Sunday, May 31, 2009

Packer confident of his Macau gamble - The Australian - 30th May 2009

On Monday morning, James Packer will wake up in Macau to his moment of truth.

In the 3 1/2 years since the death of his legendary father, Kerry, Packer has transformed the family empire from one focused predominantly on media into the international casinos conglomerate Crown.

Monday's opening of Macau's City of Dreams casino -- one of the Chinese territory's most opulent and expensive -- is a crucial psychological marker on whether that transformation has been successful.

One of Packer's close confidants told The Weekend Australian this week the 42-year-old "always had a real belief in Macau and he's backed his belief". "City of Dreams is the culmination of that," the friend says. "It will be the jewel in the crown, in terms of size, of all of his casinos."

But with size comes risk. Packer has bet hundreds of millions of dollars of his money -- but more importantly his reputation as a major player on the international gaming scene alongside casino legends Stanley Ho, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson -- on Macau.

Packer and Stanley Ho's son, Lawrence Ho -- his partner in the Melco Crown Entertainment joint venture behind the casino -- unveiled their plans for City of Dreams in the midst of an unseemly rush to develop a new Asian Las Vegas.

But today, such developments face pretty strong headwinds. In particular, gaming revenues in Macau are under pressure as the financial crisis and restrictions on Chinese citizens travelling to the former Portuguese colony bite. Even major players, such as the Las Vegas Sands, have reportedly delayed projects. Packer's fortunes have certainly fallen in line with the global crisis, with BRW magazine this week estimating his worth at $3 billion, down from $6.1 billion this time last year and the $7.3 billion he reportedly inherited from his father.

Still, Crown shares, of which the Packer family owns 36 per cent, have rallied strongly ahead of the City of Dreams opening. The run was spurred in part by Crown's escape from a proposed $US1.75 billion ($2.2 billion) takeover of Cannery Casino Resorts in the US. But one source close to Packer describes him as "quietly confident" about the future of City of Dreams. "I think we benefited from the fact there are a hell of a lot of cranes up there on unfinished projects," he says. "It is the only big new casino opening, and it will be the only one for some time."

The importance of Monday night's spectacular opening ceremony and first few months of trading are not lost on Melco Crown finance chief Simon Dewhurst. "City of Dreams is our flagship development," he says.

"It has consumed over 60 per cent of our investment capital and it represents our first opportunity in Macau to compete for the integrated resort middle ground that represents the future for the market. The opening of CoD marks the culmination of more than six years hard work. We are taking a transformational step from being primarily a development company, to being primarily an operating company."

Crown chief Rowen Craigie agrees the opening of City of Dreams represents "a major milestone". He says: "City of Dreams will be an exciting and attractive property and will benefit from being the only major casino entertainment complex to open in Macau in 2009."

City of Dreams, on Macau's popular Cotai strip, will be Melco Crown's second in the territory, following the opening of the $US760 million Crown Macau (now the Altira Macau) in 2007.

Analysts say City of Dreams is the first casino in Macau to break the $US2billion investment threshold. Its opening will be the culmination of a process that started before Kerry Packer's death when James settled on Macau as the first focal point of his global gaming ambitions.

In November 2004, Packer struck a joint venture agreement with the Hong Kong-listed leisure and entertainment group, Melco Development, run by Lawrence Ho. While there was little concrete announced at the time, it was soon made clear the joint venture company had big plans.

Once his father died in December 2005, Packer moved quickly to transform what was then the media-driven Publishing and Broadcasting Limited into a gaming empire. This transformation was highlighted late in 2006 with the top-of-the-market sale of PBL Media -- owner of the Nine Network and ACP Magazines -- to private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific for more than $5billion, just before the value of the assets started to decline amid both structural and cyclical change.

The PBL empire was left as largely a casino-focused one, and a subsequent split of the group in 2007 saw the casino assets hived off into the new casinos group, Crown.

But the move that signalled Packer's serious intent for gaming in Macau was his joint move with Melco just three months after his father's death to buy Macau's last available casino sub-concession from Wynn, the US casino entrepreneur, for $US900 million. The move cemented Packer and Ho as major players at the table of Macau's casino industry.

Altira Macau and City of Dreams are now held through Melco Crown Entertainment, which is listed on the Nasdaq index in the US and counts Crown as a 36.4 per cent shareholder.

Since 2006, Crown has also made a series of casino purchases independent of the Melco Crown venture in North America. These include stakes in the US-based Fontainebleau Resorts, Canada's Gateway Resorts group, Stations Casino Group and Harrah's Entertainment, underlining Packer's intense focus on gaming assets.

With the fall-off in casino values worldwide since the purchases, critics -- acting with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight -- have questioned the wisdom of his moves in both Macau and North America shortly before the global economic downturn. Even Crown's Rowen Craigie reportedly admitted earlier this year that the group had bought some of its US assets at the top of the market.

