Macau kicks off public gaming consultation ahead of casino rebidding

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HONG KONG (Reuters) -Macau begins a 45-day public gaming consultation on Wednesday to gauge consensus ahead of a closely watched rebidding of its multi-billion dollar casinos, with expectations of tighter regulations sending shares in Macau operators plunging.

Lei Wai Nong, secretary for economy and finance in the world’s biggest gambling hub, said the government will further promote the “sustained and healthy development” of Macau’s gambling industry as there were still some deficiencies in industry supervision.

Shares of Hong Kong-listed Macau casinos plunged between 16-28% on Wednesday morning, following heavy falls overnight in U.S. casino stocks with Macau operations as investors panicked over potential new regulations.

Macau’s casino operators Sands China (OTC:SCHYY), Wynn Macau (OTC:WYNMF), Galaxy Entertainment, SJM Holdings (OTC:SJMHF), Melco Entertainment and MGM China (OTC:MCHVY) are all required to rebid for their casino licsenses when they expire in June 2022. There has been no clarity yet on the process from the government on what is required.

D.S. Kim, an analyst at J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong, said they were downgrading all Macau gaming names from overweight to neutral or underweight following the briefing due to heightened scrutiny on capital management and daily operations ahead of the license renewal.

“We admit it’s only a ‘directional’ signal, while the level of actual regulation/execution still remains a moot point,” he said, adding that the announcement would have already planted a seed of doubt in investors’ minds.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Lei detailed nine areas for the consultation, including the number of licenses to be given, increased regulation and protecting employee welfare, as well as introducing government representatives to supervise day-to-day operations at the casinos.

A Chinese special administrative region, Macau has massively tightened scrutiny of casinos in recent years, with authorities clamping down on illicit capital flows from mainland China and targeting underground lending and illegal cash transfers.

Beijing has also intensified a war on cross-border flows of funds for gambling, affecting the financing channels of Macau’s junket operators and their VIP casino customers.

In June this year, Macau more than doubled the number of gaming inspectors and restructured several departments to ramp up supervision.

J.P. Morgan’s Kim downgraded Macau operators Sands, Wynn and Melco to “underweight” from “overweight” and shifted Galaxy, SJM and MGM to “neutral”.

George Choi, an analyst at Citigroup (NYSE:C) 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 on the six casino operators”.

He cautioned, however, that “we will not be surprised if the market focuses only on the potentially negative implications, given the weak investor sentiment”.

The consultation comes as Macau has struggled with a dearth of travellers because of coronavirus curbs since the start of 2020. While gambling revenues have picked up in recent months, they remain at less than half of 2019 monthly hauls.