I was recently surprised to hear that Macau gambling revenues have overtaken Las Vegas. The explanation is that Chinese people love to gamble, and when they hit the tables they simply play much bigger than people in America. There is some truth to this. In the USA, the overall rate of “pathological gambling” is 1.8% for Chinese Americans, and 3% for Chinese immigrants. However, that doesn’t seem to explain the entire picture.
One trip to Macau and you’ll probably be asking yourself what the numbers really mean. In typical China Fashion, it means less than you think.
'07 Gambling Revenues: Macau $7.0B Vegas $6.5B
VIP Rooms: Macau 65% Vegas 0%
Slot Machine Revenue: Macau 5% Vegas 60%
Gambling % of Revenue: Macau 95% Vegas 40%
Length of Avg Visit: Macau 1 Vegas 4
Hotel Rooms: Macau 13,000 Vegas 130,000
65% of money bet in Macau is in the “VIP Rooms”, which typically equals money laundering. Without that, Macau is at about $2B/year. In terms of pure table games, Macau and Vegas are nearly equal – around $2B/Y, but Slot Machines contribute more than double table game revenues, and the vacation/convention business accounts for 2.5x the gaming total. In summary:
Macau: $2.5B (less money laundering)
Vegas: $16B (including slots and retail)
Those numbers basically match what you feel when you’re in Vegas.
You may be wondering how VIP Rooms work. James Fallows’s new book “Postcards from Tomorrow Square” explains.
The Chinese government doesn’t allow rich people to take their money out of the country easily, it allows them to convert only small amounts of renminbi each year. So a factory owner from the Pearl River Delta or a corrupt public official who has grown wealthy, will head to Macau.
One Western banker with extensive experience in Macau pointed out that the city functions as one big, quasi-official money-laundering site via the numbers gold dealer’s shops on either side of its border with mainland China.
Chinese visitors buy bold with RMB from shops on their side of the border and then sell to dealers on the Macau side for Hong Kong dollars – a ‘hard’ currency that can be converted into U.S. dollars or euros and sent anywhere in the world.
Something similar can go on when wealthy Chinese visit a VIP room. The room’s operator lends them money for gambling – often large sums, worth thousands or millions of U.S. dollars. The loan is in Hong Kong dollars, the main betting currency of Macau (its own currency is the pataca). If the Chinese gambler wins, he now has hard currency. If he loses, he settles the debt back in China, in RMB. A related practice is “doubling down” which the bets are made in one currency, say Hong Kong dollars, but the players agree to settle later in another, like U.S. dollars. Exactly how the debts are paid, and just where the touts get their substantial operating capital, is obscure. But the rooms and other Macau-based services are assumed to be a major channel for money flowing illegally out of China – and North Korea.
Fallows also wrote one of my favorite quotes ever summarizing doing business in China:
“These standards include such vague-sounding principles as rule of law, transparency, and accountability, which in practice mean: Can you trust a contract? Can you win a lawsuit? Do you know who’s really making a decision? Will the decision be made in favor of whoever provides a “red envelope” containing the biggest bribe? How many sets of books should a company be keeping, anyway? How much money laundering is too much?”
“Postcards from Tomorrow Square” p108