Manila primes for casino boom despite graft spotlight
MANILA Dec 27 (Reuters) - The two most richly valued companies in the financial and consumer discretionary sectors in Southeast Asia share two things in common - both are controlled by Filipino tycoons and both are building casinos by the azure waters of Manila Bay.
The lofty valuations of Bloomberry Resorts Corp and Belle Corp, measured by forecast earnings multiples, show the size of bets being laid on the Philippines' ambition to join Macau and Singapore among the ranks of Asia's top gaming destinations.
Buoyed by stellar economic growth and one of the world's top performing stock markets this year, the casino rush is starting with the slated opening in March of port magnate Enrique Razon Jr's $1.2 billion Solaire property.
But it also comes as the government is investigating bribery allegations related to Japanese billionaire Kazuo Okada's bid to build a casino in the same Manila Bay development, shining an unwelcome spotlight on President Benigno Aquino's drive to shed the Philippines' reputation for corruption.
Razon, chairman of Bloomberry and the third richest man in the Philippines, has said the investigation has had no impact on his development.
"Mr Okada, being a foreigner, maybe didn't know exactly how to operate in the Philippines, but the administration now with President Aquino has created serious credibility on the corruption front," Razon told Reuters at his coffee-and-tan hued office in Manila's port area.
A short distance away, 6,000 workers are racing to finish the 15-storey, 500-room Solaire resort. Rows of slot machines and crystal chandeliers in plastic wrapping cover the main gaming hall that will soon see an inflow of eager punters.
Part of a tourism project that the government hopes will draw in millions of foreigners each year, Solaire will be the first of four resorts to open over the next three years within the 100-hectare (250-acre) complex.
Other projects include a casino owned by the country's wealthiest man, Henry Sy, who controls Belle, together with Macau operator Melco Crown, owned by Australian billionaire James Packer and Hong Kong businessman Lawrence Ho.
THRIVING LOCAL MARKET
Challenges include Manila's dilapidated infrastructure and general concerns over both safety and corruption - problems that have limited foreign investment in the Philippines for years.
But a thriving local casino market, where residents are free to gamble and operators enjoy strong government support, means investors remain optimistic.
Average bets at Manila's gambling venues are only around 40 pesos ($3), compared with Macau where gambling tables often have a minimum bet of 300 patacas ($38). To change that, Manila is aiming to increase the use of junkets to bring in high-rollers from China and the rest of Asia.
Junkets - intermediaries who work on behalf of casino operators, loaning credit to players and helping them bypass currency restrictions - are prevalent in Macau where they account for more than 70 percent of total gaming revenue.
The Philippines is offering lower gaming taxes and lucrative payment terms to the junkets, which face increased regulation and scrutiny in their home turf of Macau.
Paul Joseph Garcia, chief investment officer at BPI Asset Management in Manila, said the jury was still out on whether the Philippines would be successful in luring junkets.
"I am still not that confident about our ability to attract the foreign VIPs, the junkets from Macau and other players from the region. We have a chance of getting some market share, that is for sure," said Garcia, adding he would wait for lower share prices before increasing BPI's exposure to Philippine gaming.
Regulated by government body PAGCOR, which itself operates 13 casinos, gambling has been entrenched in the Philippines since the 1800s when the country was a Spanish colony.
Casinos, basketball betting, bingo and juetung - an illegal numbers game that implicated two former presidents for accepting bribes - are popular with both low and high income residents.
"I come after work and meet my friends, it's nice for us to socialize," said Will, a 60-year-old Manila resident as he entered the Resorts World casino, owned by Genting Hong Kong Ltd and Philippine property tycoon Andrew Tan.
With a shopping mall, a theatre featuring broadway shows, hotels including a Marriott and a high stakes VIP club and a cavernous mass gambling floor, the glitzy Resorts World contrasts with PAGCOR's Casino Filipino branches where elderly locals play bingo on plastic chairs beneath fluorescent lights.
On a recent Sunday night the property's VIP floor was filled with Chinese gamblers playing baccarat while Mandarin-speaking waitresses served drinks.
Razon's Solaire, which will open with 90 VIP tables and 200 for mass gamblers, is also vying to attract moneyed Chinese to its oceanfront casino. Bloomberry is in talks with more than two dozen junket operators and is aiming to have more than 50 percent of total revenues from the VIP segment after a year.
Heavy traffic and an overburdened, 40-year-old main international airport are hurdles that Razon's group is preparing to overcome as it seeks to lure high-rollers away from the strongholds of Macau and Singapore.
"We would fly them in privately from Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, places like that," said Razon who commutes around the city in a black Jaguar. The 52-year-old only takes a helicopter if he's late or in a hurry, he adds with a smile.
Brokerage CLSA estimates the Philippine gaming market will reach $3 billion by 2015. While Macau raked in more than 10 times that amount in 2011, the Philippines is seen more closely matching Singapore which made $5.7 billion in 2011.
Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan are also mulling gaming legislation. For the next few years, however, investors view the Philippines as a more immediate alternative.
That has helped push Bloomberry's forward price earning ratio - a widely used valuation metric - to 37, with Belle's at nearly 73, both the richest in their sectors in Southeast Asia, Thomson Reuters Starmine data showed.
Genting and Alliance Global's Philippine joint venture, Travellers Hotel International Group Inc, is expanding Resorts World and a new casino by Manila Bay, adding around 5,000 hotel rooms in the next five years.
Okada's Universal Entertainment is continuing construction of its $2 billion casino which is due to open by end-2014, pending the result of the investigation into allegations the company paid bribes to a former PAGCOR consultant in 2010.
Universal denies any wrongdoing and has filed suit against Reuters for defamation in Japan over a story related to the allegations.
PAGCOR's dual role as operator and regulator means that if there is enough evidence to show bribery they could immediately strip Okada of the license. Jay Santiago, chief legal counsel at PAGCOR, said the license was not transferable but ownership could change with approval.
Okada's subsidiary, Tiger Resorts Leisure and Entertainment, said on Dec. 12. that it had signed an initial deal with property company Robinsons Land Corp, run by local billionaire John Gokongwei.
"Everybody is excited about the integrated resort development," Frederick Go, Robinson's president and Gokongwei's nephew, said in an interview. "Potentially if you look at what the others are projecting to do, it would double our profitability."
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