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.))

 

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

Talk about an unloved group.

Casinos with Macau exposure have been pummeled over the past six months.  Late summer has been an especially bad period.   Wynn Macau (HK: 1128) has lost a third of its value over the past half year;  its parent, Wynn Resorts (WYNN) has lost a quarter of its market cap.  The only issue to escape relatively unscathed is MGM, a former near-death experience that has apparently turned the corner.

The reason?

…an anti-corruption campaign by the government in Beijing has had high roller baccarat players from the mainland trying to keep a lower profile.  As a result, the overall casino win, the total amount lost by patrons of the SAR’s casinos, has been showing small year-on-year declines for the past three months.  There’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue for a while yet.  There’s more, but this is the basic story.

I also think, although I have no evidence for this, that institutional investors have generally decided that they want to participate in the upcoming Alibaba IPO but that they don’t want to increase their aggregate exposure to China-related stocks.  So they’re jettisoning a growth story gone cold for one with more obvious signs of life.

Overnight (i.e., this morning in Hong Kong) I bought a small amount of Wynn Macau.

I have no idea if this is the near-term bottom for the Macau gambling market or for 1128.  But the stock is trading at 15x earnings and yielding 5%+.  I think the long-term story for Macau–that it is turning itself into a (much larger) clone of the Las Vegas Strip, that is, a resort destination for the Chinese middle class–is still intact.  I think it’s still early days for tourism in the SAR.  I also expect the current slowdown will increase the competitive distance between the firms I view as the ultimate market winners, Wynn, Sands China, and Galaxy vs. the former monopoly casino operator, SJM Holdings.  SJM still has the largest market share, but is handicapped by its connection to the Ho family.

 

For the moment I’m going to wait, watch and collect the dividend.  If 1128 declines further, however, I’ll probably buy more.

This isn’t an idea for the very risk-averse, since the Macau gambling market ultimately depends on the good will of Beijing, whose mood is difficult to assess.  The extent and duration of the current crackdown on lavish consumption has so far taken even veteran China hands by surprise.  Still, a 5% yield makes up for a lot of warts.  And using a discount broker like Fidelity makes getting in an out easy and inexpensive.

 

 

 

 

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 gambling: July 2013 results + other stuff

Earlier this week the Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) posted the total market casino “win” (i.e., the amount gamblers lost to the casinos) during July.  The figures 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%

Source: DICJ

For the fifth month in a row, the aggregate win in the SAR exceeded MOP28 billion. For the past two months, the year-on-year revenue growth comparison exceeded +20%.

It’s a bit too early for dancing in the streets, however.  A glance at the relevant date for 2012 shows that part of the apparent strength is due to the weak denominator–that is, the comparisons are easier than normal because growth in casino patronage fell off dramatically in the second half of 2012 both because of softness in the Chinese economy and the desire of big gamblers to maintain a low(er) profile in advance of the once-in-a-decade change in top leadership of the Communist Party.

Here are the 2012 figures:

Monthly Gross Revenue from Games of Fortune in 2012 and 2011
Monthly Gross Revenue Accumulated Gross Revenue
2012 2011 Variance 2012 2011 Variance
Jan 25,040 18,571 +34.8% 25,040 18,571 +34.8%
Feb 24,286 19,863 +22.3% 49,325 38,434 +28.3%
Mar 24,989 20,087 +24.4% 74,314 58,521 +27.0%
Apr 25,003 20,507 +21.9% 99,317 79,028 +25.7%
May 26,078 24,306 +7.3% 125,395 103,334 +21.3%
Jun 23,334 20,792 +12.2% 148,729 124,126 +19.8%
Jul 24,579 24,212 +1.5% 173,308 148,337 +16.8%
Aug 26,136 24,769 +5.5% 199,444 173,106 +15.2%
Sept 23,866 21,244 +12.3% 223,310 194,350 +14.9%
Oct 27,700 26,851 +3.2 251,011 221,200 +13.5%
Nov 24,882 23,058 +7.9% 275,893 244,258 +13.0%
Dec 28,245 23,608 +19.6% 304,139 267,867 +13.5%

Source: DICJ

There’s a second factor that may make the recent figures more difficult to interpret–the development of the mass market in Macau.  High-roller baccarat players in Macau are effectively professional gamblers.  They lose around 3% of the (huge) amounts they bet.  Mass market players bet far less.  But they typically lose 20%+ of their wagers.  As this latter segment grows, market win may accelerate for a while.  I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but I don’t know.

Nevertheless, the continuing resilience of the SAR’s gambling business in the face of reports of softness in the Chinese economy is encouraging.

More on Monday.

how big is the Macau gambling market? …potential?

…a lot depends on how you measure.

the Nevada comparison

Let’s compare Macau with Las Vegas.

According to the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, during the three months ending February 29th (the latest figures available as I’m writing this) the Las Vegas strip casinos had revenue of $1.67 billion.  The downtown area of Las Vegas added about a tenth to that.

During the same three months, according to the Macau Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, Macau casinos took in MOP 72.9 billion, which translates into US$9.1 billion.

On this measure, then, the Macau market is 5x the size of Las Vegas.

gross revenue vs. net

That’s not the whole story, however.

The official figures don’t report the total amounts that are being bet in the market.  Instead, they record the net amount that the casinos win from customers during the period..  The amounts bet are much larger.

