Is Macau Going to Chase Away VIP Gamblers Again?

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The leaders of China seem intent on undermining Macau's renewed success. After sending their country's sole legal gambling destination into an economic near-death spiral three years ago -- a dive it has only recently managed to pull itself out of -- Beijing is taking steps likely to send the territory's casinos reeling once more.

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Regulators of the gambling enclave said they intend to increase their scrutiny of casinos and impose new restrictions on the junket operators who bring high-rolling VIP gamblers to Macau. It was the same sort of intense examination of operations in 2014 that nearly killed the golden goose.

A turn away from gambling

Beijing wants Macau to be about more than just gambling, so several years ago, it mandated that casino operators add more non-gaming entertainment to their resorts in exchange for the right to add VIP gaming tables at the properties they were developing in the territory's Cotai District. At the time, just 6.6% of casino gross revenues came from non-gaming activities. The Chinese government wanted that to grow to as much as 9% by 2020. For comparison, Las Vegas casinos derive about two-thirds of their revenues from non-gaming activities.

Thus, when Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ: WYNN) opened the new Wynn Palace last year, the complex was replete with high-end retail stores and featured a gondola ride that offered a bird's eye view of the city. Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS) Parisian resort followed with a half-scale Eiffel Tower attraction, and prior to that, Melco Resorts & Entertainment (NASDAQ: MLCO) installed a figure-eight Ferris wheel and Batman 4-D roller coaster at its Studio City resort. When MGM Resorts (NYSE: MGM) opens its new complex in Cotai early next year, it's not going to have any VIP tables whatsoever.

With Chinese regulators more heavily scrutinizing the progress casinos have made in increasing non-gaming revenues, expect their findings to be a significant factor in the decisions about whether casinos have their licenses renewed when they come due.

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A potential upheaval

When China legalized gambling in Macau in 2002, it created a handful of concessions that had 20-year lifespans. Wynn, SJM Holdings, and Galaxy Entertainment Group control the three primary concessions that were originally created, with Sands, Melco, and MGM holding sub-concessions. Together, the six operators ultimately control the licenses of the 45 resorts that operate in the territory.

All of those licenses will begin coming up for renewal in 2020; SJM and MGM will be the first two to be reviewed, followed by Galaxy, Sands, Wynn, and Melco in 2022.

While the resort operators appear to have done their part to woo a mass-market audience to Macau -- data suggests the resorts surpassed the 9% non-gaming revenue goal in 2015 -- locals were upset about the way the licensing process worked the first time around, so there's no guarantee all concessions will be summarily renewed. Also, it is the VIP gambler who has been powering the gambling mecca's  resurgence.

Heavyweights roll back in

According to Macau's Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, VIP baccarat play accounted for almost 58% of the enclave's total gambling revenue in the third quarter, up from 52% in 2016. High-stakes baccarat is the preferred game of China's wealthiest gamblers, and the game's take is considered a proxy for the strength of VIP play.

Any new regulatory crackdown could spook VIP gamblers once again. It was, in part, the original crackdown on junket operators -- third-party intermediaries who loan high rollers money to gamble with at the resorts and bestow on them various amenities and benefits in exchange for a percentage of the money they lose at the casino tables -- that caused Macau to go into a tailspin. Macau is planning on tightening standards on the junkets, a move that could cause smaller operators to fold.

While on the one hand this is seen as a positive development, in that the largest junkets will bring in higher-quality gamblers, on the other, VIPs comprise a relatively small group as it is, and limiting their numbers could impair the casinos' revenues again, particularly if the VIPs become skittish. Gambling is only tolerated in China, and the vast wealth of the high rollers doesn't sit well with some in the government.

Over the past few years, Macau has initiated several policies that could have pushed some high rollers to take their business elsewhere, such as smoking bans at the gaming tables and limits on the amount of money that can be withdrawn from ATMs, but the gamblers didn't bolt. These new regulations might not drive them away either, but as each additional rule causes worry over the state of Macau's gaming industry, it indicates how fragile the territory's recovery really is.  

And with the added scrutiny and regulation coming just ahead of the period when their concessions will be up for renewal, Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts, and Wynn Resorts might be nervous (justifiably) about the outcome.

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Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.