Macau casinos slow slide in December, second year of negative growth

Macau casino gaming revenue showed a modest flicker of life in December, but it wasn’t enough to rescue a year of negativity.

Figures released Friday by Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ) show the special administrative region of China posted gaming revenue total of MOP7.8b (US$978m) in December, 65.8% below December 2019’s total.

On the plus side, that’s the highest monthly total and lowest rate of year-on-year decline since the pandemic took the market to the cleaners in February. December’s sum also represents a nearly 16% gain from November’s result. So, um, hurray?

In financial terms, there is no real way to polish this turd, although the Macao Government Tourist Office released data this week showing average hotel room occupancy hit close to 70% during the Christmas period of December 23-27. Daily visitor arrivals averaged 24,503 during this period, a significant improvement over the 20,385 average over the first 22 days of December.

December’s total (around MPO1b better than November) brought 2020’s annual haul to a whopping MOP60.4b ($7.56b), down 79.3% from 2019’s total. This marks the second straight year of negative growth, and this time Macau can only partially blame Beijing’s heavy regulatory hand for the downturn.

With Macau having just imposed a ban on visitors arriving from mainland China (if they’d visited a foreign country in the previous three weeks), Macau’s short-term outlook remains grim. And with Beijing recently amending its criminal law to include stiff penalties for casino junket operators, long-term growth prospects could prove similarly bleak.

This year’s monthly results will appear positive starting in February, thanks to favorable comparisons with the previous year’s dire results. Administration of the new vaccines should provide additional tailwinds, although Beijing’s increasingly effective war on cross-border money movement will continue to limit the VIP gambling segment.

Beijing’s efforts may also limit mass market gamblers who wish to exceed China’s strict capital controls. This week, Macau’s Judiciary Police (PJ) announced 30 individuals had been detained following the disruption of a suspected illegal point-of-sale (POS) machine operation that employed handheld POS terminals modified to make it seem as if retail transactions were occurring on the mainland.

PJ officials said the operation had reportedly handled transactions totaling RMB11.6b (US$1.8b) over a four-year period, from which organizers claimed a RMB69m profit. The shops involved include pawnshops, jewelry stores and telecom product outlets, which allegedly sold customers goods then allowed them to return the items for cash, minus a shop commission.

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