MACAU - Junket operators that connect China's wealthy punters to Macau's casinos are waiting as long as a year for gamblers to repay billions of dollars of loans, crippling the business model of an industry that sustains the world's biggest casino center.
These businesses, which lend to high rollers and operate private gambling rooms, normally collect within 30 days and charge interest rates as high as 3 percent per month on overdue balances, according to Macau-based junket consultant Tony Tong.
Now the junkets are on the hook for a surge in bad debts as China's economic slowdown and a crackdown on corruption chase some VIP gamblers away. With little access to credit and slow repayments, the money isn't flowing.
"The business model looks near-broken," said Philip Tulk, an analyst with Standard Chartered in Hong Kong.
Heng Sheng, one of the largest junket operators, told investors in October that 30 percent of the outstanding debt owed to its agents was over a year old, according to notes taken by a participant at a conference that was closed to the media. Many gamblers were making monthly instalments rather than the normal practice of paying in full.
A Heng Sheng representative declined to comment, saying he was not authorised to talk to the media.
It is difficult to establish how much credit these junkets extend because much of the business is done informally, but one Hong Kong-based analyst at an international bank estimated there was HK$100 billion ($12.90 billion) of outstanding debt.
China limits the amount of yuan that Chinese can take out of the country, so junkets serve as a conduit by lending Hong Kong dollars or Macau patacas that are accepted in the casinos.
This system insulates casino companies from credit risk, and helped propel Macau revenues to $45 billion last year - seven times Las Vegas's take. Macau's revenues are on track to fall 1-2 percent this year, well off last year's gain of 19 percent.
Without a healthy junket industry, casinos operators such as Las Vegas Sands Corp and Melco Crown Entertainment would have to rely on mass-market gamblers or extend VIP credit directly - a practice that has led to write-offs in places such as Singapore, where junkets are tightly restricted.
$450 MILLION DEBT
Wealthy coal baron Lu Zhong Lou is one extreme example of how the junket business can go wrong.
Ranked among China's wealthiest tycoons by Forbes, the 49-year-old from Shanxi province frequented luxurious casinos including Wynn Macau Ltd's caramel-hued VIP parlours and Galaxy Entertainment Group's diamond-encrusted saloons, according to six people familiar with his gambling habits and photographs of Lu playing at baccarat tables, obtained from some of his creditors.
He owes junkets and Chinese businessmen as much as $HK3.5 billion ($451 million), according to his creditors and local media. Reuters was unable to independently verify that figure after reviewing some signed contracts with junkets.
Junket operators say not all lending is recorded in contracts, and Lu's tally may be inflated by interest as well as side betting, an illegal arrangement between a gambler and junket operator where every dollar bet on a table represents as much as 20 times more.
In a series of phone calls with Reuters, Lu initially agreed to speak to a reporter about the gambling debts but then declined. Ji Jin Wu, a legal representative for Lu, said he was unable to comment without Lu's permission.
Lu is not considered a "princeling" son of top-ranking Chinese officials, although he is a member of China's advisory body and has several heavyweights associated with his private companies including the daughter of an army general.
NAMING AND SHAMING
Lu's creditors said his wealth and influence made it especially difficult to collect, and local media reported in October that two of his creditors were detained by Chinese authorities for reasons unclear.
"Currently it is hard enough to collect debt from low-ranking state executives let alone for the higher ranked ones. How do you pressure them? You can't. You have to write it off," said Peter Wong, director at Total Credit and Risk Management Group, which helps companies recoup debt.
As gambling debt is illegal in China, some junket operators interviewed by Reuters said they had flown to mainland China to try to seize assets and pressure debtors, a strategy that has been successful in a few cases.
Others have resorted to naming and shaming debtors through a Macau-focused entertainment and leisure website called Wonderful World, which lists more than 700 gamblers, including Lu.
Charlie Choi, who oversees the day-to-day running of the website, says the solution lies in clearer, enforceable rules.
"Macau needs to have some kind of protection for junkets to support the industry as this is what Macau depends on," he said. "They need to have a system to let creditors and operators know the risks."