Online gaming companies in for huge 2011

Online gaming companies in for huge 2011, by Greg Tingle - 23rd November 2010

Could online gaming firms be in the mix of the top stockmarket investments to make in 2011?

The listing of Betfair (BET) at the conclusion of October on a fancy multiple and the $3.3 billion megamerger between PartyGaming and Bwin (PRTY), due to complete in the first quarter of 2011, appears to have added spark to the industry of late.

Then there is the prospect, albeit slight, of the liberalisation of the US igaming market which has put the industry firmly on investors' watch list, including ours, for next year.

It is understandable, as even a snapshot look at the stockmarket gains of the world’s biggest online gaming companies between circa 2004-2006 reveals just how quickly fortunes were made and lost.

The iGaming Global Top 30 Index, an index of the stockmarket performance of the biggest 30 online gaming companies, surged 40% between July 2004 and August 2005. This was followed by 12 months of extreme volatility before sinking thanks to a controversial piece of legislation in the US.

Since 2006, online gaming’s real story has been dominated by America’s Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA).

The multibillion-pound global industry virtually collapsed in a heap after its biggest market - the US - was closed down overnight when Congress introduced a surprise clause to legislation in September 2006, in effect making internet betting illegal. Not only was that a blow for investors - it was a hugely expensive one.

British-based companies were among the biggest casualties.

As soon as the London Stock Exchange opened the following Monday morning, shares in PartyGaming - then a FTSE 100 member - dived by 58%, while rivals 888 Holdings (888) and Sportingbet saw their shares slide by 26% and 64% respectively, wiping an estimated £4 billion off the sector's value.

The companies were forced to focus on opportunities in other parts of the world, but the businesses have never fully recovered from the impact of losing their most lucrative market. Last year, online gambling was worth an estimated $5.4 billion (£3.5 billion) overall, a figure that could rise to $12-$16 billion if the market was opened up, analysts say.

Despite the recent loss of a sympathetic Democrat majority in Congress last month, there is renewed hope of floated gambling companies being dealt a good hand on both sides of the Pond.

The new Republican chairman of the House financial services committee is likely to be an old-style Alabaman named Spencer Bachus.

Yet he is likely to listen to the prospects of a reinvigorated gambling sector for the ailing US economy. The Federal government’s non-partisan accountants, the Joint Committee on Taxation, have estimated online gambling could generate between $10 billion and $42 billion in new revenue by 2019, depending on the number of states that opt into a federal regulatory programme.

Yet he is likely to listen to the prospects of a reinvigorated gambling sector for the ailing US economy.

The Federal government’s non-partisan accountants, the Joint Committee on Taxation, have estimated online gambling could generate between $10 billion and $42 billion in new revenue by 2019, depending on the number of states that opt into a Federal regulatory programme.

And you can see why if you glance at the forecast numbers.

With the US nationwide unemployment rate at 10%, 48 of 50 states facing budget shortfalls and a Federal deficit approaching $1.3 trillion, the economic backdrop against which to promote regulation and taxation of internet gambling has arguably never been more favourable.

Yet those companies poised to get a real boost should America legalise online gambling, such as the impressive PartyGaming/Bwin combine, are getting excited about the future.

"We are seeing things from a legislative perspective that are quite exciting for us," says Jim Ryan, chief executive of PartyGaming, whose comments undoubtedly reflect the mood of a growing contingent of gambling operators on both sides of the Atlantic.

There has been speculation that PartyGaming and Bwin have decided to merge at this time precisely because they will be better placed than any other operator to seize a huge market share should the US decide to legalise online gambling. You only have to look at the market share that Party was able to capture by becoming one of the first operators into the online poker market back in 2001.

Analysts agree the enlarged company is in a strong position to exploit the opening up of the US market.

In a note to investors recently, the Morgan Stanley leisure analyst Vaughan Lewis said: "The overall political tide is moving firmly in favour of regulation, rather than prohibition.

"With its expertise... market-leading technology, strong marketing capability and good brands, we think the combined entity of PartyGaming and Bwin would be extremely well positioned to benefit from any market opening in the US. We include nothing in our forecasts for the US, so any new market here is pure upside."

