Can junket operators succeed in the U.S. as they do in China? They've only been running for a couple of months now, and there are some key differences between them, but so far the answer seems to be a resounding yes. And if it plays out like that over the long term, it could be a troublesome for Macau, the only place where gambling is legal in China, and for its leading casino operators like Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS), Melco Crown Entertainment (NASDAQ:MLCO), and Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN).
Junket operators are essentially middlemen who arrange travel to Macau, Singapore, Australia, and other Asian casinos for high net worth players. They also extend credit to these VIPS so they can play high-stakes games. In exchange for bringing these high rollers to their casinos, the gaming halls pay the junket operators a hefty commission.
That sort of arrangement isn't permissible in the U.S., where casinos are required to know their customers, meaning they have to know where a gambler's money is company from so the casinos can't be used to launder money. So junkets aren't likely to make an appearance in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but you can find them on Saipan, the largest island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific.
Located just 2,100 miles from Macau, Saipan's proximity to the Chinese mainland allows junket operators to entice high rollers to travel to the island and gamble there instead of in Macau, where a crackdown on corruption has made it a less appealing place to play. Because the Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. commonwealth, it means they have to follow U.S. rules, making the the game play there safer and more even.
For example, the Commonwealth Casino Commission authorized last year what's known as a rolling chip program to make for a Macau-style operation.
Under the program, when a player buys chips to play a game, he is also given what are called non-negotiable, or dead chips. They can't be redeemed for cash like regular casino chips, but rather earn the VIP a percentage rebate if he uses them to play instead. Obviously that incentivizes the high rollers to play with the dead chips, since the more he wagers using them, the more he can earn. On Saipan, the gaming commission set the rebate at 1.3%, which is slightly lower than can be found in other locations.
Saipan's difference, however, is that junket operator don't extend credit to the gamblers as they do in Macau and elsewhere; rather it's the casino itself that extends it. While they may offer VIPs credit through the junket operator, that person has been vetted by the casino and the gaming commission so the gambling hall remains in compliance with the "know your customer" rules.
And it was those regulations that were partly responsible for Hong Kong Entertainment having its gaming license suspended last year. It operated on the nearby island of Tinian, but after flouting the rules about knowing your customer, the island's gaming commission suspended its license and it ultimately declared bankruptcy.
Of course, the casino industry on Saipan is still in its infancy, with the island's sole casino operator, Best Sunshine International, the subsidiary of Imperial Pacific International Holdings, only running a temporary casino. It doesn't even have a full-fledged hotel yet for the VIPs to stay in.
Even so, Bloomberg reports it generated $62 million on average each month in the first quarter, up 36% from November and December, while the rolling chip program saw volume surge 69% in April.
When the five-star hotel opens in the first quarter of 2017, it promises to draw even more VIPs from Macau, which saw gaming revenues slump 10% in May, the 24th consecutive month they've fallen. And because Macau also just banned so-called proxy betting, or the practice of a third-party placing a bet at a casino table for a VIP high roller on the phone, it's expected business will decline further.
Wynn Resorts will be opening its new $4 billion Wynn Palace on Macau later this year, and like Las Vegas Sands, derives 60% of its revenues from the island. A new gambling mecca only a short distance away that promises all the excitement of Macau-style gambling but with the safety and backstop of U.S. regulation could prove overwhelmingly attractive.
Although my colleague Travis Hoium maintains Wynn Palace is still a good bet for the casino operator because it would take a major losing streak for it to not be profitable, if Saipan proves to be as popular as it has so far, Macau's cold hand could run far longer than anticipated, increasing the odds such newly built gambling halls will crap out.