Sunday, March 29, 2015

Deregulate lotteries to fund welfare

First published in The Korea Herald.

There has been a heated debate in recent months about the need to raise taxes in Korea to generate revenue for the various government welfare programs to support the needy. While President Park Geun-hye has ruled out the possibility of raising taxes and is instead eyeing the “shadow economy” to get the much-needed funds, there is one other source that has been completely overlooked ― lotteries.

Lotteries are of particular interest to public finance economists since they represent an important source of government revenue in many countries. As a significant contributor to the government kitty, they have been widely examined by economists focusing primarily on their revenue potential and desirability as a method of taxation ― in many countries they exceed in magnitude tax collections on goods such as alcohol or tobacco.

Moreover, lotteries run for or by governments are used to support public programs such as infrastructure development, public safety, public health and education. The principal argument used to support lotteries has focused on their value as a source of “harmless” revenue, contributed by players voluntarily spending their money.

Critics have, of course, argued that lotteries for the most part have a regressive impact ― in the sense that the burden falls disproportionately on people with lower incomes, who typically spend a greater portion of their income on lotteries than those with higher incomes.

That said, while the lottery market in Korea has been growing, the pace of growth has been very negligible. Moreover, the lottery options available to customers are also limited.

Korea’s lottery business model currently has a three-tier structure: the Korea Lottery Commission, primary lottery operators and secondary lottery operators.

The KLC, a government agency responsible for formulating and implementing lottery-related policies, has exclusive authority to issue, sell and manage lottery products, but it entrusts private lottery companies with the operations.

The available lottery schemes are: online lottery game Lotto 6/45, four printed lottery games ― one draw game, three instant games ― and seven Internet lottery games ― four draw games, three instant games. Then there is a sports lottery.

Unlike in other countries, the National Gambling Control Commission, a regulator under the Prime Minister’s Office, sets a limit on sales each year for the industry as part of its efforts “to control, supervise and regulate the gambling industry independently, with prevention policies as the first priority.”

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 one-third of the rate in other Asian countries. The NGCC has consistently refused the request, afraid of annoying the antigambling lobby.

Since lottery tickets went on sale for the first time in 1947, printed lottery tickets have been dominant in Korea. But from 2003, the Korean lottery market has become disproportionately lopsided toward the online lottery.

Industry experts have noted that Koreans want to try out new lottery products, but the limited 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 U.S., the average single jackpot prize in Korea works out to around $2 million.

The growth of this industry is artificially restricted as the government has been under constant pressure to “stabilize the market and curb reckless gambling.” On the contrary, by artificially constraining the legal lottery market, the government helps sustain the growth of illegal gambling.

The latest statistics of the Finance Ministry show that Korea’s lottery industry grew for the ninth year in a row in 2014, with total sales surpassing 19.87 trillion won.

According to official data, gambling-related sales ― casinos, lotteries, horse, cycling and boat races and traditional bullfights ― grew 1 percent, by 199.2 billion won from the year before. For 2015, government officials expect the size of the industry will top 20 trillion won, mainly from a rise in demand for lotteries and casinos.

Of this, sales of various lottery tickets and sports betting exceeded 3.28 trillion won each, up 1.4 percent and 6.5 percent, from the year before.

The NGCC’s claim that the domestic lottery market is overheating is far from true. It has only been showing modest growth.

If we contrast the performance of Korean lottery sales with average performances in the Asia-Pacific, the real picture emerges. Estimates by the World Lottery Association show that Asia-Pacific lotteries have been witnessing average growth of over 10 percent.

The fastest-growing market is China. According to government figures, China’s lottery market continued to grow in 2014, with total lottery sales of $61.2 billion, representing a growth of 23.6 percent.

Even in European countries smaller than Korea, with historically similar income levels, the lottery market is almost four times larger.

Clearly, the market growth in South Korea is insignificant given its potential.

It may be true that in the past the industry’s growth potential was limited because of the social stigma attached to lotteries in a Confucian society, but that restraint has slowly faded over the years.

If the lottery market is to expand, the legal and regulatory framework needs drastic changes. The operators should be allowed a wide portfolio of games, which they should be able to offer across all channels ― retail, Internet and mobile.

More importantly, if the government is serious about mopping up revenues without higher taxes, it should consider the lottery option for funding welfare schemes.

Currently, 35 percent of lottery proceeds are appropriated to 10 legally mandated projects in accordance with Article 56 of the Lottery and Lottery Fund Act; the remaining money is used to help low-income families with housing, veterans’ welfare, cultural heritage and art promotion, and other public works.

Instead of imposing penalties and curbing the growth of the market, the NGCC should do away with any limits and let the markets decide. It will go a long way in boosting the lottery market and help the government efforts to boost welfare without tax hikes.