And in a recent Barclays Capital research note, the investment bank said: "In the event of Federal regulation, we believe PartyGaming would be the likely key beneficiary.

"Under this hypothetical scenario, we estimate the potential [underlying profits] uplift could be 94% for PartyGaming and 58% for Bwin and 888. On a state-by-state hypothetical scenario, we estimate the uplift for the group would be considerably lower, but still meaningful."

Meanwhile, at the end of October analysts at Numis published a note saying there is 50% upside potential at Party when the merger with Bwin completes in March 2011. With the shares trading at around 230p at the beginning of November Numis have put a price target of 400p on the stock.

The PartyGaming/Bwin merger has got the other big companies in the sector scurrying around to do similar deals. They don't want to be left behind in what will become a gold rush should the US legalise online gaming.

888 and Sportingbet are also possible future takeover targets as the industry consolidates, but only once their legal liabilities in the US market are cleared. Serious negotiations in the PartyGaming/Bwin merger were only concluded once Party had secured a $105 million settlement with US authorities.

Analysts say a resolution would clear the way for 888 and Sportingbet to re-enter the lucrative US market should moves to overturn the 2006 legislation succeed.

Sportingbet has already acted telling shareholders at its latest results meeting that it had made a £22.8 million settlement with the US Department of Justice over an investigation into illegal internet gambling. The agreement means the firm will avoid being prosecuted in the US for accepting online bets made by Americans between 1998 and 2006.

Sportingbet would hold the most appeal to potential bidders, analysts reckon, pointing to its very strong market positioning in Australia and commenting that Ladbrokes (LAD) and William Hill (WMH) could be interested in a takeover.

Liberum Capital analyst Richard Taylor recently highlighted the strength of Sportingbet’s sports betting business, which he said had one of the best gross margins in the sector at around 10%. In addition, he said Sportingbet’s management was open to a bid, having previously stated up to 55% of their cost base could be removed.

Another former giant of the sector, now somewhat depleted thanks to the UIGEA, is 888.

Analysts say 888's attraction would be the potential for cost savings in a tie-up with a rival online gaming operator, and that Party/Bwin might be a possible buyer. What would make it attractive is that both Party and Bwin use 888 as a supplier.

However, the Shaked family who founded the company, and who control over 50% of the shares, would be looking for a price significantly above the 40p at which the company currently trades.

There have been whispers among London traders in the last few weeks that a £262 million, or 76p a share, cash bid from a much bigger industry player, possibly US entertainment giant Harrah's, which already has close business links with 888 could be on the cards.

Certainly 888 chief executive Gigi Levy has said recently that he looks at consolidation as one of the possible routes to realising shareholder value.

Another giant of the industry looking to become bigger still is the mighty Betfair. Having listed on the LSE at the end of October at 1,300p, the shares soon touched 1,600p-plus, as tracker funds piled in confident it will canter into the FTSE 250 index at the December review with a market value above £1.6 billion.

If things are hotting up at the Federal level for the online gaming industry there are also some exciting developments at state level.

So far in 2010, four states have considered whether or not to legalise some combination of online poker, casino gaming and sports betting: Iowa, Florida, California and New Jersey.

The state making most headway is New Jersey, where internet gambling has been under consideration by lawmakers since 2001. It is finally receiving serious consideration in the state Senate where two bills, which would legalise internet sports betting and casino gaming respectively, have already passed the committee stage this year.

From California to New Jersey to Florida, more state and federal congressmen are taking the reality of a legal online gambling regime a lot more seriously.

Whoever wins the race, state or federal, one thing is clear: more and more stakeholders in the US are finally coming around to understand the risks and implication of a ‘do nothing’ strategy. This is an opportunity cost and gambling companies are getting their bets on regardless.

But ongoing political deadlock clearly poses a real threat to regulatory efforts at all levels of American government. But even as gambling industry stakeholders duke it out in the halls of legislatures around the country, as well as on Capitol Hill in Washington, the very fact that the conflict between them is intensifying signals that interest and investment in pushing for online gaming regulation is rising.

With billions of dollars out there to harvest and market share to win, the entire online gaming sector looks ripe for an upturn in coming months. Investing in online gaming companies has always been a white knuckle ride - and there looks to be every sign this particular circus is once again rolling back into town.



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