EXCERPTED FROM INSIDE ASIAN GAMING MAGAZINE with additional editing provided by PAUL DOOCEY

A body of persuasive financial opinion has emerged in recent weeks to suggest the industry should take the opportunity of a reported delay in passage of Japan’s casino legalization to take a breather and rethink some of the more outsized forecasts in terms of gaming revenue and return on investment.

Morgan Stanley analysts Praveen Choudhary and Alex Poon returned from a recent trip to Japan to add a new report to the bank’s “Asia Insights” series soberly titled Japan—Tempered Enthusiasm in which they advance a decidedly less optimistic view of the timing of the market’s debut and its ability to draw enough foreign tourists—Chinese high rollers, in particular—to justify the top-line projections that have excited so much interest worldwide among operators, shareholders and the media.

They begin by stating, “We believe that consensus may be too bullish on the size of the market, the return profile for global gaming operators, and the speed of execution.”

They follow with 23 pages of detailed analysis, co-written with the bank’s Thomas Allen in New York, culled in part from meetings with policymakers, consultants and various stakeholders which they say have left them “incrementally negative on the prospects for the passing of an introduction bill this summer and an implementation bill over the next two years, to get casinos ready by by 2020.”

The prevailing view is that a bill introduced in the Diet in December to decriminalize the industry will be debated in May and passed before the chamber adjourns on June 22, setting the stage for a follow-up bill addressing the thornier issues of regulation, taxation and licensing which will be finalized and passed over the next year or so. It’s a view that stems from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reputed support for legalization as a tool for raising Japan’s profile as a tourist destination in aid of the larger economy, which has been stagnant for decades.

Bolstering this is the view that the bill enjoys broad support in the Diet based on its origins as a coalition effort led by top lawmakers within Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party backed by the LDP’s allies among some influential smaller parties, a combination that holds decisive majorities in the Diet and the upper House of Councilors. Then there is Tokyo’s selection to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, which has stoked the political momentum, or so advocates claim, and has supplied a ready-made calendar for dating the first openings.

Choudhary, Poon and Allen rate the authorization bill’s chances at better than 50 percent. But underscoring recent news reports of a possible delay in scheduling the debate they caution that the backroom wrangling that naturally accompanies legislation this significant (consensus-building, as it’s politely known in Japan) could take longer to resolve than the above timetable suggests, especially given a long history in Japanese society of ambivalence toward casinos.

“If there is not enough time to debate, then the vote could be postponed to the fall or next year—and by then, the momentum could be lost,” they write.

The ensuing process of structuring the market will be even more complicated, with many moving parts to be aligned that must take into consideration the primacy of the prefecture system in Japan’s highly federalized political system and the need to satisfy a plethora of special interests, national and local.

In all, they say, the consensus belief in a 12-month window for implementation “may be too optimistic.”

“We see several steps to be taken, many new agencies to be created, and consensus to be built on the size of the tax, use of junkets, tax deductibility of incentives, number of casinos, locations, participation by local companies, and safeguards for the local people. We see no real pressure for casinos to be ready before the 2020 Olympics, as consensus has highlighted.”

What’s riveted the industry’s attention, though, is the $40 billion in projected gross gaming revenue, which, if it pans out, will see Japan grow over the next decade into the second-largest casino market in the world. It’s based on a forecast of $8 billion each for two megaresorts in Tokyo and Osaka and another $2.4 billion each from 10 smaller regional casinos.

But the Morgan Stanley analysts have their doubts. They point to weaknesses in Japan’s overall appeal as a destination, particularly with regard to visitation from China. The ability to attract Chinese high rollers is essential to fostering a Macau-like VIP market, in their view, and it’s a prospect they rate as questionable, especially if the regulatory line on junkets is drawn closer to Singapore’s than to Macau’s, which is likely.

 

LOCAL VIEW

It’s an argument seconded in its essentials by Chris Jones, senior gaming & lodging analyst for Telsey Advisory Group, a consumer-focused brokerage based in New York. He’s written an even longer report that also zeroes in on the slow progress the country has made in meeting the government’s tourism goals. Japan has set a target of 18 million visitors in 2016 and 25 million in 2020, but it has yet to attract even 10 million, in light of which, comparisons with Singapore largely fall away, in his view, considering that the tiny city-state draws 15 million visitors annually. Nor does he believe the allure of the 2020 Olympics will be enough to redress the shortfall. Nearby competition could also arise to dent the potential, he says, especially if Korea responds by opening its casinos to domestic play.

