Packer turns the tables in Macau

Packer turns the tables in Macau, by Glenda Korporaal - 25th March 2008
(Credit: The Australian)

James Packer's Crown Macau business is enjoying a stunning turnaround, which has made it the busiest casino in the world in terms of betting volume, according to a leading gaming analyst.

Owned by Melco PBL Entertainment, James Packer's first casino foray in the city had a rocky start after its opening in May last year.

But its fortunes have been given a major boost as a result of a strategic deal late last year with a Hong Kong-listed junkets operator, A-Max, and the decision to refocus the casino entirely on the VIP market.

The aggressive deal with A-Max, which involves higher than industry average total commissions of up to 1.35 per cent, has helped bring VIP gamblers to the upmarket casino, taking market share off more experienced operators, such as Macau veteran Stanley Ho and new players Galaxy and the Macau Sands.

"Thanks to A-Max's junkets, Melco PBL's market share improved substantially from 5.7 per cent in November to 18.1 per cent in February, making Crown Macau the busiest casino in the world in terms of betting volume," Credit Suisse's Hong Kong-based gambling analyst, Gabriel Chan, says in a bullish new report on the company.

"If we focus on market share in the high-roller segment alone, the improvement was even more astonishing with market share increasing from 6.6 per cent in November to 24.8 per cent in February."

"A-Max junkets generated about $US5.3 billion ($5.8 billion) in rolling chip turnover in February, up about 5 per cent month on month," he said.

"In our view, there is room for further growth.

"We expect A-Max's junkets to generate on average $US6.3 billion rolling chip turnover per month in 2008." Packer's Crown now has a 37.9 per cent stake in the company, which listed on the US Nasdaq market in late 2006, alongside the Hong Kong-based Melco, operated by Stanley Ho's son Lawrence Ho.

Macau observers say the aggressive deal struck with A-Max has seen the junket operator bring in substantial new volumes of high-rollers to Crown Macau, which has been difficult for its rivals to match.

"There has been a dramatic shift in the market since December," one Macau veteran said last week.

"Stanley Ho's junket operators have been struggling. Galaxy has been losing market share as well.

"It has not been easy for them to find the consolidators who can bring in the same horsepower as A-Max."

Under the deal, A-Max, a consolidator of junket operators, receives a total commission rate of between 1.2 per cent and 1.35 per cent from Crown.

A-Max in turn pays its junket operators up to 1.2 per cent.

In the past, Macau casino operators would only pay around 1.1 or 1.2 per cent in total to junket operators to bring in high-rolling gamblers to their premises.

Observers say the financial viability of the Crown Macau deal with A-Max, which involves a potentially higher total commission structure, is dependent on A-Max being able to deliver high volumes, which has so far been the case.

Macau gaming turnover continues to increase, with total monthly revenues twice the level of the Las Vegas strip in recent months.

Unlike last year, which saw a flood of new casino openings in Macau, 2008 is not expected to see any substantial new supply come on to the market, giving the existing operators a chance to consolidate their positions.

The past few months have also seen Crown enjoy an increase in its "hold rate", or house percentage retained, which has also helped the success of its operations. "Crown's hold rate was terrible," said one observer.

"It used to be around 2.2 per cent on baccarat, but now it is 2.7 per cent."

Crown's success has put pressure on its rivals to increase the commissions paid to junket operators. As Chan notes in his report, the junket operators now have more bargaining power in Macau than the casino operators.

Chan says that Galaxy's market share has dropped from 14.9 per cent in November to only 10.3 per cent in February.

"Galaxy has extended credits to select junket operators and raised its commission rate to 1.25 per cent, even higher than the 1.2 per cent A-Max is paying junket operators," he notes.

The new competition from Crown has also prompted Sheldon Adelson's massive Venetian, which opened in mid-2007, to revise its commission structure, a move which has helped to boost its market share by 2 percentage points to 12 per cent in February. The Venetian's commission rate is now 1.26 per cent.

Chan predicts that Melco PBL's earnings before interest, tax and depreciation could reach as high as $US280 million in 2008. "With a total construction cost of about $US570 million, we estimate Crown's payback period to be only about two years," he says.


James Packer