SYDNEY Australia's No. 1 casino company Crown Resorts Ltd (CWN.AX) is planning a near-total exit from the world's two biggest gaming hubs, Las Vegas and Macau, as a gambling crackdown in China hits profits and throws its expansion plans into disarray.
In a surprise trading update on Thursday, the company scrapped plans to build a casino in Nevada's famed strip, said it would sell half its stake in Macau-focused Melco Crown Entertainment Ltd (MPEL.O) and canceled plans to spin off its international assets.
The retreat from overseas casinos shows the impact the Chinese government's anti-graft campaign is having on casino operators throughout Asia, especially the southern Chinese territory of Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal.
Majority owned by Australian billionaire James Packer, Crown has been hard hit by the decline in VIP gaming revenue at its Australian resorts and was rocked in October by the arrest of 18 of its staff for "gambling crimes" in China.
"There's no doubt that those arrests changed everyone's outlook for the sector," said Angus Gluskie, a portfolio manager at White Funds Management, which holds Crown shares.
"It's not as easy as it previously looked."
Crown said it would use the A$1.6 billion ($1.2 billion) proceeds from the sale of its Macau stake to cut debt and pay a special dividend of A$500 million, more than half of which would go to Packer himself.
Macau has suffered gaming revenue declines every month for more than two years, while Crown said turnover from VIP gamblers - largely Asian tourists - at its Australian casinos would likely fall 45 percent in the six months to end-December.
Overall Australian revenue would fall 12 percent for the period.
Crown shares are in a trading halt as the company prepared to give more information about its plans for its remaining stake in Melco Crown. The stock has fallen by a fifth since August.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS
Crown did not elaborate on its decision to scrap development on the site slated for Alon Las Vegas, but it shuts the door on the company's third attempt to establish itself in the famous resort city.
When Packer inherited his late father's broadcasting, publishing and gambling conglomerate in 2007, his first moves included selling its media assets and buying two Vegas-based casino interests, one of which collapsed the following year while the other was written off in 2015.
"I don't think there was really anyone out there who was enthusiastic about them going back in to Vegas and so pulling out is the smart thing to do," said Theo Mass, a partner at Arnhem Investment Management which holds Crown shares.
"The market is not convinced Crown would make a difference there."
Crown's U.S. interests are now limited to a one-fifth stake in Japanese restaurant chain Nobu and a 2 percent stake in Casino firm Caesars Entertainment Co (CZR.O).
While Crown cancelled the demerger - a plan it recommended to shareholders as recently as October - it said it would still spin off a 49 percent stake in some Australian hotel properties.
Crown's first-half results are due in February 2017.
($1 = 1.3524 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Stephen Coates)