By Venus Wu
MACAU (Reuters) - Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub, moved on Friday to clarify it had not tightened daily cash withdrawal limits for Chinese gamblers, after fears of a crackdown on illicit money outflows sent shares in casino operators tumbling.
The South China Morning Post, citing a finance industry source, reported late on Thursday that the Monetary Authority of Macau would halve the amount of cash that China UnionPay cardholders can withdraw from automated teller machines (ATMs) in the territory.
The paper said this would mean halving the daily cap for clients of China's largest provider of bank cards to 5,000 patacas ($626).
The Macau authority, however, said it limited withdrawals to 5,000 patacas per transaction, effective Friday, but had not changed its daily limit.
UnionPay's international arm also said it had not changed its policy on overseas cash withdrawals using cards issued on the mainland, adding the daily limit was still 10,000 yuan ($1,450), with an annual cap of 100,000 yuan.
ATM withdrawals are not a major source of cash for most Chinese gamblers, especially its high rollers. Many average players use UnionPay to buy goods, then return them to get a cash refund which they use to gamble.
But the reported change was seen as a signal of concern, alarming investors in a sector still recovering from a long-running anti-graft campaign under President Xi Jinping.
Monthly revenues from Macau have only returned to growth since August, helped by new resorts bringing in casual gamblers.
Shares of gaming groups including Melco Crown Entertainment <MPEL.O>, Las Vegas Sands Corp <LVS.N> and Wynn Resorts <WYNN.O> fell by more than a tenth as the crackdown concerns swirled.
China is stepping up measures to stem capital outflows, and analysts brushing off Friday's limited action from Macau warned that the broader worry remained.
"The risks of more capital outflow control measures should not be ignored," said Chelsey Tam, analyst at Morningstar, noting this could limit a recovery in gaming revenues next year.
The Chinese State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) has been vetting transfers abroad worth $5 million or more, and has increased scrutiny of big outbound deals, even those with prior approval.
The yuan skidded to more than eight-year lows late last month, and China's November foreign exchange reserves fell more than expected to $3.05 trillion, the lowest in nearly six years.
In Macau's glitzy Grand Lisboa casino, it was largely business as usual on Friday as gamblers and business owners shrugged off the prospect of the cash withdrawal limits that had spooked investors.
One Macau pawnshop owner, who gave his name as Cheung, said any official crackdown was unlikely to solve the capital outflow problem, as China's illegal channels and shadow banks flourish.
"What's the point of just restricting Macau? Don't you think mainland Chinese will just take their money to the Philippines or Singapore?," he told Reuters.
($1 = 7.9810 patacas)
(Reporting by Venus Wu in Macau, with additional reporting by Clare Jim in HONG KONG, Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI, Clara Ferreira-Marques in SINGAPORE, Ankit Ajmera in BENGALURU and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)