KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian conglomerate Genting Bhd could be placing a risky bet as it aims to take on U.S. casino giants Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts to diversify from its monopoly home turf.
Genting, Asia’s largest casino operator, is looking to expand at a time highly-leveraged U.S. rivals are barely meeting debt obligations and may turn to asset sales to stay afloat.
Genting’s 3.2 percent stake purchase in MGM Mirage, the biggest operator on the Las Vegas Strip, in June has triggered market talk Genting could buy out MGM’s stake in its Macau’s business.
With more than $2 billion in cash and one of the strongest balance sheets in the sector, Genting might also be best placed to swoop on any casinos up for grabs in the United States.
But stiff competition in its new markets, still-struggling overseas businesses and a fragile global economy could derail the group’s ambitious plans.
“Growth is limited in Malaysia and Singapore and they have money to spend. Now’s probably the best time to actually buy something,” said UBS analyst Alain Lai.
“Certainly, the returns aren’t going to be as attractive as in Malaysia because Malaysia is a monopoly,” he said.
The Genting Group earns more than 70 percent of its profits from local operations, but it has put for sale its non-core businesses of palm oil plantations, property and power generation, which together account for about 30 percent of revenue. Genting Bhd is the holding company for Genting Group.
Genting’s international business, in particular Stanley Leisure, the U.K.’s biggest casino operator, have been hit by the economic downturn and stricter rules on smoking and gaming machines.
Genting’s head of strategic investments, Justin Leong told investors in London this month the company wants to be one of the top three gaming players in the world and will be patient in executing its expansion strategy.
The group, which operates Malaysia’s only casino, also owns Star Cruises, Asia’s largest cruise operator. Genting was founded in 1965 by Lim Goh Tong who risked bankruptcy over seven years to build the group’s gaming resort in Malaysia.
Genting’s stock has surged 85 percent so far this year, driven by the resilient gaming market, helping it outperform a 35 percent rise in Malaysia’s broader market.
Genting has been keen to grab a foothold in Macau, the Chinese gambling enclave, where gaming tycoon Stanley Ho’s SJM Holdings and Las Vegas Sands hold a market share of 31 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Other casino operators in Macau’s $15 billion sector include Hong Kong’s Galaxy Entertainment Group , Melco Crown, partly owned by Australia’s Crown Ltd, Wynn Resorts and MGM.
Some analysts said Genting might be keen to buy MGM’s stake in its Macau business if it is up for sale, but others say it may use the investment in MGM as an expansion platform, mirroring a similar move in the UK.
Genting’s investment in MGM raised speculation the Malaysian group may buyout MGM’s 50 percent stake in a joint venture with Ho’s daughter.
The gambling hubs of Macau and Las Vegas are clawing out of a deep slump but a glut of new casinos might put more pressure on the industry.
“There is clearly an opportunity for strong firms to poise themselves to capture the momentum of the next economic upturn,” said Jonathan Galaviz, a partner at Las Vegas-based consultancy Globalysis, referring to Genting’s expansion plan.
Genting Singapore is building Singapore’s second integrated resort, which starts operations early next year, and analysts expect this to one of the key drivers for earnings growth.
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On a 2009 enterprise value to EBITDA ratio (EV/EBITDA), Genting trades around 8.6 times, lower than 14.0 times for Wynn, 19.7 times for Las Vegas Sands and 11.3 times for MGM, according to Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.
“We see the potential of the group raising up to US$3.9 billion in financing ... if one assumes a 60:40 debt equity ratio, Genting can target up global gaming assets of almost $7 billion,” said Melvyn Boey, analyst at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.
Regulatory concerns however remain a risk, analysts said.
In 2007, Genting and Star Cruises called off a proposed casino venture with Ho in Macau after pressure from Singapore’s regulators.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in HONG KONG and Kevin Lim in SINGAPORE)
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