For most of the past five years, the Chinese gambling mecca of Macau seemed a sure bet. After the local government ended a decades-old gaming monopoly in 2002, some of the biggest casino and hotel operators in the world rushed in with new projects, eager to tap into the hoards of wealthy Chinese who increasingly flocked to the “Asian Las Vegas.” The first American company to enter the market was Las Vegas Sands, which opened the Sands Macau casino in 2004 and earned back its $285 million investment in only a year. U.S. casino mogul Steve Wynn, who opened the $1.2 billion Wynn Macau in 2006, once called the city “the most exciting growth story of the decade.”
But what was once a promising new market for U.S. gaming companies has in the last 18 months become a money-sucking crap shoot. Recession and the global credit crisis have turned some bottom lines red, while major new projects have been shelved due to lack of financing and an uncertain business outlook. The latest hard-luck story: MGM Mirage. This week, the Las Vegas-based company disclosed that New Jersey gaming industry regulators object to its Macau joint venture partner, raising the possibility that MGM Mirage could pull out of the market.
MGM Mirage opened the $1.25 billion MGM Grand Macau hotel and casino in 2007 in partnership with Pansy Ho, daughter of tycoon Stanley Ho, who held a monopoly on gaming in Macau for four decades and continues to operate casinos in the city today. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, MGM Mirage said that the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement had deemed Pansy Ho an “unsuitable” partner after a four-year investigation. The agency recommended that MGM Mirage “be directed to disengage” itself from the joint venture. Company officials didn’t reveal the reasons why regulators disapproved of Ho, and the report itself is confidential.
The results of the investigation have thrown the future of MGM Mirage’s Macau business into confusion. Although the report is only a recommendation, New Jersey’s Casino Control Commission could order the company to end the partnership if its findings are upheld. New Jersey gaming authorities have jurisdiction over MGM Mirage’s business associations because the company owns part of a casino in Atlantic City.
In a statement, MGM Mirage which operates the famed Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas said that “we disagree with the recommendation” and “we look forward to presenting our position.” Pansy Ho in a statement said that “I and my advisers will need time to read and consider the contents of the report and decide how best to respond to it.” The New Jersey commission is expected to hold a public hearing on the matter.
While MGM Mirage has been hit by a regulatory bombshell, other Macau casino operators are suffering financial fallout in a market turned cold by recession and an unexpected shift in Chinese policy. Last year, Chinese authorities without explanation began restricting the number of citizens who were allowed to enter Macau. Gaming revenues fell to $3.3 billion in the first quarter of 2009, a decline of almost 13% compared with the same period a year earlier; the number of visitors to the city dropped by nearly 10% in the first quarter. The declines are hitting hoteliers and casinos hard. Melco Crown Entertainment, a Nasdaq-listed joint venture between Laurence Ho and Australian billionaire James Packer, recently reported it lost $35.3 million in the first quarter, compared with a $43.2 million profit in the same period in 2008. It was the fourth straight quarterly loss for the company, which operates Macau’s Altira hotel and casino.
Hardest hit has been Las Vegas Sands, whose chairman, Sheldon Adelson, envisioned transforming a stretch of reclaimed Macau land called Cotai into a new Las Vegas Strip with a $12-billion development of hotels and casinos. He launched the effort in 2007 with the opening of a 3,000-room Venetian hotel similar to his flagship Las Vegas property. But last year Adelson struggled to find financing for the project. Construction on new hotels was suspended in November, and the company recently said it would cut as many as 4,000 workers from its Macau operations. Late last year, Las Vegas Sands, which has been suffering from slumping revenues in the U.S. as well, appeared to be in danger of defaulting on its debt obligations until it raised more than $2 billion in capital including some from Adelson himself to stabilize its finances.
Las Vegas Sands is considering a range of ways to raise additional funding, including selling minority stakes in its existing Macau properties or listing its Macau operation on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The company “continues to pursue and consider a variety of options,” says a Las Vegas Sands spokesman, who declined to discuss details. The company said it hopes to restart construction on the Cotai project by the end of the year.
The Macau drought could get worse before it gets better. More competition is on the way. Melco Crown on June 1 is slated to open its City of Dreams project in Cotai, across the street from Adelson’s Venetian, adding a 520-table casino and a Hard Rock Hotel to the market. Still, some analysts believe Macau’s fortunes are starting to improve. Aaron Fischer, gaming analyst at brokerage CLSA in Hong Kong, says that China’s economy is strengthening, which could benefit the city’s tourism industry. He also notes the Chinese government seems to be loosening its tight visa restrictions on Chinese visitors. “We’ll continue to see recovery because of these macro factors,” Fischer says. “We have turned the corner.” But predicting the future of Macau’s gambling industry is a lot like rolling dice.
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