Casinos bet in Macau play

PBL’S Crown Casino in Melbourne and its Burswood Casino in Perth will be used to guarantee a bond issue to help prop up the price of listed US company Melco PBL Entertainment (Macau), it emerged yesterday.

James Packer’s company plans to raise up to USD 250 million (AUD 290 million) in exchange tradeable bonds, as part of a move to to bolster the price of the Macau company, which has been badly hit in recent weeks by visa restrictions being imposed on gamblers by the Chinese Government.

PBL and its US investment partner Melco also announced yesterday that they have decided to delay plans to buy a third casino site in Macau by almost a year. PBL confirmed that it would be setting up a special purpose vehicle to issue the exchange traded bonds, which would be guaranteed by Crown Melbourne and the Perth-based Burswood Limited as well as the US Melco company.

The price of shares in the American company has plunged from USD 19 on listing last December to this week’s close of USD 12.90, on concerns about cost overruns on the two Macau projects and the impact of a crackdown on visitor visas to the gambling capital by Chinese authorities.

PBL said the proceeds of the bonds would be used to „fund a share purchase program“ for Melco PBL Entertainment, but it did not say how much would be spent on the share purchases.

Melco PBL Entertainment said yesterday that it had negotiated an extension to its agreement to buy a site on the Macau peninsula for a new hotel/casino complex until the end of July 2008.

The joint venture partners, who have just opened the Crown Macau and are working on the AUD 2.5 billion City of Dreams project on the Cotai strip, had originally announced plans to finalise the purchase of the third site by the end of September this year.

But they said yesterday that the extension of time was made to give the company more time to assess the impact of the „recently imposed restrictions affecting mainland tourists visiting Macau under the individual visitor scheme“.

„Such an extension provides the company additional flexibility to evaluate the uncertain impact of such restrictions on the evolution of the market and allows the company to thoroughly review its development plans for the Macau peninsula site,“ it said.

Crown Macau originally said its business would not be affected by the visa crackdown, as it was aiming at the high-roller market.

But the latest visitor figures to Macau are showing the visa restrictions are starting to bite.

Macau sources said yesterday that PBL and Melco appeared to have a lot on their plate at the moment, having worked overtime to finally fully open the Crown Macau and coming up against a tight deadline to open the first stage of the City of Dreams site in early 2009.

The PBL/Melco statement comes several weeks after Las Vegas casino operator Steve Wynn announced plans to delay the opening of the extension to his Wynn Macau in the light of the visa crackdown by Chinese authorities.

Never officially confirmed by the Chinese, the tighter visa restrictions on visits to Macau are believed to have been imposed over the potential for mainland Chinese to work illegally in Macau as well as the dangers of ordinary citizens losing their savings by repeated visits to gamble in the city.

The shares of Melco PBL Entertainment (Macau) listed on the US over-the-counter market Nasdaq in December at USD 19.

After a brief rise they have fallen in a series of slumps, as the venture has announced cost blow-outs and delays on the Crown Macau and the City of Dreams projects.

The Crown Macau opening was in May, but the 216-room hotel vital for servicing its high roller gamblers has just opened.

The company’s shares plunged to a low of USD 11.55 towards the end of June, but have regained some ground, closing yesterday at USD 12.90.

PBL‘s shares have come down from a high of AUD 22 in March. They closed down yesterday by 8c to AUD18.52.