He also questions the prospects for significant growth from an underserved domestic market, an assessment that figures prominently in Morgan Stanley’s research as well. Jones notes that Japan’s population is expected to shrink from 128 million today to 97 million by 2020. Choudhary, Poon and Allen, for their part, point to the limited impact of Japanese gamblers worldwide, to declining trends in pachinko revenue and to challenges the industry is likely to encounter in converting the country’s massive market of pachinko players into slot machine players.

Both firms take a top-down approach that looks at GGR in relation to nominal GDP to arrive at estimates of annual revenue in the realm of $16.5 billion to $23.8 billion (Jones) and $21 billion-$22 billion (Choudhary, Poon, Allen). The former’s low-end estimate comes in well below consensus in projecting a combined $10 billion from two casinos in Tokyo, $3.8 billion from a casino in Osaka and as much as $1.8 billion each from casinos in Hokkaido and Kyushu.

The Morgan Stanley team qualifies their estimate as a best-case scenario, implying they might not disagree with Jones at his most conservative.

To quote the basics of their argument for using GDP as an indicator: “The average is about 0.43 percent in Asia and U.S. gaming markets,” they write. “If we apply this percentage to Japan’s 2013 nominal GDP of $4.9 trillion, Japan’s GGR would be roughly $21 billion, only half of the market consensus of $40 billion. Even more importantly, this could be divided among 10-12 casinos across Japan and thus the Tokyo market’s GGR could be as low as $5-6 billion (though impressive in the context of Las Vegas/ Singapore, which are $6-7 billon markets).”

They also offer a bottom-up analysis, looking at GGR as a ratio of lottery turnover—a “good indicator of how big the gambling business could be,” they said. “Singapore has the highest GGR to lottery turnover ratio among Asian gaming markets at 3.0. If we apply Singapore’s payout ratio to Japan’s drop of $11 billion, we come to Japan lottery revenue of $7.26 billion, implying casino GGR of $21.8 billion. Considering the lottery business is much closer to mass (but not VIP), a ratio of 1.6x would imply mass revenue of $12 billion. With a lower VIP revenue mix in Japan due to fewer Chinese players and potentially no junkets, overall GGR could be even lower than $21.8 billion.”

They note that bulls frequently point to the enormity of Japan’s pachinko market ($36 billion in 2012) as an indicator of revenue potential, but here, too, they take a contrarian view. “[The market] has been declining for the last several years,” they note, citing steadily falling handle dating back to 1996 and, since 2009, a decline in the average number of players per machine. As they see it, both are reflective of declines which they’ve observed in the earnings of Japan’s leisure sector overall over the last several years and the spending power of Japanese consumers.

“Secondly, not all pachinko players will transplant to casinos when they open,” they contend. But assuming 20 percent do, they arrive at a Tokyo slot market worth $1.2 billion based on $5 billion in current pachinko revenue—a market, interestingly enough, that would be smaller than Macau’s ($1.78 billion in 2013).

Their conclusion is that companies banking on 20 percent ROIC in Japan are likely to be disappointed. They base this on three factors: 1) their assumption of a 20 percent direct tax on gaming revenue, which is not counting corporate tax and additional taxes and fees at the local level that might also apply; 2) the lofty price of entry—operators are talking about investments of $5 billion-$10 billion; and 3) the country’s relatively high construction and labor costs.

“Returns of newer casinos have been falling mainly due to rising capex,” they write. “ROIC (EBITDA/invested capital) in the first year have been falling from as high as >100 percent (Sands Macao in 2004) to the recent 10-15 percent for Sands Cotai Central in Macau and Solaire in the Philippines (15 percent). With lower expected unit productivity in Japan, limited VIP/Chinese penetration and high capex, the casinos could generate lower returns.”

Reprinted with permission from Inside Asian Gaming magazine.

