Fresh Beijing crackdown on dirty Macau cash anticipated as VIP casino revenues surge

High-profile takings up 34.8 per cent in second quarter year-on-year amid warning against capital flight

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 9:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 11:28pm

A surge in VIP takings at Macau casinos coupled with an unprecedented warning from its biggest junket operator about the dangers of moving money in and out of the city have sparked fears that the world’s top gaming hub could see Beijing launch a fresh crackdown on dirty cash.

More than three years into a drive to transform the city’s gaming industry from a high-rolling conduit for huge volumes of illicit money from the mainland into a more family-oriented, mass market destination, the latest official data shows a significant jump in the very VIP revenues Beijing wants to curtail.

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The VIP rise comes as China continues its ever expanding effort to block available avenues for capital flight, most notably with recent high-profile curbs on investments by some of the country’s largest conglomerates.

According to Macau’s Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, between April and June this year VIP baccarat rooms – the game of choice for big-spending gamblers – raked in US$4.46 billion in gross gaming revenue, up 34.8 per cent year-on-year.

Normally, that would have shored up the value of shares in the city’s main gaming operators, but instead, following the data’s release, gaming stocks declined in value to varying degrees.

Gaming industry insiders said the counter-intuitive reaction by investors in casino companies stemmed from a highly unusual warning recently issued by Macau’s biggest junket operator, Suncity Group, to its employees in Macau and agents on the mainland. Employees were urged to take extra precautions when moving money between the two places.

What’s brought the high rollers back to Macau?

As attempts to restructure and diversify unfold, Macau has endured an economic slump dating to June 2014 during which it has added 8,200 new guest rooms and HK$100 billion of hospitality hardware to its showpiece Cotai Strip, most of it aimed at the mass market.

In addition, the city’s government confirmed this week that soon people entering or leaving the city with cash or other “negotiable monetary instruments” valued at MOP120,000 (US$14,600) or more, will have to sign a declaration form to that effect and submit it to Macau customs.

A significantly higher mix of VIP versus mass revenues is an unwelcome combination

The move was aimed, officials said, at supporting the fight against capital flight and money laundering out of the mainland.

The casino hub also recently introduced facial recognition technology to its automated teller machines to monitor the use of mainland-issued China UnionPay bank cards for cash withdrawals.

Political commentator and long-time Macau analyst, Professor Sonny Lo Shiu-hing, said the current crackdown on capital outflows was rooted in “a recent directive from the central government in Beijing, which is very concerned about ‘irrational outbound investments’ in several areas, including Macau”.

“The tightening controls by Beijing appear to be for two reasons: first, money control is necessary before the 19th Party Congress, and [because of] the dangers to the country’s ‘monetary security’.”

In the wake of the latest VIP gaming revenue data, the brokerage Nomura said it continued to “caution investors that a significantly higher mix of VIP versus mass revenues is an unwelcome combination”.

“We do not believe Beijing has changed its view on either corruption or the illicit movement of renminbi from the mainland,” it added.