For the last few years, investors have been excitedly hearing snippets of the possibility of Japan legalizing gaming. The country currently forbids gambling, and thus the construction of casinos by companies like Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS) and Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN), both of which are desperately hoping that legalization comes soon.
Now, a bill that would legalize casinos in Japan is finally waiting to be heard by the current summer session of Japanese legislators. With the summer session coming closer and closer to an end, and with 17 other bills to be heard, investors have been nervously waiting. However, now Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had previously been quiet on the matter, has just given his full support for the bill's passage.
Passing casino legislation has been a goal for some time now, though supporters of the bill have had a hard time in the past with convincing both parties to support proposed legislation due to perceived issues related to organized crime like money laundering, as well as the general ethical concerns brought up by some of the more conservative and religious legislators.
However, this round is different. After the nation won its bid for the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japanese officials have hurriedly tried to plan ways for the country to boost tourism and revenue by enough to make the games a success for the country. One obvious way is to legalize gaming in time for integrated resorts to open by the 2020 games.
On May 30, Abe visited Singapore to speak at a conference. During his presentation he said that casinos could become a "pillar of economic growth" for Japan and said he believes "integrated resorts will be a key part of Japan's economic growth strategy." For a country with one of the highest rates of debt in the world, and an economic recovery that is still lagging, new growth from any sector will be welcome. For these reasons, Abe is urging his government legislators to carefully consider the benefits of legalizing gaming.
Who could win a bid in Japan?
Las Vegas Sands is seeking to lead the bidding field, trying to win over the Japanese officials that will eventually decide which company wins a bid. At a conference in Tokyo, Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson said that "We will spend whatever it takes...would I put in $10 billion? Yes." Las Vegas Sands is ready to put its money where its mouth is and invest huge in Japan if Japanese legislators allow it. However, it is not alone in this quest.
Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn has also been outspoken about his hopes for Japan. Already heavily dependent on its Asian revenue with 75% of global gaming revenue coming from Macau, Wynn is hoping to expand further in Asia with a bet on Japan.
The company thinks that its casino will be attractive to the Japanese government as well. As the company's newly promoted President and former CFO Matt Maddox said:
Japan is known for hospitality, high quality and precision. The culture of almost perfection here fits very well with Wynn and its details-oriented focus. That would allow Wynn to be a strong contender in the Japanese market.
Ultimately, it's the Japanese officials who will pick a winner
The legislators in Japan who promote legal casinos tout the success of integrated resorts in Singapore, not just for gaming revenue, but also for the integrated family entertainment and tourism that the resorts can bring. Lawmakers have already said that this is the model Japan would follow. In this way, Las Vegas Sands is the obvious winner. In fact, Shinzo Abe's recent trip to Singapore even included a visit to the Marina Bay Sands resort, which has quickly become a tourism highlight of Singapore. Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson said he hopes Abe's visit to Marina Bay Sands will help to speed up the legalization of casinos in Japan.
Las Vegas Sands track record of pleasing the Singapore government is indicative of how well the company will be able to win over Japanese officials. Wynn Resorts' track record does not look so promising, as it showed poor skill in working with over-bearing governments like the one which was present in Singapore, which also applies to Japan. Wynn CEO Steve Wynn criticized the Singaporean officials for micromanaging the project to the point where it was no longer lucrative for his company.
Steven Wynn is eating those words now that his competitor Adelson has led Las Vegas Sands to so much success in Singapore, and is using that success to win over Japanese officials. Because there are many similarities between the concerns of the Singaporean government in 2006 and those of the Japanese government in 2014, including making sure the casinos are clean, crime free, family friendly, and adding wealth and jobs to the economy, Las Vegas Sands' Singapore track record is one more reason to bet on this company as the likely winner in Japan.
Foolish conclusion: legalization may not come this summer, but it's coming
With the clock counting down on the current summer session, it's becoming less likely that the government will pass the gaming bill this summer. However, with full support from the prime minister, support in both parties of the Japanese legislator, and the looming challenge of funding the Olympics, its highly likely that the bill will pass in the fall session or the next.
"When" is not so important, because as long-term investors, it's more important to believe that it will eventually pass. When that happens, Foolish investors will have backed the right company, the one with the best odds of winning over the Japanese government, which ultimately chooses who gets to build in its country. Based on its success in Singapore, Las Vegas Sands looks to be the clear winner over Wynn Resorts.