We have precise figures for Las Vegas.  On average, gamblers lost 9.6% of the amounts they bet in Las Vegas during December, January and February.  So they actually bet $17.4 billion during that period.

We don’t have comparable official numbers for Macau.  So we have to estimate.  Conveniently, though, virtually the only game played in the SAR at present is high-stakes baccarat, where casino win typically ranges from 2.7% to 3.0% of the money bet.  To err on the conservative side, let’s say that the win over the winter for the Macau market was impossibly high at 4%.  Using that percentage will give us a low-ball figure for total wagers.

In Macau gamblers actually bet $228 billion during the three months.  On this measure, Macau is already 12x the size of Las Vegas.

…potential?

When I began following casino stocks in the early 1980s, casino operators regarded hotels, restaurants and shopping as regrettable necessities (cost centers, in accounting jargon).  They basically gave the food away to draw patronage.  And the more spartan the room, the better.  That way gamblers spent the maximum amount of time in the casinos and not lounging around watching TV.

Since then the Las Vegas industry has been transformed–with a large assist from Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson–into a resort destination.  Prior to the Great Recession (and the accompanying Great Overbuilding), non-casino operations in Las Vegas made up about half the total revenue–and about an equal amount of profit.  In other words, by developing Las Vegas as a resort/convention center, the casinos doubled the size of their market.  This is the model Macau wants to copy.

My guess is that, at present non-casino revenue is only about 15% the size of casino win in Macau.  So the nascent resort business in Macau could, if it’s successful in emulating Las Vegas, be at least 3x the current size.  That would mean that–even without market growth–visitors to Macau could be spending half a trillion dollars a quarter and company profits could be close to 2x the current level.

The Financial Times just wrote a good summary of the current supply constrained situation in the SAR.

but there’s more

In its latest quarterly reporting to shareholders, LVS included in its packet of earnings presentation slides an appendix that touches on growth potential for the Macau market.

–Slide 21 illustrates the proposed high-speed rail system that will connect all the major cities, including Macau, in eastern and central China.

–The more interesting slide is #22, which breaks out recent visitors to Macau by domicile.  It shows that 72% come from nearby Guangdong province, an area with a population of 95 million.  Hunan and Chongqing provinces, which together also have a population of 95 million, but which are somewhat farther away, represent less than 7% of visitors so far.   But that number is starting to grow at a much faster than 50% annual clip.  This implies, I think, that the Macau casino market has come nowhere close to tapping its entire Chinese potential.

Macau gambling: leading indicator for China?

yesterday’s Hong Kong trading

In Hong Kong trading Tuesday, the major Macau gambling stocks moved sharply upward.  Wynn Macau, a recent market laggard, was the star, gaining 8.6%.  But even China Sands, which is up by over 40% since the Hang Seng peaked last August, rose by almost 6%.

Why?

the Karen Tang effect

According to Bloomberg, Karen Tang, a prominent Hong Kong-based leisure analyst who works at Deutsche Bank, reversed her relatively negative view on casinos in the SAR after meeting with company managements.

Ms. Tang sent these same stocks into a tailspin last August.  That’s when she issued a report arguing that a falloff in demand for high-end luxury cars that was then being experienced in China presaged an almost complete evaporation of growth in the VIP baccarat market in Macau.  Since high-stakes baccarat is the mainstay of the casinos there, this was an especially dire forecast.

Her idea was that the market would begin to slow in the autumn.  Economizing high rollers would make trips already planned–and possibly paid for–but wouldn’t book further visits.  The market wouldn’t contract.  But growth would nosedive, troughing late in the first half of 2012 at a year-on-year rate of, say, +15%, before beginning to rebound.

too pessimistic

I didn’t see the Tang report.  But it was extensively covered in the Asian press.  From those accounts, it seemed the evidence was flimsy and the conclusion much too pessimistic.  As it turns out, Ms. Tang was wrong.  That’s not the important thing (although I’ve been unable to refrain from inserting this conclusion in this post).

rebound already!

What is important is that after a mild slowdown to a “mere” 25% growth rate last December, Chinese high roller gambling in Macau is beginning to accelerate again.  That’s what Ms.Tang found out on her research trip to Macau and published in a note yesterday.

While I was looking at yesterday’s stock prices in Hong Kong while writing this post, I noticed an article from Forbes.com.  It reports the results of a research trip to Macau by a Citibank (never to be mistaken for a research powerhouse) analyst, who says the casinos indicate gambling in the SAR grew by about 40% year on year during the first 11 days of March. That’s substantially ahead of the 28% year on year growth of the market during January-February.  And it’s not that far below the 42% gain the market put up for full-year 2011.

According to Forbes, Nomura Securities (which makes Citi look good) thinks March gaming win will be up by about the same rate as the average of January/February (a two month average corrects for variable timing of the New Year holiday).

The bottom line, though, is that the market is a lot better than the consensus had thought–and is looking up.

stock market implications

casino stocks?…

Given all the lawsuits flying around, this may not be the time to load up on the Las Vegas gambling companies.  Personally, the litigation bothers me enough that I won’t buy more, but not enough to sell what I have.  It seems to me that the Macau subsidiaries are relatively insulated.  I like Steve Wynn.  And Las Vegas Sands is still cheap.

…or indirect plays?

The most important aspect of yesterday’s trading may be the signal that corporate magnates in China are starting to feel a lot better about themselves and their businesses.  The safer way to go is probably to look for sold-off US firms that have a lot of Chinese exposure.