SINGAPORE (Reuters) - High-rollers get lavish treatment and hefty credit lines at Singapore's two casinos, like any other gaming house in the world. But here, more of them skip town without paying their debt, a matter of increasing concern for investors.
Three years after Singapore allowed casinos to open, Genting Singapore PLC's Resorts World Sentosa and Las Vegas Sands Corp's Marina Bay Sands have become the world's most profitable. Chinese nationals account for around half of the VIP gaming volume at their tables.
An examination of court documents by Reuters and a series of interviews with lawyers and industry executives reveal that several of the gamblers have run up millions of dollars in debt and then scampered back to China, where they are effectively untouchable.
Resorts World sued Chinese gambler Kuok Sio Kun in Singapore last year to recover S$2.2 million (1.1 million pounds). But more than six months on, the casino has not even managed to serve court papers to the Macau-based woman.
After several letters of demand went unanswered for months, it tapped a Singapore law firm to sue the 46-year-old, court documents show.
It then hired a Macau-based law firm, which advertised in a Chinese-language newspaper, posted the court documents at Kuok's last known address and went there twice.
"I have made all reasonable efforts and used all due means in my power to serve the court documents on the defendant, but have not been able to do so," the Macau lawyer said in the documents.
In Macau, the world's biggest gambling haven, debts are mostly handled by junket operators, who bring high rollers to casinos. Some of the 200 or so operators there have been associated with triads, or criminal gangs, which are notoriously efficient in collecting money.
Singapore only has three junket operators, which are heavily regulated and must renew their licences each year as the city-state seeks to maintain its image as a clean and safe business and tourist destination.
So, when faced with bad debts, casinos negotiate with the gamblers, and as a last resort, file suits in court. But as gambling debt is considered a civil, not criminal, issue in Singapore, gamblers who fail to pay will not be arrested.
The two casinos have sued at least three Chinese gamblers to recover millions of dollars but court documents reviewed by Reuters show they have not been able to get any money from them so far.
MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR CREDIT LINES
Singapore's two casinos had estimated combined gross gaming revenue of about $5.9 billion (3.8 billion pounds) last year, according to industry analysts, just below the $6.2 billion pulled in by dozens of casinos on the Las Vegas strip.
"It's the volume and the level of play," said Adam Weissenberg, global leader of the travel, hospitality and leisure segment at Deloitte & Touche. "The casinos are bringing in people who have million-dollar credit lines. They are bringing in people who are playing million-dollar hands."
More than 30 casinos in Macau, a special administrative region in China, raked in $38 billion in gaming revenue in 2012.
But despite profit margins of more than 40 percent, far higher than in Macau and on the Las Vegas strip, Singapore's casinos risk more write-offs.
Genting Singapore's trade and other receivables rose by nearly one-third from a year earlier to S$959.5 million as of end-2012. Impairment loss on trade receivables was 18 percent higher at S$143 million for 2012.
"The more you start to see the increase in their receivables, what you then start to see coming through in their results later on, is possible deterioration in their earnings quality and also including cash flow generation," said Vicky Melbourne, Fitch Ratings' Asia Pacific head of industrials.
Las Vegas Sands said its overall provision for doubtful accounts rose an annual 59 percent to $239.3 million last year, with the bulk of the increase due to receivables at the Singapore casino "related to credit extended, as well as increases to provisions for specific customers."
Other gaming company analysts said the numbers were not yet a huge worry, but they were watching the increase with concern.
"The junket operators shoulder most of the credit risk and debt collection in Macau, but Singapore has a structural disadvantage of not having the junket network and presence," said Lucius Chong, an analyst at CIMB Research.
Court documents show Marina Bay Sands has filed 84 claims for at least S$250,000 each at Singapore's top court since 2010, including 62 last year and 11 as of mid-March this year. Resorts World filed 11 cases in 2012 and one in 2010. These cases relate to all manner of claims, not just gambling debts.
Marina Bay Sands did not give details of the cases. Genting Singapore declined comment.
Many of the suits filed in the Singapore court are against gamblers based in the country, but there are likely to be larger claims on Chinese high-rollers that are not pursued due to the "painful" process and the potential bad publicity, lawyers said.
Singapore does not have reciprocal enforcement of judgments with China, except for Hong Kong. This means that even if a casino obtains a judgment in a Singapore court, it also has to sue the gambler in China, they said.
"If there is a lot of gambling debt and the gambler is in China now, usually the casinos can hardly get any cooperation from the Chinese government to go after them because gambling is illegal in China," said Huang Jing, director at the Centre on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, who advises China's policymakers.
Sands has described Singapore as the "most challenging credit market", citing the highly concentrated nature of the market, the small number of junket operators and very little legal help in the region to collect debt.
Resorts World gave Kuok S$200,000 in March 2010 and another S$800,000 in October. Within the next few days, it granted three more credit lines worth S$2 million, documents show.
Kuok owed the casino S$2.2 million after offsetting deposit and commission. Her application form showed that she received a reference for the initial credit facility of S$200,000.
It was not immediately known what she played at the tables, but baccarat is the game of choice for high rollers at the exclusive Crockfords Club at Resorts World and in Paiza at Marina Bay.
The key things that a casino looks at when extending credit to VIP gamblers are the player's credit history at other casinos and references, said a former executive at one of the casinos.
"Once somebody gives you that one credit line, you go anywhere, people will give it to you provided that you are on good payment terms," he said. But he noted that it was difficult to accurately assess an overseas gambler's net worth.
"Even if you have assets, if you are overseas they can't sue you, especially in China."