Japan's Universal moves to list Philippine casino, amid Duterte's sector crackdown

MANILA (Reuters) - Japan's Universal Entertainment Corp 6425.T is taking its Philippines casino operator public through a backdoor listing in Manila, amid an uncertain political environment for the business in the Southeast Asian nation.

Asiabest Group International ABG.PS, an investment holding company listed on the Philippine stock exchange, said on Tuesday its shareholders signed a deal for Universal's subsidiary, Tiger Resort Asia Ltd, to acquire two-thirds of the company for 646.5 million pesos ($12 million).

Tiger owns the operator of the $2.4 billion Okada Manila integrated casino-resort.

The move comes about a month after President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at the casino business, saying he hates gambling and vowing there would be no new casinos set up during his presidency. Duterte also abruptly shelved Landing International's 0582.HK $1.5 billion integrated casino project in Manila.

Okada Manila is one of three integrated casino-resorts operating in the Philippine capital's version of the Las Vegas gaming strip. Melco Resorts and Entertainment (Philippines) Corp. MRP.PS, which operates City of Dreams Manila in the same gaming strip, plans to de-list from the stock exchange.

Asiabest’s special block sale, which will take effect on Nov. 12, would allow the casino operator to join the Philippines’ stock exchange, the worst performing bourse in Southeast Asia this year.

Tiger would offer to buy out minority shareholders of Asiabest, which implemented a voluntary trading suspension on Tuesday.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (Pagcor), the state gaming regulator, would look into the transaction, its top official said.

“Any application by our licensee to undergo public listing will require approval of Pagcor but we have not received any application yet from Tiger,” Andrea Domingo, chairman of the gaming regulator, told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear how Pagcor will view Tiger’s application, in view of Duterte’s crackdown on casinos.

Universal and Tiger representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

The Philippines boasts one of Asia’s fastest-growing gambling markets, with gross gaming revenues rising 11.6 percent to 176.5 billion pesos last year.

At the end of last year, there were nine private casino firms in the Philippines operating 1,444 gaming tables and 9,427 electronic gaming machines, according to government data.

($1 = 53.92 Philippine pesos)

Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Additional Reporting by Mari Saito in Tokyo; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman