You would not know it from the record stock prices or the number of planned resorts in the pipeline, but Macau's unprecedented gambling boom has a built-in expiration date. Given the billions of investment dollars and lengthy construction timetables required by the Cotai-style megaresorts, analysts and investors are starting to ask the inevitable question of what happens when the first of Macau's six casino licences, or concessions, begin to expire on March 31, 2020. Will all six be renewed? Will the government exercise its right to take over ownership of casino assets? Will operators be hit with tax increases or other new fees? Will new bidders be allowed into the market? 'The short answer is we do not know,' University of Macau associate professor of law Jorge Godinho said at a gaming conference in the city last week. 'These are matters that need to be considered and decided many years in advance because they involve investment plans with long-term horizons.' The implications for Macau are huge. The gaming industry is the city's largest employer, and direct taxes on gambling accounted for 82 per cent of all government revenue last year. Macau's 33 casinos booked 188.3 billion patacas in gambling revenue last year. The 2001 law that ended Macau's gaming monopoly and the six concessions that were subsequently granted stipulate that the licences are at all times the property of the government, which retains vast powers over the licensees and their gaming-related assets in the territory. The licences held by SJM Holdings and MGM China will expire in 2020, while those of Wynn Resorts, Melco Crown Entertainment, Galaxy Entertainment Group and Sands China all run until 2022. Soaring casino revenue growth has been a bonanza for these firms and their shareholders, despite the 38-39 per cent gaming tax rate. As a result, analysts expect the government to use the licence expirations to grab a bigger piece of the pie. 'It's not going to happen anytime soon simply because the government is trying to come to its own understanding of how to handle the issue,' Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Gary Pinge said. But investors have failed to fully appreciate what he terms concession renewal risk. 'I expect the government to regulate-down returns for operators,' Pinge told the gaming conference. He said this could happen through a tax increase, a large licence renewal fee, or other methods. 'All governments get greedy,' said Nelson Rose, a legal consultant to the gaming industry. Rose said the government's power over the concessionaires meant it was almost certain to impose a licence renewal fee or tax increases. 'You have this enormous power to say 'Thank you for building the Venetian, it is now ours'. It always happens [when licences are up for renewal]. The only question is how bad will it be and how much [operators] can negotiate against that.' The issue of licence renewal may also have an impact on projects built before the 2020-22 deadline. Sands and Galaxy both have large parcels of empty land on Cotai that they plan to develop, while Wynn, MGM and SJM are waiting on land grants for massive sites of their own. Bankers say that as the licence expiration date gets closer, finding long-term financing for planned projects will become complicated. 'Investors, from a debt perspective in particular, will be quite nervous about extending beyond that [expiry] date unless there is some clarity given,' Goldman Sachs managing director Eric Greenberg said at the conference. 'Hopefully, the government won't wait until the last minute but will rather give some sort of indications to the market so it doesn't prevent companies from doing necessary financing or refinancing or capital raising.' Casino firms have generally expressed confidence that the government will sort out the issue sooner rather than later. 'It would be a big mistake to let 2020 anxiety become a major factor,' Wynn chairman Steve Wynn said last month. 'That would represent mismanagement by the government, and it would be the first time I'd seen that in the nine years I've been in Macau ... I think that if there was a chance that this was going to end in 2020 or 2022, we would have been told not to build the buildings.' Galaxy last month opened a HK$15.5 billion resort on its Cotai site, two-thirds of which still remains undeveloped. 'We are invited guests here,' chief financial officer Bob Drake said. 'We hope the Macau government will extend its invitation.'