By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) - A decade ago, Australian billionaire James Packer had a clear, if unconventional, strategy: to turn his father's established television-to-newspaper conglomerate into a casino empire, tapping Asia's richest gamblers.
But as that plan falters, partly under the weight of China's corruption crackdown, Packer has taken cash out of the Crown Resorts <CWN.AX> business and pulled back in both Las Vegas and Macau in the past two months - unsettling even seasoned investors who say they need to know what the alternative is for the company.
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A series of technology investments by Packer, largely in Israel, have helped muddy the waters - along with a film production company in which one of Packer's partners is Steven Mnuchin, who has been nominated for the position of U.S. Treasury Secretary.
"It's pretty hard to digest it all with only a smattering of information," said Angus Gluskie, a fund manager at White Funds Management, which has a small stake in Crown.
"We all want to get a handle on what the real agenda is."
The high roller gambling business has struggled since Beijing's graft crackdown began in 2014, battering Macau, which had been a potential transit point for illicit money outflows and corrupt officials fleeing China.
In late 2015, Packer quit the Crown board saying he wanted to concentrate on casino developments in Las Vegas. Shares in the company rose on the expectation Packer would take parts of Crown private without having the conflicts of interest of being a board member.
That plan has come to nought.
Last month, Crown said it was walking away from its third attempt to build a casino on Nevada's famed strip and that it was selling down its stake in the Macau-focused Melco Crown Entertainment <MPEL.O> to almost nothing from a third of the company. That represented a major pullback from its foray into China.
Gaming revenue from Macau has declined every month for more than two years; and the company said turnover from VIP gamblers - largely Asian tourists - at its Australian casinos would likely fall 45 percent in the second half of 2016.
Mathan Somasundaram, a strategist with stockbroker Baillieu Holst, said an announcement on Tuesday that Packer would rejoin the Crown board showed that the company's global ambitions and the businessman's privatization plans had ended.
"The back tracking of the global expansion was a clear flag that privatization was going to be too hard to sell," Somasundaram said. "The local business is stable, but likely to see lower growth."
Responding to Reuters questions on investor concerns, Crown said the retreat from Macau and Vegas was consistent with a strategy to redeploy capital to growth projects and to cut debt.
Crown spokeswoman Natasha Stipanov said Crown's sale of Melco Crown shares "should make it clearer for investors to more easily evaluate the financial and operating performance of the company's high quality core Australian assets".
Crown has casinos and hotels in Melbourne and Perth, and a casino and high-end hotel development in Sydney.
But the uncertainty has hit its shares, with negative sentiment also fueled by a fresh anti-graft blow from Beijing when 18 of its staff were arrested in China for suspected "gambling crimes" in October.
Crown shares are down more than 10 percent since the October arrests and are trading 22 percent below where they were when Packer first shifted to gambling in a 2007 demerger just before the global financial crisis. Australia's benchmark S&P/ASX 200 <.AXJO> has fallen 12 percent during the same period.
Separately, Packer has also sold part of his stake, leaving his family with under 50 percent of Crown for the first time since 2013.
"I think they have been a bit shellshocked in terms of the volatility that's coming out of Macau over the last two years or so," said Theo Maas, a partner at Arnhem Investment Management, which holds Crown shares.
"The real question is whether you can compensate that with a better relationship with mainland China again or with other southeast Asian customers."
As Packer has dramatically scaled back his global ambitions with Crown, the Sydney native has moved away from his home country.
He now lives in homes in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, Israel.
He has invested in Israel’s high-tech industry, a sector which has previously proven fruitful for the Australian and may offer clues about his own private investments, if not Crown's. Crown did not respond to questions about Packer's reason for moving to Israel or his business there.
A source at Australian technology investment company Square Peg, which has interests in about 20 small firms including several in Israel, told Reuters that Packer was an investor though he does not have day-to-day involvement. Packer's link to Square Peg can be traced to an investment in an online jobs portal, where he made a A$50 million profit selling a stake in Australian jobs website Seek.com Ltd <SEK.AX> in 2013. The seek founder, Paul Bassat, is a founder of Square Peg.
Crown has also bought a 20 percent stake in Los Angeles-headquartered Japanese restaurant chain Nobu, in which actor Robert de Niro is also an investor. Before its retreat offshore, Crown said it would roll out Nobu restaurants in casinos around the world.
Crown declined immediate comment on whether that plan was unchanged.
"Clearly he's been a distracted man for some time, and I think some of his top lieutenants are pretty distracted too," said a third Crown investor, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"I've probably got as many questions as you, and I'm not sure I have any of the answers."
(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen in TEL AVIV and Jonathan Barrett and Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY; Editing by Martin Howell)