Macau Down, Although There’s Still Action

On Aug. 1, the 3:30 pm ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, usually filled with scores of would-be gamblers, was cancelled because of a lack of passengers, and those waiting were put on a 4 pm vessel—which was also half empty on what normally is prime time for punters or paramours looking for an early start to the weekend at Asia’s premier gaming locale.

That might be a warning that after years of torrid growth, what Steve Vickers, the director of Steve Vickers Associates, a Hong Kong-based country risk firm specializing in the gaming industry, calls the “yabba dabba do” days may be coming to an end.

That doesn’t mean disaster by any means. Macau’s gaming companies regularly post results that would make an airline company salivate. Gross revenue growth slowed from 20 percent in the first quarter of 2014 to 5 percent in the second. In a July 28 report, the US investment bank Jefferies blamed the slowing activity on a crackdown on UnionPay card usage and the World Cup diversion, with VIP revenues down 16.1 percent for the quarter.

But there is a feeling that moderation is around the corner. The reasons for the slowdown are manifold, starting with the most obvious one – the well-publicized campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to root out corruption among the country’s massive bureaucracy. According to the People’s Daily, at least 63,000 officials had been disciplined from January to May, a 34 percent increase over 2013. Anti-corruption Czar Wang Quishan says the end of the campaign, the most intensive in Chinese history, is still out of sight. The thousands of officials who used to sneak over the border to take their chances at the tables are now afraid to do so.

The bulk of VIPs visit from mainland China,” said Luis Pereira, the publisher of the Macau-based Asia Gaming Brief. “When something happens there, we see a crunch. There is a significant trend in VIPs going further afield, most of the hardcore ones go to Vietnam – Nha Trang – or to the Philippines. The really high end go to London, Sydney, further afield. Macau is too close to China.”

Many years ago, Pereira says, “you’d hear about a scandal every other month. Then Beijing said ‘you guys had better get organized,’ and everybody followed suit. Now the whole situation has changed. Everybody has cleaned up. “Junkets (which provide high-rolling players with credit at the casinos, with the debts settled in the local currency back home) listed companies, acquiring gaming businesses outside, some as far away as Greece, London. The time was when Macau was an eye-opener. That isn’t true so much any more. Everybody has entertainment, other activities.”

Vickers says other factors include reforms on junkets. Under Chinese pressure, Macau has cracked down on the anonymity of junket customers and the junkets themselves are moving farther afield.

There is also a feeling that the growing attraction of other Asian casinos is also at play. Macau’s glitzy charms are being duplicated in casinos in Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in particular although other sources say Singapore makes it really tough for outsiders to get credit in the city-state’s casinos. According to the venue supplier network Cvent., at least 54 hotels, resorts or special venues in nine countries now provide various kinds of gamng recreation, including at least three in China itself – in Chengdu, Beijing and Guangzhou – although a call to a couple of the venues elicited loud denials that any gambling was going on in their hotels.

The numbers show that Macau gross gambling revenues and gross revenue growth peaked early this year. The anti-corruption campaign has been in full swing for at least a year longer, an indication that other factors are at play. Hong Kong’s economy is slowing although compared to China, the SAR is responsible a much smaller percentage of the punters. Hong Kong retail sales were off by 7 percent in June and tourism flows into Hong Kong were 11 percent, down from 20 percent in March. Those numbers feed into Macau.

The precise impact of the Xi campaign is difficult to quantify although it is certainly having its effect driving the ostentatious underground. Macau’s gross revenue growth correlates well with certain important macro-economic factors, in particular the renminbi/Hong Kong dollar exchange rate. The higher cost of onshore borrowing suggests junkets may have more a difficult time extending credit to VIP gamblers coming over to Macau.

As the renminbi was sharply devalued at the start of this year, Macau’s gross revenue growth dropped right along with it. As the Shanghai interbank overnight rate tightened, making overnight money more expensive, Macau’s revenues took a hit. And Chinese home prices clearly have had a longer-term close relation to Macau’s gaming fortunes..

Other factors have played a notable role. What’s important about that is that the foreign exchange rate has turned, interest rates are likely to loosen, and housing prices probably are close to bottoming. In combination, those factors could well offset part of the damage from the anti-corruption campaign and put a bottom under Macau’s gross revenues. But plenty of other factors are obviously playing a role.

The weaker renminbi vs. the Hong Kong dollar, to which the Macau pataka is pegged, translates directly into fewer casino chips in Macau, or vice-versa, given the same amount of renminbi- denominated credit or cash the gambler is able to arrange for his visit. The record high 38 billion-pataka gross revenue in February, and a relatively robust March were preceded by very strong RMB-HKD cross rates in January and early February, in fact the strongest since the renminbi revaluation in 2005. The currency differential exhibits a lead of one to two months on Macau’s gross gaming revenues and has been trending higher once again since early June

Comparing the cyclical peaks and troughs of average home price changes across 70 major Chinese and Macau gaming revenue growth rates displays a striking resemblance. This depicts the wealth effect of mainland gamblers have on their ability to play in Macau, of which their home assets could very well be used to pledge to secure credit from the gaming promoters.

Lastly, having a local currency linked to the US dollar means that inevitably both Macau and Hong Kong are importing US monetary policy from the Federal Reserve. The multi-year run-up in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index reflects the boom in global liquidity that has also made its way to Macau’s gaming revenues. The fortune of the gaming enclaves is clearly closely tied to market’s outlook of the Fed’s exhausted QE program.

With reporting from REORIENT Securities Ltd. of Hong Kong