Consumer

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

When Australia sneezes, does Macau catch a cold?

The territory's casino stocks have certainly taken fright at Chinese authorities' detention of 18 employees of Australian gambling company Crown Resorts -- shares in Sands China fell as much as 5.4 percent and Wynn Macau dropped 4.6 percent.

High Stakes
Markets are treating casinos differently depending on where they're located. Share price change on Oct. 17
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Melco Crown not included because it's not listed in Hong Kong.

It's understandable that the news has alarmed the industry. The Australian Financial Review quoted China's foreign ministry as saying that the employees were being held in connection with gambling crimes.

Marketing of gambling services -- an essential element in attracting VIP clients, the high-rollers who make up a significant slice of Asian casino revenues -- is illegal in mainland China.

As a result, much of the industry operates in a gray area, winning new customers by advertising their non-gaming attractions instead, or allowing junket operators to act as middlemen.

That's actually a good reason for the Macau operators to take heart. Right now, there are two main threats to their VIP businesses -- the shortage of regulated gaming tables being granted by the territory's government, and competition from less regulated resorts operating offshore.

There's not a lot Macau's casinos can do about government regulators, but casinos catering to Chinese high-rollers in Australia, the Philippines, Korea, Saipan and elsewhere in the region may be more tractable.

Being distant from China, and newcomers in a market that's already dominated by Macau's big six casino operators, they face an uphill struggle to establish themselves. Hence the presence of marketing offices on the mainland, in spite of the risks.

A crackdown on such offices is essentially a crackdown on Macau's competitors. That's an old lesson of gambling -- more often than not, your opponents' losses are your gains.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net