Online gamblers hit by regulatory minefield and populist politicians

BEFORE banker-bashing came along, gambling was the populist issue that most politicians turned to when they wanted a boost in the polls.

One of the first things Gordon Brown did on becoming Prime Minister was ditch plans for a Las Vegas-style super-casino in Manchester, earning him plaudits from reactionaries everywhere.

Now Germany’s 16 Lander – or federal states – are discussing new online legislation that proposes, among other restrictions, a 16.7 per cent sports wager tax that would effectively prevent Bwin from making a decent return. It will be months – maybe years – until the effect of the new rules on Bwin is fully known.

The legislation is sure to be challenged by Bwin and its rivals, and maybe even the EU, although the rules could still be adopted by next year.

However, one thing is clear: the online gambling business will always be laced with regulatory mines that could be detonated at any minute by opportunist politicians.

In the US, online gambling has been banned since 2006, with very few exceptions – despite the World Trade Organisation ruling that it is in violation of its treaty obligations.

There are attempts to ease rules in Nevada, along with Iowa, California and Florida, although there is no guarantee that any changes will be long-lived.

Elsewhere, there is little chance of any real relaxation of rules. In Australia, “interactive” gambling is illegal, while any form of gambling in Russia, China or Japan is not allowed. In India –?where the gambling market is worth some $60bn a year – around half of bets are technically illegal.

In the EU, the situation is much better, but Germany’s decision to try and go it alone with tougher rules is a portent of things to come.

It is somewhat fitting that a play on Bwin is to some degree a gamble on factors outside an investor’s control.