Macau's house of cards topples as investors lose big on junkets

A protester adjusts a banner outside Wynn Macau, Nov 20, 2015.
A protester adjusts a banner outside Wynn Macau, Nov 20, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

MACAU (Reuters) - The theft of millions of dollars from investors in a Macau junket operator has sparked months of protests and hastened the demise of a business model that greased the wheels of the US$44 billion (S$66 billion) global gambling hub for over a decade.

Brandishing banners and loudspeakers, dozens of investors have protested outside Wynn Macau Ltd's casino for two months, demanding the return of money stolen by an employee of junket operator Dore Entertainment Co Ltd and accusing Dore's head of dodging responsibility.

The crime has left the junket industry's reputation in tatters and sped up the Chinese territory's shift away from VIP gamblers - who used to account for more than 80 per cent of its gaming revenues - to the mass-market segment of less wealthy Chinese tourists. "We do see stabilisation in mass, unlike in VIP where it continues to drop like a rock," Nomura analyst Richard Huang said in Hong Kong.

Macau's shift towards the mass market plays into Beijing's overall strategy to make the former Portuguese colony a world-class tourism hub rather than a playground for corrupt officials and businessmen.

In a first for the territory, Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd , a venture co-owned by Macau mogul Lawrence Ho and Australian tycoon James Packer, opened a US$3.2 billion Hollywood-themed casino in October with no VIP gaming tables.

Speaking to investors after the opening, Ho said Macau's VIP sector had been "permanently and structurally changed".

BAD LUCK

The Dore scandal could not have come at a worse time for Macau's junkets, the companies or individuals who loan credit to gamblers, mainly VIPs, on behalf of Macau's casinos.

Revenues have dried up due to China's economic slowdown and an anti-corruption campaign that has targeted the flight of illicit capital from the mainland. Analysts estimate the number of junket tables has fallen by a third since the start of 2015, and about 100 junket operators have gone out of business.

Dore, which operated 3 VIP gaming rooms in Wynn Macau, reported in late September that an employee had pocketed money that was meant to open new credit lines to big-spending gamblers.

Police say more than HK$500 million (S$90.7 million) was stolen, although investors say the sum is closer to HK$2 billion.

Steve Vickers, former head of the Hong Kong's criminal intelligence bureau and founder of a risk consultancy, said about 50 prominent members of Hong Kong's entertainment industry were among those defrauded.

"This is not surprising; the triads have long had symbiotic links with both the junkets and the entertainment sector," he said.

Many investors say Dore's boss, Charles Heung Wah Keung, an alleged triad crime gang member, should stand up and be accountable for their losses.

"Dore's boss Charles Heung has taken the victims' blood and sweat ... Heung is devoid of a conscience," said protester Lydia Chen, 40, who lost millions of dollars she loaned to Dore earlier this year.

Heung - who was named in a 1992 US Senate subcommittee probe and a 2007 Nevada Gaming Control Board hearing as a member of a triad crime gang - has strongly denied involvement in organised crime and has not been formally implicated in any wrongdoing. He could not be reached for comment.

Macau's government has offered little comfort to Dore investors, saying only that an investigation is ongoing.

While many junket operators have gone out of business, top firms like Suncity and Tak Chun are likely to weather the storm, analysts said.

Both firms have used slick marketing and sponsorships of high-profile events like the Macau Grand Prix to present a more sophisticated image than their peers.