has made high rollers wary of exhibiting their wealth at the gaming tables–has been going on since 2013.  Restrictions on visitation rights from the mainland to Macau put in place last year have done the rest of the damage.

Both of these factors have been well-known for a long time.  Therefore, it has seemed to me, much/most of the potential damage had to already be factored into the prices of the stocks.

Wrong! The Macau casino stocks have been sold down again and again when the SAR’s gaming authority has announced each month the (highly predictable) year on year gambling revenue decline.  Figuring we were at the bottom six months ago as far as the stocks are concerned, as I did, has clearly been the wrong position to take.

As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, however, the stocks I pay particular attention to–Wynn Macau, Sands China and Galaxy Entertainment–are each up by more than 10%.

Why is this?

It’s because the mainland has rescinded the travel restrictions it inaugurated in 2014.  As far as visiting is concerned, we’re back to the older, more favorable rules.  This plus has been already reflected in US trading over the past two days, but only in overnight trading tonight in Hong Kong.

Are we at the bottom now?

For someone like me, who already has a significant position, this question has no action-related relevance.  And, as I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been wrong about these stocks for a considerable time.  Still, it’s hard to ignore a 10%-15% increase in stock prices.  Also, the second half of 2014 was the period when the Macau gambling market began a serious swoon. Therefore, year on year comparisons for the overall market should soon begin to improve.  We don’t need current results to get any better.  More than anything, the improving comparisons will be coming from deterioration in the base year, 2014.

So. yes, I think this is the bottom.

I also think that the upturn in the gambling market won’t be a rising tide that lifts all boats, was it has been in the past.  I think Wynn Macau, and to a lesser extent, Galaxy Entertainment, have the most to gain.

 

Macau casinos, February 25, 2015

Macau casino stocks in Hong Kong took a drubbing overnight, continuing weakness shown by US parents in Wall Street trading yesterday.  The US stocks are down again as I’m writing this.

Why?

Analysts had been estimating (guessing/hoping is probably a more accurate description) that the amount lost by gamblers during the current Lunar New Year month would come in at slightly more than half what they left at the tables during the comparable period last year.  With the month nearly gone, data so far indicate that the actuals will come in at somewhat less than half the 2014 take.  Hence the selloff.

If there’s a positive story for the Macau casinos–and I think there is a strong one–it has little to do with whether this month is good or not.

Current weakness is the result of  a campaign by Beijing that’s now deep in its second year.  The idea is to restore faith in the Communist Party by discouraging flashy over-the-top consumption by the politically well-connected.  It’s also aimed at quashing corrupt local government get-rich-quick schemes involving crazy real estate developments and unneeded, heavily polluting basic industry projects.  This two-pronged attack, which has had a negative effect on high-roller gambling in Macau, has lasted much longer than anyone, myself included, had predicted.  The February-to-date casino results seem to indicate that Beijing has not yet taken its foot off the regulatory accelerator.

The positive case has three parts:

–the development of the Cotai Strip along Las Vegas lines is creating a new, more lucrative, less volatile gambling market in Macau.  It’s for middle-class Chinese visitors who want a gambling vacation that also includes resort dining and entertainment.  This business has been expanding very rapidly.  It now accounts for about three-quarters of the SAR’s gambling profits.  Non-gambling attractions in Macau are still in their profit childhood.  In pre-recession Las Vegas, however, resort profit equaled that of the casinos.  So there’s plenty of room for expansion

–at some point–who know when–the current anti-corruption campaign will abate and high-roller business in Macau will begin to stabilize and then gradually expand again.  Beijing’s crackdown began in 2013 but only started to cause serious high-roller attrition in Macau in late spring last year.  So positive year-on-year earnings comparisons are unlikely before autumn.

–the stocks are reasonably priced–cheap, if you believe the first two points.

The Macau casino stocks are now what I would call a value idea–meaning that we have a good sense of what will happen but are pretty much at sea about when.  High dividend yields argue that we’re gin paid to wait.

One technical note:  the stocks hit relative low points about a month ago and have come back to those lows over the past few days.  It would be a sign that they may be finally bottoming if they can stay above the month-ago lows as the weak February results are officially announced.   Technicians would regard a breakdown below these lows would be a good thing in the US, but bad news in Hong Kong.