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It’s because the mainland has rescinded the travel restrictions it inaugurated in 2014.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.

 

the Macau gambling market contracted by 3.7% in June!

The recently released monthly report from Macau’s Gambling Information and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) showed that aggregate casino win (the amount gamblers lost in the casinos last month) amounted to MOP 27.2 billion, or about US$3.4 billion.  That’s a 3.7% year-on-year drop, the first red figure I can remember for the SAR, and the only one on the DICJ website, which contains comparisons going back to 2010.

Yes, the figures might have been slightly in the black if not for the World Cup keeping potential gamblers glued to their TV sets at home rather than being at the casino tables.  And it has been clear that the yoy comparisons would get progressively tougher as 2014 unfolded.  That’s because 2013 results got stronger as the VIP market returned to normal after the mainland Chinese Communist Party leadership transition.

There are two more important reasons for the flattening out of the Macau gambling market, however.  Both are temporary, I think.

–the continuing anti-corruption crackdown by Beijing, which has VIP gamblers adopting a lower profile, and

–lack of junket operator credit (junket operators typically borrow, at rates of 1%+ per month, funds that they advance to VIPs), in the wake of the apparent disappearance of a prominent organizer with US$1 billion – US$1.3 billion of his company’s funds.  This has understandably made lenders reluctant to back any junket operator as fully as before.

Interestingly, the Macau gambling stocks, which have been very weak performers since early this year, rallied on the DICJ report.

What to do?

My guess is that the VIP segment of the Macau market will be at best flat for the rest of the year. That will make it hard for the aggregate gambling market in the SAR to show significant advances.  However, the real story of Macau is below the surface.  It’s the rapid shift away from VIPs and toward the mass affluent that’s now going on.  The latter, which already account for the bulk of the SAR’s win, are also big spenders in the casinos’ food, entertainment and shopping venues (remember, non-gambling activities can account for half a casino’s income, and they’re just getting started in Macau).

The Hong Kong-traded casino stocks, which have been very weak performers since early in the year, seem to me to have already discounted the negative developments I’ve described above.

In my view, the worst hurt by the VIP slowdown will be the traditional casinos run by the Ho family.  The least affected will be Sands China, Wynn Macau and Galaxy Entertainment (I own Galaxy and the parents of the two others).

I’m not rushing to add to my exposure (although I think I may have missed the bottom in Wynn Macau a couple of weeks ago), but i have no desire to sell, either.

 

 

Macau gambling developments, December 2013–a longer view

The Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau published its monthly “Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune” report (I love the names) a couple of days ago.  Here it is:

Monthly Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune in 2013 and 2012
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2013 2012 Variance 2013 2012 Variance
Jan 26,864 25,040 +7.3% 26,864 25,040 +7.3%
Feb 27,084 24,286 +11.5% 53,948 49,325 +9.4%
Mar 31,336 24,989 +25.4% 85,284 74,314 +14.8%
Apr 28,305 25,003 +13.2% 113,589 99,317 +14.4%
May 29,589 26,078 +13.5% 143,178 125,395 +14.2%
Jun 28,269 23,334 +21.1% 171,447 148,729 +15.3%
Jul 29,485 24,579 +20.0% 200,932 173,308 +15.9%
Aug 30,737 26,136 +17.6% 231,670 199,444 +16.2%
Sept 28,963 23,866 +21.4% 260,632 223,310 +16.7%
Oct 36,477 27,700 +31.7% 297,109 251,011 +18.4%
Nov 30,179 24,882 +21.3% 327,288 275,893 +18.6%

Source: Macau DICJ.   Figures in millions of MOP.

Another very healthy month, in what has been for the Hong Kong consensus a surprisingly good year.  My only caution would be against extrapolating from the current year-on-year comparisons.  Yes, current figures are likely to trend upward in 2014 (by 1o%+).  But May through November of 2012 was an unusually weak period for Macau, as a result of overall global economic softness + uncertainty surrounding the once-in-a-decade change in Communist Party leadership on the mainland.  Comparisons will get much tougher, starting with December.

a pat on the back for Macau

In just over a decade the SAR has created a booming Las Vegas-style gambling market from pretty much nothing.  While doing so, it has also severely weakened the relative power and influence of the previous gaming monopolist, the Ho family, with its purported connections to the Chinese underworld.  By carefully controlling capacity additions and by banning cutthroat price competition, the industry has enjoyed almost uninterrupted prosperity.  So too the SAR>

where to from here?

