Faced with increasing scrutiny and regulation from Mainland China, the best days may be over for Macau's gaming sector, analysts say.
China extended a crackdown on illegal money transfers into Macau, the South China Morning Post reported last week. The new steps give China's Economic Crimes Investigation Bureau access to transactions made with state-backed UnionPay credit cards amid concerns that Chinese are using the cards to funnel money out of the Mainland.
"I expect that the headlines are going to be very difficult for Macau and I think that they're supposed to be," Tim Seymour, CIO at Triogem Asset Management, told CNBC on Friday. "This is part of a policy decision in China that's not going to change anytime, so the best of days may be over."
"I think [the crackdown is] going to continue. Money laundering issues or just control of the purse strings and payment systems is what this is about," he said.
The crackdown continues
Macau became a playground for China's wealthy over past decade, with gambling revenue surpassing Las Vegas' in 2007. By 2013, gambling revenue was $45 billion, seven times that of Las Vegas.
The influx of mainland gamblers brought with it various gambling-related crimes and money laundering as gamers and casinos exploited legal loopholes.
Chinese authorities' measures this year to address money laundering and gaming-related crime have taken a toll on Macau-based casino operators, which have lost a combined $58 billion in market value over the past six months, according to Reuters. The drop followed a decline in VIP attendance; VIP tours, often organized by junket operators that arrange travel and credit lines, declined amid China's regulatory effort.
The latest measures will likely exacerbate the fallout.
"The news flow on junket investors' assets being frozen and increased scrutiny on mainlanders' gambling overseas reinforce our concern that China's anti-grafting drive may not ease anytime soon," Goldman Sachs wrote in a note last week.
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"Junkets which we have recently talked to sound more cautious about the VIP outlook," it added.
However Goldman pointed out that the latest measures aren't exactly new.
"As China UnionPay is a state-owned entity controlled by the PBOC (People's Bank of China) and four PRC (People's Republic of China) banks, the government should already have access to all transactions. The news, if true, only formalizes the Ministry of Public Security's right to obtain them," it said.
The latest measures preceded Chinese President Xi Jinping's first official visit to Macau in five years on December 19th and 20th. While many speculated that the Chinese leader's visit could yield further anti-corruption efforts, Xi only urged further diversification away from the casino industry.
Gaming companies worth gambling on?
While Macau casinos took a hit this year, Goldman is optimistic.
"Our base case still assumes a backend-loaded 20 percent year-on-year [gross gaming revenue] recovery in the second half of 2015 post the two new casino openings," it said.
Deutsche Bank is also optimistic: "Longer-term policies/investments in infrastructure are evidence that the Chinese government continues to support the growth in Macau's mass business," it wrote in a note. It highlighted a move to make border crossings between Macau and Hengqin island open 24 hours a day and an ongoing construction project to connect Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai as examples.
But Triogem's Seymour is less optimistic.
"If you look at the underlying valuations of the gaming companies, it's a very challenging time," he said. "I think that the growth multiples that we've seen in Macau over the last decade are impossible to maintain, even though I believe in the consumption trends and I believe in the wealth-generation trends that are going on in China, Macau and the region."