Crown's woes in the US were on full display in the company's interim profit result, with the group posting a reported net loss of $409.7 million due to a non-recurring $454.9 million writedown to the value of its minority US casino investments -- namely Fontainebleau, Stations and Harrah's.

But Packer's supporters assert that while there has been a fall in value of the US ventures in particular, he is well up on his Macau investments. After its $US45 million investment in Melco Crown's $US180 million capital raising this month, Crown has now invested a total of $US500 million in the group. That stake is now worth more than $US1 billion. Friends point out that Packer has effectively doubled his money and, in the process, gained a major say in a business that has two casinos fully funded, one of only six casino licences in Macau, and assorted hotels, retail complexes and entertainment venues supporting the casinos.

Melco Crown is not without problems. It booked a March quarter net loss of $US35.3 million, compared to a profit of $US43.2 million for the same period last year, prompting Ho to admit the casino market was not out of the woods yet. One analyst noted that Crown Macau had a "very poor opening" in 2007, with Packer's reputation suffering as a result. City of Dreams, he says, represents "a very critical moment".

Then again, Deutsche Bank last week raised its price target on Melco Crown from $US4.40 to $US6 a share, saying it was "now more confident on the success of City of Dreams after we walked through the property early this month".

City of Dreams certainly sounds impressive. Ho promises the water- and fantasy-themed complex will be a "next-generation resort like no other in Asia, or perhaps the world".

Located directly opposite the biggest casino in Macau -- the Las Vegas Sands Venetian Macau -- it will boast several distinctly branded casino floors, three world-class hotels and a shopping precinct to be known as The Boulevard.

On Monday, Melco Crown opens the first phase of that project, which will include the Crown Towers and Hard Rock hotels, 20 bars and restaurants, The Boulevard, plus a casino with 520 gaming tables (a third of which will be VIP) and 1350 gaming machines. It will be the only major casino to open in Macau this calendar year.

The casino's Bubble Theatre will feature a 10-minute "Dragon's Treasure" multi-media lights show. Theatre of Dreams, a 2000-seat theatre, will feature a Cirque Du Soleil-style water production when it opens in the December half. By December, the third hotel, the Grand Hyatt, will open, giving the complex a total of 1400 rooms. And there is even the future prospect of a further apartment development in the complex, subject to Macau regulatory approval. Melco's Dewhurst says Melco Crown is "very confident". He says: "We have spent a very significant amount of time, energy and resource into understanding what's working and what's not working throughout the market. We think City of Dreams is right."

Success for Melco Crown and City of Dreams will come down to a number of things. But one key measure will be foot traffic. "We expect that we will have something in the order of 35,000 guests a day passing through the property," Dewhurst says. "I have no doubt that we will have in excess of that number on the first day. In the first 100 days what's important for us is that on any of those 100 days we see that volume of traffic into the building."

In the current climate, that could be a challenge. Its performance will hinge on the recovery of the Asian economy -- and in particular how quickly Asian high-rollers return to the territory's casinos after the tough recent times.

Credit Suisse analyst Gabriel Chan said in a note last week that "with concerns about swine flu remaining vital, and signs that the recovery pace of the Chinese economy may have slowed, we see certain execution risks for the opening".

Indeed, visitor numbers to Macau, as recorded by the Statistics and Census Service, were down 3.5 per cent in April from the same period last year and steady over the previous month. Visitors from mainland China were down 13.5 per cent year on year.

Gaming revenues have suffered as a result of weaker visitor arrivals, but the pace of the decline has stabilised in the past few months. And there are hopes, from Ho down, for a swift rebound, partly driven by the buzz from the City of Dreams opening.

Some analysts believe that as Macau's most expensive casino, City of Dreams may be able to take market share from other players.

Janet Brashear, senior gaming analyst with US investment house Sanford C. Bernstein, says she expects City of Dreams to "make a splash, garnering $US1.4 billion in gross gaming revenues in 2010 and a 10 per cent share of the market". She also predicts City of Dreams could cannibalise the market share of some of its competitors in Macau, such as the Venetian Macau and Wynn resort.

For analysts, success will come down to one thing -- City of Dreams achieving an earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of about $US300 million in the first year.

"You look across the road at the Venetian and they're doing about $US120 million EBITDA a quarter -- $US500 million a year," says one analyst. "So you would have thought $US300 million would be achievable for City of Dreams."

If City of Dreams achieves better than that -- say $US500 million a year -- then it will be a strong position against its rivals. There is growing speculation that casino giant MGM may have to sell its Macau interests after US regulators raised concerns about its local joint venture partner, Pansy Ho -- the daughter of Stanley and brother of Lawrence. Las Vegas Sands is also looking to sell some plots.

One close Packer confidant is hedging his bets ahead of Monday's event. He says: "On the assumption that the Macau economy will start to improve, Melco and City of Dreams are going to be in a very good place." (The Australian)

Media Man Australia Profiles

James Packer

City of Dreams

Crown Casino


World Casino Directory

Property News

Financial News

Casino News

Casino Travel

Casino Travel Media

Property News Media

Casino News Media

Australian Casino News