Regulators Probe Potential Insider Trading in James Packer Sale of Crown Resorts Shares to Melco

Posted on: September 29, 2020, 08:35h. 

Last updated on: September 29, 2020, 09:51h.

Disclosures by James Packer’s investment company to Melco Resorts in advance of a $1.7 billion Crown Resorts share sale came under scrutiny Tuesday by a licensing suitability investigation in Sydney.

Crown Resorts
A public investigation is looking into billionaire James Packer’s share sale last year. (Image: Reuters)

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority inquiry wanted to know whether information about Crown Resorts’ financial health relayed by Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) to Melco constituted insider trading.

In late May 2019, Packer agreed to sell 20 percent of his equity in Crown in two tranches to his friend and business associate, Lawrence Ho, the Melco CEO. The purchase of the first 10 percent completed in June, but the second tranche was put on hold pending the NSW inquiry.

Melco Balks

Under the terms of the Crown’s 2014 licensing in New South Wales, the company was forbidden from doing business with Lawrence Ho’s father, the recently deceased casino magnate Stanley Ho, because of allegations of Chinese triad links.

One of the inquiries’ initial aims was to establish why Ho Jr. was listed as a director of a corporate entity called Lanceford Company Ltd. that was blacklisted in NSW for its ties to his father.

That point is now moot. In February this year, Melco backed out of the deal for the second tranche, citing the pressure the coronavirus pandemic had exerted on its operations in Macau. In April, it sold the first tranche to private equity giant Blackstone for a significant loss.

Insensitive Information?

But on Tuesday, Michael Johnston, director of CPH and of Crown Resorts, was asked whether the information passed to Melco was sensitive. Johnston previously signed off on the Melco deal.

Much of it related to the projected costs of building the Crown Sydney, how many of its luxury apartments had already been sold, and the status of a shareholders’ class-action lawsuit over the imprisonment of 18 Crown employees in China in 2016.

Do you agree that a reasonable person might consider that some of that information would have a material impact on the price or value of Crown Resorts shares?” asked counsel assisting the inquiry Adam Bell, SC, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Johnston had earlier acknowledged he understood that under Australia’s insider trading laws, “inside information” meant material that was not generally available and could affect a company’s share price.

But in this case, Johnston said he believed the information was “significantly below the threshold of it being sensitive information or price-sensitive information.”

Crown is fighting to retain its New South Wales license as it prepares to open the Crown Sydney in December this year. The inquiry has been examining the operator’s links to the junket industry and anti-money laundering failures.

Packer, who has retreated from business life citing mental health issues, is expected to give testimony to the inquiry later this week.