 

ISLAND HOPING

Island nations throughout Asia and the Pacific are contemplating casino development. Here is an update on three:

SAIPAN

Two Chinese investment groups have submitted applications for the first casino license authorized on Saipan, one of them linked to the new owners of the casino’s prospective rival on the nearby island of Tinian.

The office of Gov. Eloy Inos identified the two as Hong Kong-based Marianas Stars Entertainment, whose shareholders include Mega Stars Overseas Ltd., which took over the struggling Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino last year, and Best Sunshine International, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed First Natural Foods Holdings, an investment holding company engaged in processing and trading food products in China and internationally.

Both companies wired proof of a $1 million non-refundable application fee. Both also were required to pay a $30 million casino license fee by May 5, bringing Inos closer to his promise to restore the cash-strapped government’s recent 25 percent cut in retirement pensions.

“It’s a good day for the commonwealth,” his press secretary Angel Demapan said.

The Senate’s pro-casino President Ralph Torres said he was initially hoping that “three or four” investors would participate, “But I am happy that we have at least two,” he told the Saipan Times. “This will lead to economic activities. We can now better address the issues before us.”

The winning bidder is required to build at least 2,000 hotel rooms as part of a minimum investment of $2 billion. As Inos has emphasized, the legislation is “not just about casinos” but about construction of new hotels, expansion of infrastructure and the creation of thousands of jobs.

Pending their payment of the $30 million the applicants will be reviewed by the island’s Lottery Commission, which is authorized to grant the license. It will be the first on Saipan, the largest island of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands in the western Pacific. Previously, casinos were legal only on the islands of Tinian and Rota.

 

FIJI

Construction has started on a $290 million resort casino in Fiji, the first ever for the South Pacific archipelago.

The developer, a local hospitality company called One Hundred Sands, said the project, which has experienced several delays since the government approved it in 2011, will open in mid-2015 on the island of Denarau under an exclusive 15-year license.

Plans call for 200 hotel rooms and villas, a spa, pools, a nightclub, three restaurants, MICE facilities and a 1,500-seat performing arts center.

The construction is expected to create more than 1,600 jobs.

One Hundred Sands is also approved for a gaming resort in the capital of Suva.

Fiji, with a population of about 875,000, lies some 1,100 miles north of New Zealand.

 

SRI LANKA

Bowing to political and religious opposition, the government of Sri Lanka will not allow casinos at the $1.3 billion worth of luxury resorts planned for the capital of Colombo.

The announcement was made by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and comes days after the main opposition United National Party staged a demonstration in Colombo accusing the government of encouraging vice.

Casinos are also opposed by political parties controlled by the island nation’s powerful fundamentalist Buddhist clergy.

“We voted against these concessions as a warning to the government to correct its course,” Buddhist monk and legislator Athuraliya Rathane said.

“We will not allow casinos. That we say very clearly,” Basil Rajapaksa told parliament. “They [the promoters] asked, we did not allow, nor will we allow [in the future].”

He made the statement in conjunction with the government’s approval for the three projects to go ahead, minus casinos, but with 10-year corporate tax breaks which the UNP also opposes.

It is not clear how the news will affect the developments proposed by James Packer’s Crown Resorts and by local hospitality giant John Keells Holdings and Sri Lanka businessman and casino owner Dhammika Petera and his rumored partner, Genting.

There was no immediate comment from any of them, according to Agence France-Presse.

A casino figures prominently in Packer’s proposed $400 million, 450-room Crown Sri Lanka, a joint venture with the country’s largest casino operator, Ravi Wijeratne, and the subject of “detailed discussions” with the government, according to Melbourne, Australia-based Crown. John Keells, the country’s largest listed company, is proposing a $650 million casino and hotel. Petera’s project is pegged at $300 million.

Sri Lanka is home to a handful of small foreigners-only casinos. These were granted recognition by legislation sponsored by the Rajapaksas in 2010 but never formally organized in a regulatory framework. The government had hoped expanding the industry with high-end destination-scale casinos would promote economic development by boosting tourist arrivals and generating badly needed foreign investment for rebuilding the country after decades of civil war with Hindu separatists.

Reprinted with permission from Inside Asian Gaming magazine.