Friday, September 20, 2013

Government Curbs Stifle South Korean Lottery Industry Growth

First published in Asia Gambling Brief
Gaming regulators in South Korea, backed by a powerful anti-gambling lobby and the media, have declared that the domestic lottery market is overheating - although even a cursory glance at the figures reveals little evidence of the claim

The headline numbers show that lottery sales, which hit an eight-year high last year, continued the momentum in the first half of 2013, with the official sales target for 2013 set at 3.29 trillion won ($3 billion), a 3.2 percent annual increase.

But the latest statistics released by the Korea Lottery Commission, the regulatory authority under the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, reveal sales in the first half of this year rose by a modest 0.45 percent, or 7.5 billion won from 1.6 trillion won in the previous year.

Far from overheating the market is actually being artificially constrained, according to industry executives. It not only puts a severe strain on the lottery industry, but also helps sustain the growth of illegal gambling.

The effect of the curbs becomes obvious when you contrast the performance of South Korean lottery sales with average performances in Asia Pacific. Estimates released by the World Lottery Association, show that Asia Pacific lotteries witnessed an increase in sales of 11.1 percent for the first half of 2013.

The fastest growing market remains China where total lottery sales rose 16 percent year on year. In comparison, the increase in South Korean lottery sales seems miniscule.

According to Chris Moumouris, principal consultant and vice president of business development at QLot Consulting, the market growth in South Korea is insignificant given its potential. And he should know. Before joining QLot, a Swedish lottery consultancy with offices in Europe and in North America, he worked for many years at Intralot, part of the Nanum Lotto Consortium that has been given the mandate to run the online lottery business in South Korea until 2017.

As board director at Intralot Asia Pacific and Intralot Korea, he was chiefly responsible for bagging the South Korean deal in 2007 and oversaw the project until 2011.

“In Greece, for example, a country with a population of just under 11 million and income levels historically similar to South Korea, the lottery market is almost four times higher. South Korea, although a first-world nation and a global technology leader, is way under developed,” he told AGB.

In the past, it might have been argued that the industry’s growth potential was bound to be limited because of the social stigma attached to lotteries in a Confucian society but that restraint has slowly faded over the years thanks to government promotions and the knowledge that most of the proceeds go towards welfare programs.

According to a recent poll by the Ministry of Finance, nearly six in every 10 South Koreans purchased lottery tickets at least once last year. In the survey of 1,002 people, 55.2 percent said that they had bought lottery tickets.

So, what is holding back the market?

Moumouris maintains that if it is to expand, the legal and regulatory framework needs drastic changes.

“Europe is the world’s most pioneering region as far as lotteries and gambling is concerned and the South Korea legislative and regulatory framework has a lot to learn from that. The lottery operators should be allowed a wide portfolio of games, which they should be able to offer across all channels (retail, internet, mobile).”

The Korea Lottery Commission is responsible for formulating and implementing lottery-related policies, and has exclusive authority to issue, sell, and manage lottery products, but it entrusts private lottery companies with the operations. Nanum Lotto Co. Ltd. conducts the only allowed online lottery (Lotto 6/45) operations, while Korea Union Lottery Co. Ltd. handles printed and Internet lotteries that include one draw game (Pension Lottery 520), three instant games (scratch cards) and seven Internet lottery games (four draw games, three instant games).

The sales data reveals that the market is lop-sided and depends too much on Lotto sales. The share of Lotto in total lottery sales increased from 2 percent in 2002 to 96.2 percent in 2010. In 2011, when a new product (Pension Lottery 520, which offers winners 5 million won of annuities every month for 20 years instead of a lump sum) was introduced, the Lotto share of the market declined to 89 percent, but it has been rising steadily since then. It was 90 percent in 2012 and 92 percent in the first half of this year..

Moumouris believes that people want to try out new lottery products but the lack of options and lack of enthusiasm for other products that offer lesser payouts made them switch back to Lotto.

Lotto continues to offer the highest prize money among all available lotteries but it is just a fraction of that in other developed markets. While jackpots often run into hundreds of millions of dollars in Europe and the US, in South Korea, the most a single jackpot winner can expect is around $10 million.

In 2003, Lotto fever peaked when the prize money hit 40.7 billion won after there was no winner for the seventh, eighth and ninth weeks of the year. Grumbles over the get-rich-quick attitude made the government limit prizes in 2004 and these restrictions have been in place since then.

Unlike other markets, the National Gaming Control Commission (NGCC), a gambling regulator under the Prime Minister’s Office, sets a regulatory limit on sales each year for the gaming industry as part of its efforts “to prevent and curb gambling addiction”.

The Finance Ministry asks the NGCC every year to eliminate the sales ceiling, arguing that the lottery is less addictive than other gambling industries and its share of GDP is half of the OECD average and a third of other Asian countries. To date, the NGCC has consistently refused the request, afraid of annoying the anti-gambling lobby.

This artificial sales cap imposed in the face of growing demand does not augur well for the lottery industry. Experts argue that instead of imposing penalties and curbing the growth of the market, the NGCC should do away with any limits and let the markets decide.

Moumouris, perhaps unsurprisingly, argues that the only solution is for the government to employ an international, independent lottery specialist firm to redefine its legal and regulatory framework for lotteries.

When non-lottery specialists like law firms were involved, the result was often a flawed framework, he said, while technology vendors and operators should also be avoided as a source of advice as they will be biased.