Crown Resorts Stock Plunges, Casino Operator Reports Weak VIP Play From China

Crown Resorts, the Australian casino empire controlled by billionaire James Packer, saw its stock plummet this week after reporting disappointing financials largely due to weak VIP play from China.

Billionaire James Packer owns 47 percent of Crown Resorts, but his investment value decreased on the company's latest financial report. (Image: Scott Barbour/Getty)

Crown – which owns and operates three integrated casino resorts in Australia and the Crown Aspinall's private club in London – said net profits for the final six months of 2018 totaled AUD$194.1 million ($139.2 million), a nominal 0.9 percent increase. Normalized revenue, or income adjusted to include expenses and one-time influences, fell 1.2 percent to $1 billion.

Traded on the Australian Securities Exchange, Crown Resorts experienced its largest one-day decline in more than two years. Shares opened at $8.76 on Wednesday, and by the end of trading were worth $8.30, a 5.25 percent loss.

VIP Play Blamed

Crown Resorts says the same number of Asian high rollers are making their way to their Aussie casinos, but are simply spending, and betting, less.

People at the premium end have been coming to the property in the same numbers but spending less,” Crown Chief Financial Officer Ken Barton told investors. “We're seeing casual restaurants doing better than premium restaurants.”

The Chinese economy is amid a slowdown. Ongoing trade tensions with the United States, easing of economic growth on the mainland, and a weaker yuan all have the country's wealthiest citizens tightening their spending.

Crown heavily relies on China and other Asian nations for high rollers. But marketing casinos to Chinese citizens is strictly prohibited.

The gaming operator notoriously had 17 staff members detained and charged with “gambling crimes” in the People's Republic in 2017. While most were soon released, four weren't including Jason O'Connor, Crown's international VIP director. The executive spent 10 months in a Chinese prison.

A former inmate who spent more than four years in a Chinese prison told the Financial Times in 2017, “Trust me, you don't want to be there. Mr. O'Connor would be having a very hard time. He would be broken by now.”

Mass Appeal

Crown and other Australian casinos might be wise to take a page out of Macau's playbook. The Chinese enclave – the only spot in the People's Republic where gambling is legal – has in recent years switched focus from the VIP to the general public.

The pivot was a result of China President Xi Jinping directing law enforcement agencies to crack down on junket groups that organize gambling trips for the mainland's wealthiest citizens to the Special Administrative Region. Gross gaming revenue in the world's richest gambling hub has increased in each of the last two years.

Crown Resorts Executive Chairman John Alexander admitted to investors that the concerns in China are impacting operations in Australia.

Alexander explained the “macro factors that we all read about in China such as the slowdown in the economy, crackdown on conspicuous consumption, and further regulation around money transfers” are all impeding business Down Under. “Chinese people … are suddenly feeling a bit poorer than they were a few years ago because of what's going on, and it all goes to spending patterns.”

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