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Will gaming earnings signal a bottom in Macau?

A dealer handles gaming chips at a baccarat table inside the Venetian Macau resort and casino, operated by Sands China Ltd., a unit of Las Vegas Sands Corp., in Macau, China.
Billy H.C. Kwok | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A dealer handles gaming chips at a baccarat table inside the Venetian Macau resort and casino, operated by Sands China Ltd., a unit of Las Vegas Sands Corp., in Macau, China.

Las Vegas Sands will report fourth-quarter earnings on Wednesday after the close, and analysts will be looking for evidence of stability returning to the Macau gaming market.

"If LVS is also able to show Macau results that are close to our expectations, it may indicate that revenue trends are finally approaching a bottom after 1 1/2 years of declines," Goldman Sachs analyst Steven Kent wrote in a note Monday.

Las Vegas Sands is forecast by analysts to earn 65 cents per share in the October-December quarter, according to Thomson Reuters. That represents a 29 percent decline from the 92 cents a share reported a year ago. Revenue is expected to fall 14 percent.

To offset the tightened liquidity with Macau's junkets, the Las Vegas-based company has been doing more direct lending to Chinese high rollers in the VIP market. Analysts say Las Vegas Sands has made progress on its cost-cutting efforts in the Macau business and enjoys strong trends in its Vegas and Singapore properties.

But some question if the increased dividend at Las Vegas Sands could be at risk if the Chinese economy sinks further and inflicts more pain on the Macau gaming market.

"Some investors are expecting a dividend cut, which we think is unlikely," Nomura Securities analyst Harry Curtis wrote in a research note Monday. "LVS just raised its dividend recently, and, despite a weakening cushion, it has sufficient FCF (free cash flow) to cover the dividends, but the margin is thin."

Overall, gross gaming revenue (GGR) at Macau's casinos is forecast to be down 24 percent to 29 percent in January 2016 from the year earlier, in what would be the 20th straight month of revenue declines in the world's biggest gambling mecca, according to analysts.

Macau GGR was down 21 percent in December 2015 and for all of 2015, it fell 34 percent, according to Macau government data.

"We continue to see continued question marks in the overall pace of the recovery," said Chris Jones, an industry analyst for Union Gaming Group. "The VIP segment continues to drag down the overall GGR portion of the business."

Two other U.S.-based casino giants with Macau operations — Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International — are expected to report fourth-quarter results next month.

Typically, Macau gaming revenue moderates ahead of Chinese New Year. As a result, Jones expects Macau's January-February combined numbers may be a better measure of performance because it evens out the influence of the holiday and the time shifts from the prior year. The 2016 Chinese New Year celebration runs Feb. 7 to Feb. 13, but last year it was later in the month.

Strong booking trends ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday are encouraging for February, according to some analysts.

Another upbeat sign is the surprise announcement earlier this month by Wynn Resorts, which provided preliminary guidance for its Macau and Vegas operations. Its Macau guidance was slightly above some Street estimates and Vegas was a beat. That said, the preannouncement didn't remove concern about Macau's VIP market, which continues to struggle amid tighter controls from mainland China's government.

The Street forecast is for Wynn to report December quarter earnings of 75 cents per share, down 38 percent from the year-earlier period when it earned $1.20 per share, according to Thomson Reuters. Revenue is expected to decline 16 percent in the quarter.

Last week, CEO Steve Wynn purchased about $32 million of stock, according to a regulatory filing. That means he's accumulated around $96 million of the company's stock since December. Wynn shares rose 3 percent Monday on news of the insider transaction but the stock is down nearly 12 percent so far this year (through Monday's close). Year-to-date, shares of Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International also lag the broader market S&P 500 index.

"MGM is the one most shocking to me given that it has such heavy exposure to Vegas and yet trends in Vegas continue to be very positive," said Union Gaming's Jones.

MGM resorts, the largest owner of casinos on the Vegas Strip, is forecast to post a profit of 7 cents a share in the fourth quarter compared with a year-ago loss of 70 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters. Revenue is forecast to decline 6 percent.