Macau's casinos may have bright earnings prospects as they look to tap the vast Chinese market, but after many of the operators' shares more than doubled this year, is it too late to make a bet?
Analysts are positive on the outlook for growth at Macau's casinos. The Chinese administrative region is likely to see its gaming and hotel sectors grow by 8-16 percent by the end of 2014, according to Jon Oh, an analyst at CLSA.
"The penetration rate is only just starting," he told CNBC. "Macau on average is only getting roughly 1.4 percent of Chinese people penetrating into the market. That's a very small number. It's still far away from saturation."
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He noted the U.S. casino market is valued at around $62 billion on a population size around a quarter the size of China's.
Others agree. "There's a great future in these companies, like Sands, like all the other casinos that we have in Macau," said Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group. Its parent, Franklin Templeton Investments, has over $817 billion under management.
"We're very positive on Macau and the casinos because they're being transformed from being strictly casinos to entertainment complexes. And it looks like Macau is going to become the sort of entertainment center for China," he told CNBC.
Indeed, gross gaming revenue for Macau may rise around 13 percent in 2014 and 19 percent in 2015 after increasing around 18 percent in 2013, estimates Michael Ting, an analyst at CIMB, in a note.
But all the potential winnings may not translate into further share gains, with some of the Hong Kong-listed players more than doubling this year.
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"The fundamentals and the share price can go different directions," Eric Chow, senior fund manager at Value Partners, which has around $9.9 billion under management.
"We don't want to generalize (on the sector). Each of the casino stocks is substantially different," he said, noting Sands China remains one of his fund's major holdings.
CIMB's Ting is also concerned, noting the sector is trading around levels that historically have marked the ceiling for valuation re-ratings.
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"We expect Macau's gaming stocks to remain range-bound until early 2014," he said in a note last week, although he added consensus gaming growth estimates will likely rise, which may push up shares.
He rates the sector at overweight, but prefers Galaxy and Sands China, partly as they will benefit from a hotel room shortage and from targeting the mass-market segment, which has higher margins than the VIP market.
Some estimates are already rising, with Deutsche Bank last week increasing its 2014 gaming revenue growth forecast to 20 percent from 15 percent and its 2015 forecast to 20 percent from 12 percent. It noted consensus expects only 12 percent gaming revenue growth in 2014. The bank believes the sector's valuations are still attractive at around 18 times its 2014 earnings forecasts.
—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1