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Shares in Macau's casino companies jumped more than 10 per cent on Thursday in a rare relief rally after the semi-autonomous Chinese territory relaxed visa restrictions for visitors from the mainland.
After a decade of breakneck casino expansion, Macau saw its first annual fall in gaming revenue last year as Chinese president Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive scared off many of the mainland high rollers who had been pumping up gaming profits in the tiny former Portuguese territory.
The Hong Kong-listed shares in the leading Macau casino operators have fallen over the past year, but they rebounded after the Macau government on Wednesday reversed limits on mainland transit visitors that were brought in 12 months ago, following pressure from Beijing.
"This is the first sign of policy easing since the downturn began in Macau," said Anil Daswani, an analyst at Citigroup. "The transit visa policy significantly hit premium mass gross gaming revenue since the second quarter of 2014 and this reversal was much needed to rekindle growth in the volatile Macau market."
Macau generated gross gaming revenue of 17.4 billion patacas ($2.2 billion) in June, down 36 per cent compared with the same period last year but slightly better than analysts' expectations.
In a broadly flat Hong Kong market, shares in Sands China, the local subsidiary of casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands, surged 12.1 per cent to HK$29.25 but have still lost half of their value over the past year. Shares in Steve Wynn's Wynn Macau rose 13.8 per cent to HK$14.72 and MGM China leap 15.9 per cent to HK$14.70.
Hong Kong markets were closed on Wednesday for a public holiday.
Analysts said the share price rises were supported by hedge funds buying the stocks to close short positions, which they took out previously as they bet that Macau's prospects would deteriorate.
"The sector has been a favorite among local hedge funds and some of that would have been unwound today," said Mr Daswani.
Macau, the world's biggest casino market by gaming revenue, continues to face significant challenges.
More than $20 billion of long-planned new casinos are being opened over the next two years, a big expansion in supply at a time when demand remains weak.
A planned smoking ban, too, could deter punters. Smoking has already been banned on the main casino floors but the Macau government is considering extending this to VIP rooms and removing airport-style smoking lounges.
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Mr Daswani said that while preventing high rollers from smoking as they gamble could cut VIP revenues by a further 5-20 per cent, he was hopeful that the smoking lounges would stay, given the government's about-turn on mainland visitor restrictions.
Praveen Choudhary, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, argued that it was too soon to call the bottom for the Macau casino market, however.
"Many would consider two recent news items as signs of the bottom," he said. "[The] complete smoking ban could be seen as removal of a longstanding overhang and relaxation of transit visas [the] end of tight regulation. We disagree."
He argued that the transit visa adjustment would not change the fundamental pattern of reduced VIP gambling by mainland Chinese and that the smoking ban was likely to be implemented.