James Packer still isn’t as rich as he was when his father died, but he’s going in the right direction. According to the latest BRW Rich 200, he has boosted his wealth in the last year by about $1 billion — from $4.16 billion to $5.21 billion if you want to be precise.

Precision, of course, is pretty pointless when the stock market is falling 2% a day, because Packer’s riches come from big shareholdings in two quoted companies, Crown and Consolidated Media. A 10 cent fall in Crown’s share price makes him $35 million poorer. A 12 cent fall in the price of Consolidated Media has the same effect. So, on an average down day at the moment, he’s losing $100 million. Ouch.

That may well be small change for him, but it would be almost enough to wipe out his old mate and sparring partner, Lachlan Murdoch, who has dropped out of the Rich 200 this year while watching his fortune shrink from $217 million to $160 million. It’s tough luck that this is because he’s lost more than half his money in Network Ten. And guess whose idea that was? Yup, James Packer bought the shares and gave half of them to his old One.Tel chum, because he thought he needed a break.

Ten’s shares opened at 71 cents this morning, less than half the $1.45 they were when Lachlan bought in. And most analysts are still telling people to sell.

No doubt, the lesson here is not to invest in the media, and certainly not in free-to-air TV. Had Packer not bailed out of Channel Nine at the end of 2006, collecting $5.1 billion in the process, he would be a couple of billion dollars poorer today — the latest proposal (from Hollywood) to buy Nine from its private equity owners, CVC, values the network at $3 billion.

James managed to lose about $1.7 billion of this cash when he punted on a series of disastrous US casino developments in 2007 and 2008 that all went tits-up. But he has still made the right strategic bet by going for gaming rather than the media.

His determination to push Kerry into buying Crown in 1997 paid off in spades, and his expensive foray into Macau in 2004, which looked like a dumb bet for ages, is now hitting the jackpot — with the Ho-Packer joint venture, Melco Crown, churning out net profit of more than $100 million a quarter.

James is even doing OK in pay-TV — another strategic move of his that Kerry opposed. His shares in Consolidated Media Holdings, which owns 25% of Foxtel and 50% of Fox Sports, have jumped from $2.10 to $3.25 in the last year (netting him about $300 million). And there is talk of him selling out for around $1 billion.

So where would he put that money if he gets it? Into casinos of course, either by taking over Echo Entertainment, or by finessing a deal to build a new high-roller hotel in Sydney, in which he appears to have NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell on his side.

Seven years after Kerry’s death, James has become a far bigger casino gambler than his famous father, and much more likely to be on the winning side.

*To comment and for more visit The Power Index

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey