Gambling in Asia has been the highlight of the world gaming industry over the last decade. With the industry seeing rising profits in Macau and Singapore over the last few years, companies and investors have been rewarded heavily by gaming growth in Asia. Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) investors would agree that Asian profits have provided a nice portfolio boost as Sands' share price has grown more than 2100% in the last five years. The growth of Asian operations continues, with both Sands and Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN) posting huge income increases for the fourth quarter of 2013 with 40% and 92% increases year-over-year, respectively.
Unfortunately for Caesars Entertainment (NASDAQ:CZR), it wouldn't know about this Asian growth. Caesars sold its only Macau holdings in August of last year and used the money to pay down a portion of its industry-high debt of over $27 billion. There was not much else the company could do, as it did not file for a gaming license with the Macau government when other casinos did in 2001, and it would still need to complete that bureaucratic hurdle to be able to operate a casino in Macau. Chairman Gary Loveman has said that not entering Macau was the worst mistake the casino ever made.
Caesars attempted to rectify its lack of Asian presence in 2013 by bidding to enter the South Korean market. Throughout the first half of 2013, the deal seemed confirmed and the government was expected to let Caesars and its Indonesian partner build their casino resort near the capital city of Seoul. However, in June 2013, the government declined the bid. The decision was not discussed by the government, but reportedly it was made because of worry over Caesars' huge debt load. This foreshadowed the company's decision a few months later to sell its Macau holdings to pay down long-term debt.
Is there any hope left for Caesars to have an Asian presence?
That next big Asian gaming market may be Japan. Analysts expect that if the country allows casinos, it could beat out Singapore to become the second-largest gambling hub in the world behind Macau. However, there is one obstacle in the way: the fact that casinos are still forbidden in the country. The government will vote on legislation in the coming months that will decide whether or not casinos will be allowed to begin building in Japan.
Because the government has said that it would like to fund a portion of the cost of the coming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the general consensus is that it will vote to allow casinos, and that four licenses will be awarded in Tokyo and Osaka. It is likely that Japan will welcome foreign casino companies. Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui stated, "Even before the casino bill is passed, Osaka is crafting details of the resort plan so that we could embark on the project at any time...We'd need global casino-operators' involvement and expertise as the business is new to Japan."
Caesars has been preparing a bid to begin building in Japan. Caesars met with Osaka officials late last year to discuss plans for investment in Japan, if allowed. You can bet Caesars' executives will be doing all they can to win a bid to build in Japan. The company has even been in talks with local partners already--Caesars has discussed potential partnerships with gaming machine makers Konami and Sega Sammy Holdings in anticipation of changes in the Japanese casino ban.
This kind of aggressiveness is bringing Caesars more publicity than a company like MGM Resorts International (NYSE:MGM), which has been lackluster in preparing talks with Japanese officials. Investors would expect MGM to be more excited about increasing their share of Asian revenue. With its two main resorts in Las Vegas and Macau, MGM brings in only 34% of total revenue from Asian operations. This is much lower than a company like Las Vegas Sands, which attributes 86% of revenue from Asian operations.
Caesar's has a chance, but it might still be a losing bet
The Japanese gaming market seems poised for big profits, assuming that legislation allowing casinos into the market passes. However, Caesars will still have to prove to the Japanese government what the company couldn't prove to the South Korean government, specifically that the company is in a financial and competitive position to bring revenue to the country without carrying too much risk. Caesars had $27 billion of debt when the Korean government decided that the company was not in a financial position to operate in the country. Currently, the company has a total debt load of around $21.5 billion, a definite improvement, but maybe not enough. As Foolish investors, we will wait to see if it is enough.