This photo shows Casino Lisboa, right, in Macao on Dec 28, 2022. (PHOTO / AP)

HONG KONG – Tourists from the Chinese mainland are returning to Macao in hordes after the central government lifted its restrictions on travel to the world's biggest gambling hub, lifting stocks and bonds of casino operators as investors bet on a boom in their revenues.

Hong Kong-listed shares of MGM China, Sands China and Melco International Development have climbed 11.4 percent, 6.4 percent and 12.6 percent so far this year, respectively, outperforming the broader Hong Kong market's 3.25 percent.

Gaming revenue accounted for over half of Macao's gross domestic product before the pandemic. Gambling revenue in the special administrative region surged 82.5 percent year-on-year to 11.6 billion patacas ($1.4 billion) in January, after it had nearly half a million visitor arrivals over the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday.

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The outlook could improve further, analysts said, given the surge of visitors had raised the "table drop" –the money exchanged for chips at each gaming table – back to 2019 levels before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have turned positive on the sector around late last year to early 2023. Their bonds are good for holding for a return.

Christy Lee, AXA Investment Managers

The award of new 10-year licenses to incumbent operators in November also removed a major risk that had concerned investors, said Christy Lee, Asian credit portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers.

"We have turned positive on the sector around late last year to early 2023," she said. "Their bonds are good for holding for a return."

Some of the beaten-down bonds are heading close to their $1 par value.

Wynn Macau's $1 billion high-yield bond which pays 5.125 percent and matures in 2029, had fallen to 52 cents to the dollar in October and is now at 79 cents.

Spreads over comparable US Treasuries have narrowed to 526 basis points (bps) from a record high of 1,127 (bps) in October, reflecting the decline in risk premium. That compares with a wider spread of 1,352 bps on the ICE BofA Asian dollar high-yield corporate China issuers index.

The casino operators' bonds are in demand as investors look for exposure to Chinese junk debt but seek to avoid property developers' bonds. 

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"We do expect some additional spread compression as Macao demonstrates a sustained ability to return to positive and healthy earnings generation amid a revival of visitation," said James Goldstein, a senior analyst at CreditSights.

Among the three US casino groups that operate in Macao, CreditSights has an "outperform" rating on Wynn Macau bonds due to higher yields.

Sands China's 10-year bond, rated at investment grade by Moody's Investors Service and Fitch, trades at a yield of 6.59 percent, compared with 9.3 percent on Wynn Macau's bond of the same maturity.