Australia NSW watchdog casts doubt on Blackstone's timeline for Crown bid clearance
Perth's Crown casino under pressure to limit opening hours to prevent problem gambling
Louise had just received a settlement after her divorce, and moved up to Perth. The casino was light, bright and always welcoming — and soon she was gambling almost every night.Going to Crown Perth to chance her luck on the gaming machines was just something to do on a weeknight.
The head of NSW's gambling regulator has thrown cold water on US private equity giant Blackstone's claims it will have probity clearance to take over James Packer's Crown Resorts by October, saying the process will be exhaustive and take as long as necessary.
The battle for the beleaguered Crown and its casinos in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney heated up on Monday when its main rival The Star Entertainment confirmed a proposed $12 billion merger between the two gambling and hospitality groups.
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The New York-based Blackstone has been stalking Crown for months and over the weekend increased its takeover bid from $11.85 per share to $12.35 - valuing it at about $8.3 billion - and told Crown it expected to have approval from gambling regulators in NSW, Victoria and WA by October.
However, NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA) chair Philip Crawford said the regulators' process would be complex, thorough and would "take what it takes".
"The only estimates of timing have been coming from Blackstone, not from us," Mr Crawford said in an interview.
"There was some talk of 20 weeks - we'll that's not our number; we've given no one an indication. It's going to be exhaustive... [and] it'll take as long as it takes to do it properly."
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The comments will come as a blow to Blackstone as Crown and its investors weigh up the competing bids for the group, which also includes an offer from US investment fund Oaktree to pay up to $3 billion for some or all of James Packer's 37 per cent stake.
While Blackstone - which already owns 10 per cent of Crown - has been tight-lipped about its play for the company, Crown said in an ASX statement on April 13 confirming details of its bid that it was "the expectation of Blackstone that it will receive probity approval to acquire 100 per cent of Crown from each of the state gaming regulators by 3Q [third quarter] 2021".
Blackstone is hard at work helping ILGA to trawl through its global portfolio of assets, according to sources close to the process. A particular focus is on how Blackstone runs its Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas, and the gambling group Cirsa, which owns more than 140 casinos across Colombia, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Spain and Morocco.
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JP Morgan analyst Don Carducci, in a note to clients on Tuesday, questioned whether Blackstone's guide of a third-quarter result from ILGA was "in anyone's best interest, for fear of appearing to rubber-stamp… important probity processes".
Blackstone's approval was unlikely this calendar year given there were still two royal commissions underway into Crown, and was that "unlikely to be expedited, even if the attitude of the applicant is overly compliant", Mr Carducci said.
ILGA is working with Crown on its efforts to become a suitable casino operator after NSW suspended the licence for its new Crown Sydney tower following evidence at last year's damning Bergin Inquiry of money laundering and other serious probity issues.
Mr Crawford said he doubted any Crown transaction would happen before it had finished that process.
ILGA had not worked out what it would require in the event of a merger between Crown and The Star, he said, but expected arrangements entered into with Crown's major shareholder James Packer to reduce his influence over the group in light of the Bergin Inquiry's findings would carry over to the new company.
Further agreements may be needed to address the size of Mr Packer's shareholding in the new merged company given The Star has a 10 per cent ownership cap built into its NSW licence.
"The Star has operated in this state for close to 30 years … they've got a decent track record in this state - they've never had anything like the Bergin Inquiry challenge their suitability," Mr Crawford said.
"So that's not a bad start, but just how the two merge together we need to consider that in a bit more detail."
Crown shares jumped 7.3 per cent on Monday to $13 and The Star's shares closed 7.7 per cent higher at $4.21 after they confirmed reports in this masthead of the merger proposal. By 12.15pm Tuesday they had lost some of those gains, with Crown down 1.2 per cent to $12.84 and The Star down 2 per cent to $4.12.
Cash ban at Crown Sydney to counter money laundering fears .
Crown Resorts has agreed to ban cash from its new Sydney casino in an effort to prevent criminals from laundering drug money and other ill-gotten gains on its gaming tables. © Chris Hopkins 28/02/21 A general view of the exterior of Crown Casino, Southbank, Melbourne. Photograph by Chris Hopkins GENERIC The James Packer-backed group had the licence for the casino at its new $2.2 billion Barangaroo tower suspended in December after the damming Bergin inquiry raised concerns about money laundering at its Melbourne and Perth casinos.