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admin 04.06.2014

Online gambling stocks have performed strongly over the last few months, buoyed by the late 2011 Department of Justice opinion that appeared to legalize state-regulated online gambling in the US, and continued revenue growth in the publicly traded companies’ year-end reports. The above examples are just a small fraction of the regulatory and tax issues facing online gambling companies (a full accounting would require several volumes); but the end result is chaos, from an investment standpoint. On the other side of the world, in Asia, publicly traded online gambling companies essentially have no presence, as our own Calvin Ayre pointed out last year. With all the uncertainty and all the challenges facing the sector, the recent bull run in online gambling stocks seems to have priced in the most optimistic scenarios about online gambling legalization in the US, normalization of the regulatory structure in Europe and the sector’s reliance on a European economy that is already struggling and faces a potentially severe economic crisis. Within the sector, Betsson AB looks like an attractive play; its focus on the more economically and politically stable countries in Scandinavia and the aforementioned 5% dividend yield, both make the stock less susceptible to political and financial winds than its competitors. The potential for US iGaming has moved stocks, shares of Caesars to Zynga following news that it wouldn't pursue real-money gambling in the US. The major European companies are all profitable, with cash on the balance sheets, and, in some cases, solid dividend payouts (Betsson AB’s yield, for instance, is a solid 5%, above all but a fraction of US stocks in any industry).
As Mike O’Donnell noted on this site just last week, publicly traded gambling stocks have historically been volatile, unstable investments.

It’s hard enough to choose among stocks in a given sector based on marketing power, leadership, valuation, and execution. The US market, for all the New Year’s hype about the online poker “gold rush”, still appears set to be a fragmented, highly regulated, highly taxed, and slow-developing industry.
Multi-billion dollar estimates have been thrown around regularly, but, over in Europe, the online poker market continues to decline. Given that internet gambling is still banned in most of the Far East, it seems unlikely that online gambling companies – whose executives have been pulled off airplanes and arrested at press conferences in the West – are likely to be as brazen in flouting Chinese laws as they have been in Germany or the US.
The most notable example of the sector’s unpredictability was the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) in the US, which knocked down the then-traded stock of PartyGaming by some 70%, while severely impacting other online gambling stocks as well. Still, there seems to be no rush to head into these stocks – or any others in the industry. Facebook game producer Zynga (ZNGA) has signaled its interest in online gambling in the US. The focus on Europe means that volatility is almost certainly going to attack the sector’s stock prices, as fears of Greek default and weakness in the Continental economy persist.

Ownership in online gambling stocks now seems to require a master’s degree in European politics, with an accompanying law degree focusing on the Treaty of Lisbon and its interpretation by the modern CJEU. This type of confusion hurts investors, lowers share prices, and requires that smart investors only enter in these companies at a discount to similar stocks in more stable, more traditional, and less government-reliant industries. IGT competitor Bally Technologies (BYI) recently released server technology for online gambling. By 2008, the games – even at lower stakes – consisted mostly of skilled players passing chips back and forth; many so-called “professional” online players were showing breakeven results at the tables, simply living off the bonuses and rakeback programs afforded to higher-stakes players.

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