This question has two aspects to it:

1.  how does the Macau gambling market evolve?  and

2.  how do the Macau gambling companies evolve?

My thoughts:

1.  The next several years are pretty much set.

New capacity is being added; new transportation links are being forced that will make Macau accessible to increasingly large portions of the mainland.  All-but-professional super rich VIP baccarat players are being supplemented by middle class tourists.  This latter development is in its infancy.

Three years down the road, Macau gambling revenue will be at least a third higher than now.  Spending on hotels/restaurants/shows/shopping?    …make up a number.  Double what it is now?

What then?  My guess is that if becoming the Las Vegas of 2000 was Macau’s aspiration, it’s fervent desire today is not to become the Las Vegas of 2013, a city mired in overcapacity.  I think the SAR will take its foot off the gaming pedal and (mixing my metaphors) begin to steer the economy in a non-gaming tourist direction.

I’m not saying the party is over–far from it–but maybe we’re eating the main course now.

2.  Casinos are gigantic cash flow generation machines.  Left to their own devices, they’d just plow that money back in to new capacity in Macau.  But so far they haven’t been allowed to give in to these impulses, nor will the future be any different, in my view.  What do they do with the money they’re going to be awash in.

Some of it will go to permitted new expansion in Macau. Some will go to repay debt–although with borrowing costs close to zero, no one is going to be in a great rush to pre-pay borrowings.

Some may end up in real estate development nearby (Hengqin, anyone?).  But real estate alone doesn’t make use of the casino operator’s special skills.

Dividends?   …probably so, but especially if the companies with US parents can do so in a tax-efficient way.

However, I think the next serious turn of the wheel will see at least some Macau players using their companies’ cash flow to build casinos elsewhere.  This could be a very interesting investment development, with Macau casino firms turning into multinational Asian gambling conglomerates.  Galaxy Entertainment, for example is already talking about this openly, with Japan as its first target.

This may well also be what Wynn ends up doing.  The Las Vegas Sands case is more complicated, since that firm has two Asian subsidiaries, one in Macau and one in Singapore.

Macau gambling, October 2013

The Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) recently released its tally of aggregate gambling winnings of the Chinese SAR’s casinos during the holiday month of October.  The results, in MOP millions, are as follows:

Monthly Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune in 2013 and 2012
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2013 2012 Variance 2013 2012 Variance
Jan 26,864 25,040 +7.3% 26,864 25,040 +7.3%
Feb 27,084 24,286 +11.5% 53,948 49,325 +9.4%
Mar 31,336 24,989 +25.4% 85,284 74,314 +14.8%
Apr 28,305 25,003 +13.2% 113,589 99,317 +14.4%
May 29,589 26,078 +13.5% 143,178 125,395 +14.2%
Jun 28,269 23,334 +21.1% 171,447 148,729 +15.3%
Jul 29,485 24,579 +20.0% 200,932 173,308 +15.9%
Aug 30,737 26,136 +17.6% 231,670 199,444 +16.2%
Sept 28,963 23,866 +21.4% 260,632 223,310 +16.7%
Oct 36,477 27,700 +31.7% 297,109 251,011 +18.4%

Source: Macau DICJ.

 

The monthly “win” is an all-time record for Macau, and, in my view, stunningly good.

Two factors appear to be at work:

–the expansion of casino capacity and the parallel development of non-gambling entertainment (at the insistence of the Macau government) in the Cotai region is broadening the appeal of Macau as a tourist destination and drawing in a younger, “merely” affluent crowd in large numbers, and

–the upturn in the Chinese economy is prompting the return of increasing numbers of the enormously wealthy VIP baccarat players who have until now formed the backbone of Macau’s casino industry.

 

What I find interesting is that the Hong Kong-traded Macau casino stocks have been selling off on this good news.  This is partly, I think, because the stocks have been extremely good performers over the first three quarters of the year, as it became clearer that the Chinese economy was beginning to rebound.  The fact that more speculative and less skillful operators in the Macau market have been leading the pack had already been suggesting that the recent run was getting a bit long in the tooth.  In addition, however, I think the pullback we are seeing also is in line with an emerging mood of caution I see building in stock markets around the world.

I don’t think anything is wrong, either with Macau gambling or with the strongest operators.  A while ago, I trimmed my casino holdings a bit, based solely on position size.  Others may be doing the same, only timing their move a bit better than I did.  I expect that as Macau continues to exhibit strong growth in gambling win over the coming months, the stocks will take up their outperforming ways again, with Galaxy Entertainment, Sands China and possibly Wynn Macau in the vanguard.

Macau casinos, August 2013

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Macau Gaming Inspection and coordination Bureau (DICJ) released its monthly report on the aggregate amount won by the casinos in the SAR during the month.  Here are the figures:

* 1 HKD = 1.03MOP (Unit:MOP million )
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2013 2012 Variance 2013 2012 Variance
Jan 26,864 25,040 +7.3% 26,864 25,040 +7.3%
Feb 27,084 24,286 +11.5% 53,948 49,325 +9.4%
Mar 31,336 24,989 +25.4% 85,284 74,314 +14.8%
Apr 28,305 25,003 +13.2% 113,589 99,317 +14.4%
May 29,589 26,078 +13.5% 143,178 125,395 +14.2%
Jun 28,269 23,334 +21.1% 171,447 148,729 +15.3%
Jul 29,485 24,579 +20.0% 200,932 173,308 +15.9%
Aug 30,737 26,136 +17.6% 231,670 199,444 +16.2%

Source: Macau DICJ

The figures are obviously good.  the MOP 30.7 billion achieved in August surpasses all but the win from last March, a holiday month.  They’re 4% better than the results for July.  They’re also up 17.6% year on year.  August of last year may have been negatively affected both by weather and by high rollers beginning to pull in their horns as the anti- conspicuous consumption attitude of the new Communist Party leadership began to make itself known.

What’s most interesting–and encouraging–are company comments that VIP gamblers are beginning to return in higher numbers to Macau as they feel more comfortable about what the Party’s anti-corruption stance and dislike of lavish displays of wealth actually means for them.  Apparently, gambling, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.  In addition, the tide of merely affluent gamblers–who might gamble US$10,000 on a visit, rather than US$1 million–is continuing to rise strongly.

The real shortage element at present is casino and hotel capacity to receive customers.  The biggest beneficiaries of market growth are those who are opening new space in Cotai.  To my mind, this means Galaxy Entertainment and Sands China (I own shares of  Galaxy and of Sands China’s parent, Las Vegas Sands.  (Both Fidelity and Schwab maintain Americans aren’t permitted to buy Sands China in Hong Kong and refuse to transact in the name.   I’ve asked LVS several times for an explanation–their investor relations people are clueless, however.  I find that disturbing for a big company, but not to the degree that I want to sell LVS.)

One’s instinct in any attractive market is to look for laggards–companies that may not be the best-positioned, but which are significantly cheaper than the leaders.  Buy them, wait for a run and trade into the leaders, the strategy goes.  In theory this sounds good.  And Hong Kongers have no trouble executing it among the Macau gambling stocks.  As for me, some of the laggards are controlled by people I don’t trust.  So I’d rather stick with the names I have (I also own Wynn Macau and WYNN).

Macau market gambling results for October 2011

Last week, the Macau Gaming Inspection and coordination Bureau posted, as usual, the monthly total for the SAR’s gambling revenue.  At 26.8 billion patacas, the take was an all-time high–and a 42.3% year on year gain.  The figures for this year and last are as follows:

Monthly Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune in 2011 and 2010
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2011 2010 Variance 2011 2010 Variance
Jan 18,571 13,937 +33.2% 18,571 13,937 +33.2%
Feb 19,863 13,445 +47.7% 38,434 27,383 +40.4%
Mar 20,087 13,569 +48.0% 58,521 40,951 +42.9%
Apr 20,507 14,186 +44.6% 79,028 55,137 +43.3%
May 24,306 17,075 +42.4% 103,334 72,211 +43.1%
Jun 20,792 13,642 +52.4% 124,126 85,853 +44.6%
Jul 24,212 16,310 +48.4% 148,337 102,163 +45.2%
Aug 24,769 15,773 +57.0% 173,106 117,935 +46.8%
Sept 21,244 15,302 +38.8% 194,350 133,237 +45.9%
Oct 26,851 18,869 +42.3% 221,200 152,106 +45.4%

Interestingly, Hong Kong-based analysts didn’t take this as an unambiguously good result.  They point out that, although Golden Week in early October was a rip-roaring success this year, the year on year growth of the market for the month as a whole was the lowest since January.  That’s obviously correct.

