© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People wearing masks walk in front of the Casino Lisboa, ahead of its temporary closure, following the coronavirus outbreak in Macau, China, February 4, 2020. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
By Farah Master and Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Shares of Macau casino operators tumbled by as much as a third on Wednesday, losing about $ 14 billion in value, as the government launched a public consultation that investors fear will lead to stricter regulations in the largest gaming center in the world.
With Macau’s lucrative casino licenses to bid again next year, a government proposal to revise the city’s gambling law spooked a Hong Kong market that had already crashed into the red by extensive regulatory crackdown on Beijing, in all sectors, from technology to education to property, which has been cut hundreds of billions of dollars off the value of assets.
Wynn Macau (OTC 🙂 led the decline, dropping as much as 34% to a record low, followed by a 28% decline for Sands China (OTC :). The MGM China (OTC :), Galaxy Entertainment, SJM and Melco Entertainment pairs fell sharply, taking the drop to HK $ 109 billion ($ 14 billion).
The drop came after Lei Wai Nong, Macau’s economy and finance secretary, notified a 45-day consultation on the gaming industry on Tuesday night starting Wednesday, saying there were still some shortcomings in the oversight of the industry.
Beijing, increasingly wary of Macau’s acute reliance on gambling, has yet to indicate how the license bidding process will be judged.
Some Hong Kong stock analysts wasted little time lowering their views on the near-term outlook for casino operators in the China Special Administrative Region. Everyone must bid again on licenses when current permits expire in June 2022.
At JP Morgan, analyst DS Kim said the bank was downgrading all Macau gaming names from overweight to neutral or underweight due to increased scrutiny on capital management and day-to-day operations ahead of license renewals. .
“We admit that it is just a ‘directional’ sign, while the actual regulation / enforcement level remains a moot point,” he said, adding that the announcement would have already planted a seed of doubt in investors’ minds.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Lei detailed nine areas for consultation, including the number of licenses to be granted, greater regulation and protection of employee welfare, as well as introducing government representatives to oversee daily operations in casinos.
Discussions about the future of Macau casino licensing come amid unstable U.S.-China relations, causing some investors to fear that U.S.-based casino operators are not fare as well as local players.
The government has not singled out any US players, but there has been a push within companies to reinforce the presence of Chinese or local executives to position themselves more as a Macau operator than a foreign one.
Before the licenses expire, operators have tried to strengthen their corporate responsibility and diversify into non-game offerings to assuage Beijing’s fears of over-reliance on gambling.
Macau has greatly stepped up scrutiny of casinos in recent years, with authorities cracking down on illicit capital flows from mainland China and targeting clandestine loans and illegal cash transfers.
Beijing has also escalated a war against cross-border gambling fund flows, affecting the funding channels of Macau’s travel operators and their VIP casino customers.
In June this year, Macau more than doubled the number of gaming inspectors and restructured several departments to increase supervision.
George Choi, Analyst at Citigroup (NYSE 🙂 in Hong Kong said that while the public consultation document offered limited details, the suggested revisions enhance long-term sustainable growth for the industry with “positive implications for all six casino operators.”
However, he cautioned that “we will not be surprised if the market focuses solely on the potentially negative implications, given weak investor sentiment.”
The query comes as Macau has struggled with a shortage of travelers due to coronavirus restrictions since early 2020. While gaming revenue has rebounded in recent months, it remains on less than half of trips. monthly 2019.
($ 1 = 7.7783 Hong Kong dollars)