Macau yearly gambling revenue down 2.6% for the first ever decline since reporting began in 2002. December revenue down 30% from a year ago for the 7th losing month in a row. What’s really happening?

To scan the blurbs, press releases, and anecdotal evidence about the latest numbers out of Macau one would get the impression that the Mainland has used its iron fist to put a squeeze on gambling junkets and that is the whole picture. With a broader view we see that there may well be something more going on. Yes, the “anti-graft campaign” has netted plenty of officials on the mainland and yes, a lot of the big money VIPs have hunkered down at home rather than take advantage of  “less than legal” methods to contravene rules on the amount of money they can take with them and risk at the tables in Macau casinos. But there is more to the picture.

Although, by many indicators, the Chinese economy surpassed the US for world dominance by the Fall of 2014 [in terms of GDP based on purchasing power parity (PPP)] it is still anything but stellar in regards to health and vitality – showing weakness in many sectors. The complicated Chinese economy is set to miss the government’s 7.5% growth target for the first time since 1999 – when China shined like a star in the dark night of the Asian financial crisis. 2014 factory output for December expanded at its slowest rate in 18 months, and new home prices are still stagnant or falling in more than 90% of the 70 most important cities in the country.

We have to keep in mind the government motto of,  “One Country Two Systems” because the money that flows into Macau comes from the mainland. And although all indications are that the rich are getting richer (precise numbers are impossible to come by because China’s elite do not disclose details to government statisticians) the top 1% are not the only contributors to the VIP tables. A shrinking, or less robust economy will certainly drive the numbers at the casinos.

Here are the dismal numbers – The stocks of the six casino concessionaires in Macau saw an average drop of 40% in 2014. Whereas in 2013 Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd., MGM China Holdings Ltd., and Galaxy saw their stock prices double.

So let’s take a look at some  numbers – specifically to compare the mass gaming market, which by all indicators should be shrinking, with the VIP, or “rolling chip” market. Complete financials for 2014 are not available yet, so we will need to speculate a bit based on overall numbers, and we’ll leave it to readers to form their own opinions.

Las Vegas Sands Corporation seems to have stopped reporting breakout numbers but we can look at 2012 for guidance. The Venetian Macau showed the best mass market to VIP balance of any Macanese concessionaires in Q3-2012 with mass market (table games only) revenue of $357.1 million and VIP (rolling chip) revenue of $372 million. Whereas Wynn Macau reported a disparity of $211.3 million to $850 million, and City of Dreams made $243.8 million from table drop and $624 million from VIP rolling chips.

This small sample should corelate directly to 2014 profit or loss if the drop is solely attributable to VIP gamblers, but it doesn’t. Although  efforts have been made to attract middle class gamblers across almost all properties from 2012 to 2014 (gambler visits were up from the mainland and down from Hong Kong in 2014) the wide gap in mass market revenue to VIP revenue has not shifted enough to account for the losses seen on the 2014 year. Wynn Macau was the extreme exception and saw a Q3-2014 mass gaming revenue increase year to year of nearly 40% while VIP revenue on drop was 17.4% lower than the same quarter in 2013.

Sands China LTD  had a January 6, 2014 stock price of $81.8. That number plumetted to $48.14 by January 2, 2015 with a near even mix of mass market to VIP revenue at Venetian Macau compared to other concessionaires.

We might conclude along with other information that while the turmoil in Hong Kong drove down visitor numbers, a total increase in mass market gaming occurred in 2014 due to more visits from the mainland. Anti-smoking measures may have hurt the push to mass market, but numbers were still up in that area. The government’s aggressive crack-down on corruption, including increased oversight of mass market favorite UnionPay cards certainly had an overall effect.

The government crackdown on corruption, which may be rampant in many elements of Chinese business, has definitely driven high stakes players from the tables, giving operators more than a nudge to diversify their top-heavy VIP dependent business model. But the overall economic downturn in the Chinese economy may well be more of a force in the year-end numbers. The Chinese economy is vast and complicated, and as far as we can know the part of the corruption crackdown that stymied the junkets could be a shakedown that will mysteriously evaporate as soon as the Big 6 in Macau show some interest in neighboring Hengqin. But that’s another story altogether.