They conclude from this that Macau’s wealthy Chinese customers are feeling the pinch of the mainland’s efforts to slow economic growth, and are gambling less as a result.  A corollary, not so clearly spelled out, is that casinos are posting gambling winnings as revenues today that will ultimately have to be written off as uncollectable receivables.  That may also be true, although the bond rating agency Fitch says there’s no evidence of any of this so far. Fitch, in fact, estimates that the Macau gambling market will grow by at least 20% next year, double the rate that the more pessimistic analysts are calling for.

One notable feature of recent months’ results is the market share shift toward the companies with newer casinos, located in Cotai.  This suggests there’s gambling space in other, older casinos that is going unused.  There are any number of explanations for why this may be happening, like transportation bottlenecks that prevent visitors from reaching Macau, or casinos turn away “iffier” credits.  But it’s also possible that we’re reached a phase of market maturity where simply getting to Macau and gambling anywhere isn’t enough.  Some gamblers may be choosing not to go to Macau unless they get a minimum level of service.

If so, we should expect a more sedate rate of growth than the 45% or so we’re experiencing now.  But the more important investment issue may well be to separate winners from losers.  That’s certainly been the case so far in 2011, as Galaxy and China Sands have left other casinos in the dust–especially SJM and MGM.

 

Macau gambling: July 2011 results; longer-term outlook

July 2011 results

For Macau, it was business as usual in July–another huge, and surprisingly strong,  year on year increase in casino win from gamblers in the SAR.  Here are the numbers from the Macau Gaming Coordination and Inspection Bureau:

* 1 HKD = 1.03MOP (Unit:MOP million )
Monthly Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune in 2011 and 2010
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2011 2010 Variance 2011 2010 Variance
Jan 18,571 13,937 +33.2% 18,571 13,937 +33.2%
Feb 19,863 13,445 +47.7% 38,434 27,383 +40.4%
Mar 20,087 13,569 +48.0% 58,521 40,951 +42.9%
Apr 20,507 14,186 +44.6% 79,028 55,137 +43.3%
May 24,306 17,075 +42.4% 103,334 72,211 +43.1%
Jun 20,792 13,642 +52.4% 124,126 85,853 +44.6%
Jul 24,212 16,310 +48.4% 148,337 102,163 +45.2%

source: Macau Gaming Coordination and Inspection Bureau

To me, the interesting thing about these figures is that the year on year market gains seem to be accelerating over the past two months.  Hong Kong investors, however, continue to fret about the possibility that withdrawal, underway for a considerable time already, of the countercyclical stimulus Beijing applied during the financial crisis in the West will stunt growth in Macau.

Macau Business magazine indicates, for what it’s worth, that Galaxy Entertainment continues to gain market share, as gamblers visit its recently opened Galaxy Macau casino in Cotai.  Wynn Macau also appears to have been a relative winner.

the longer term

The most attractive aspect of the casino business for me as an investor is that it is relatively simple to analyze.  Revenue growth under normal circumstances is a function of two variables:

–the growth in the amount of floor space in the market and

–the growth of nominal GDP ( or nominal disposable income, if you prefer) in the area the casinos’ customers come from.

The very strong market growth numbers in Macau indicate that conditions there aren’t “normal.”  There’s still a substantial imbalance between the potential demand for gambling from China as a whole and the supply of casino space in Macau.  Network effects are still at work increasing the number of gamblers able to afford a trip to Macau who want to go.  Transport and border control bottlenecks still exist.  Rapid economic expansion is also swelling the ranks of those who can afford Macau.  I think we have at least several more years of this.

What happens when the imbalance is gone?  Well, the main thing is that the 40%-50% growth rates disappear as well.  From that point on, market growth becomes mostly a function of nominal GDP expansion.  For China, that probably means 8% real growth plus 4% inflation, or about 12% annual growth in revenues.  Operating leverage means that a 12% revenue increase will translate into 18% profit growth.  In addition, the market will likely split into relative winners and relative losers.  The former will grow profits at 20%, the latter at 15%.

It strikes me that the Hong Kong-listed casino companies are all currently priced as if the low end of the range will emerge as the norm almost immediately.  I think that’s highly unlikely.