Last month, courtesy of Andrew Zatlin’s Vice Index, we flagged the disturbing Q1 rise in traveling hookers. We call the trend disturbing not because we have a prima facie inclination to look with disdain upon all things escort-related but because, as Zatlin notes, when escorts are forced to take their show on the road it means the phones have stopped ringing locally, and if you’re inclined to believe that trends in all-cash businesses are a good leading indicator for trends in consumer spending in general, depressed spending on gambling, alcohol, and other “fun” things does not bode well for economic growth going forward. As you can see from the graph below, The Vice Index hit its lowest level in more than a year in March:
Given this — and given the fact that whatever discretionary income Americans do have is apparently being chanelled into TD Ameritrade accounts — it should perhaps come as no surprise that gaming revenue on the Las Vegas strip fell nearly 10% in March after sliding 4.4% in February.
Meanwhile, the situation in Macau continues to deteriorate at a rather remarkable pace, as gaming revenue fell 39% last month, the eleventh consecutive monthly decline which looks good only in comparison to March’s 39.4% decline and February’s 49% drop. Of course in the deluded minds of China’s millions of newly-minted day traders, a 39% decline represents “stabilization” and so, as Bloomberg reports, casino shares rose in Hong Kong on the news:
Wynn Macau Ltd. rose 4.8 percent to HK$16.54 by the close of trading, the biggest gain since April 9. Sands China Ltd. gained 3.3 percent and Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd. advanced 3.1 percent, while the Hang Seng Index was little changed.
Gross gaming revenue in the world’s largest gambling hub fell 39 percent to 19.2 billion patacas ($2.4 billion) last month, meeting a median estimate of a 39 percent decline from eight analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. The drop has slowed for a second consecutive month.
“Investors are really just focused on trying to find stabilization or a bottoming,” said Vitaly Umansky, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein. “As long as things aren’t deteriorating, things seemed to be fairly consistent, that’s probably a decent sign from an investor’s perspective.”
Right. As long as things “aren’t deteriorating” and revenues are only falling by 40% that’s a “decent sign.” Unfortunately, some industry heavyweights don’t seem to share the view that the market is set to turn the corner any time soon. Take Steve Wynn for instance who, on the way to slashing WYNN’s dividend by nearly 70%, had the following to say about the company’s outlook for Vegas and Macau and about the so-called "recovery" in the US economy:
Well, the numbers in the first quarter are out. I think the trends in Macau were beginning to be very visible in the fourth quarter, but our hopes for an improvement in the Chinese New Year turned out to be incorrect. And the repositioning of the market and the degradation of the volumes in VIP, have continued even into April. Most of my remarks now are going to include what we’ve seen in the first four months, not just the first three months, because the trends that were clear in January, February and March have continued into April and as we look at the whole year in Las Vegas and Macau, certain simple truths emerge.
It is no secret that there’s been a change in mainland China in attitudes towards a number of things that have impacted Macau. That has not – nothing has changed since this all began last October. And the depression of the VIP market continues…
So as we look backwards for the fourth quarter and especially during the last four months, and understand what’s happening, both in Las Vegas because of the Asian impact on Baccarat, and we look back and then we extrapolate and try predict the future, or at least understand what most likely will be the future, it is foolhardily and immature and unsophisticated to issue dividends on borrowed money. We only distribute money that’s free cash flow based upon our earnings that trail…
If you were to ask me, since we’re making forward-looking statements, what will the second quarter look like in Las Vegas? Weak. Do you hear me? Weak. So I’m trying to lower expectations here. This notion of a big recovery is a complete dream. I don’t think Las Vegas is experiencing a great recovery. I think it’s still very patchy and I think that that’s probably our non-casino revenue in the first quarter was flat. I’d be thrilled if it was flat in the second quarter.
Besides being a stinging indictment of the pitiable state of the US economy, that’s a fairly unambiguous message from someone who knows a thing or two about this industry and even as the likes of Deutsche Bank called the Las Vegas commentary “overdone”, the bank had the following to say about the outlook for the gaming industry:
[With] market trends showing very limited signs of improving, and more headwinds than tail winds on the horizon (potential visitor traffic curbs, a full smoking ban, and uncertainty around table allocations), visibility is worse than ever in our view.
Despite the malaise and despite the fact that, as we noted earlier this year, Beijing’s corruption crackdown has likely motivated China's habitual (and filthy rich) gamblers to move permanently away from the dark-lit Macau gambling parlors to multiple-monitor lit trading desks, there will always, always be BTFDers — especially when you’re talking about Hong Kong-listed shares. With that in mind, we'll close with this quote provided to Reuters by Matthew Ossolinski, chairman of Ossolinski Holdings:
"What is the worst that could happen? [Gaming] stocks go down before they go up. But they will go up. We are preparing for a 100 percent increase in shares within the next three years."