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Crown arrests in China may open buying opportunity in gaming plays, analysts say

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The drop in gaming shares after China's detention of employees of one of Australia's biggest casino companies may have opened up a buying opportunity for the sector, analysts said.

Shares of Crown Resorts tumbled nearly 14 percent on Monday, dragging regional gaming stocks, including Hong Kong-listed Macau plays, after reports that 18 of Crown's employees, including the executive vice president of the VIP international business, Jason O'Connor, were detained by Chinese authorities.

China's Foreign Ministry told CNBC on Monday in an emailed statement that Australian nationals were under criminal detention by the Chinese authorities for their "suspected involvements in gambling crimes."

Casinos cannot advertise in China and promoting gambling in other ways, such as advertising resort facilities or offering credit to high-spending clients, can also be problematic, Reuters said.

But Deutsche Bank expected the incident wouldn't impact earnings too much, adding that any share price pullbacks in Macau plays were likely a good buying opportunity.

"As China is mainly targeting marketing efforts by overseas casinos, we think impacts on Macau are limited," it said in a note Monday.

Deutsche Bank noted that a few junket agents told the bank they didn't expect the arrests would impact them, while direct VIP hosts and premium mass-market hosts told the bank that they may skip visits to players in China in the near term, but expected a less than 10 percent impact on their segments.

The bank noted that while marketing hosts may skip their visits and social events with top-tier premium mass-market players in their hometowns, the hosts noted that the trips rarely increase the number of trips players take to Macau, and may only impact the choice of casino.

The bank estimated the total impact would be less than 4 percent of Macau's gross gaming revenue, or around 5-6 percent of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBIDTA).

Deutsche Bank said its preferred picks were Sands China, MGM China and Melco Crown, rating all three at "Buy".

Citigroup also didn't expect the hit to impact Crown Resorts too much. It lowered its earnings per share forecasts for fiscal 2017-2019 by around 3 percent after lowering VIP growth assumptions as the segment would likely be impacted for the next 12-18 months.

Citi lowered its target price on the stock to 15.10 Australian dollars ($11.58) from A$15.35, but kept a "Buy" call. At 1:02 p.m. HK/SIN, Crown shares were up 1.88 percent at A$11.36.

Not every analyst was expecting a muted hit to the sector.

Nomura said it remained cautious on the Macau stocks.

"The detention of 18 Crown Resorts employees in China could negatively impact the future performance of the high-end gaming segment for the regional casino operators, including those in Macau as marketing to these international gamers becomes increasingly challenging," the bank said in a note Monday. It added that the upcoming third-quarter results could also disappoint.

"We remain cautious on the Macau stocks as we believe improving industry fundamentals have already been priced in, with the sector trading at peak-cycle valuation," it said, although it noted it was keeping a buy call on MGM China for attractive valuations.

It rated Sands China and Wynn Macau at "Reduce".

Saheli Roy Choudhury contributed to this article.

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