Hands up: who knows what a FOBT is? It stands for fixed odds betting terminal. No? Well, you should, because they are a serious menace to society. That’s what Ed Miliband says, anyway.
FOBTs, you see, are those souped-up slot machines one can find in bookmakers’ shops all over the country, especially in deprived areas, usually next to Poundland. The most popular ones offer casino-type games, such as roulette, and have become notorious because of the speed with which they enable punters to lose large sums of money: up to £100 every 20 seconds, apparently. The Daily Mail likes to call FOBTs the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, which makes them sound much more fun than they are. Campaigners claim that gaming companies use FOBTs to prey on ‘the most vulnerable’, by which they mean the feckless poor.
Miliband, a puritan at heart, wants to give councils the power to ban FOBTs. David Cameron, for his part, says that he wants to see ‘empirical evidence’ before he takes action, but he does believe that there are ‘problems with the betting and gambling industry’ and that it is his job to stamp them out.
The hoo-hah has so far done the gambling industry little harm. Playtech Plc, which makes much of the gambling software for FOBTs, computers and mobile phones, last month announced better-than-expected results for the end of last year. It’s true that Ladbrokes, Britain’s leading bookmaker, is now halting its shop expansion strategy, but that was more to do with a broader move into the digital sphere than any response to the panic over FOBTs.
In fact, there must be lots of people who have been introduced to FOBTs because of the fuss surrounding them. Like me. Not so long ago, I heard Tom Watson MP on the news talking about the ‘pernicious’ influence of these wicked machines. Shut it, Tom, I thought, and headed to my local Ladbrokes. I only managed to lose £10 in about 20 minutes on the roulette game before I got bored. I might go back, though. It would be satisfying to tell Tom Watson that his stand against the evil bookmakers turned me into a problem gambler.
What really seems to wind up the Watsons of this world is that FOBTS have, against all odds, saved the high-street bookmaker from death by internet. The more traditional forms of betting, such as sticking a few pounds on a horse race, are all moving online, yet gamblers still pour their money into these glorified one-arm bandits just to pass the time. It’s odd, given that the FOBT experience is little different to what a casino website can offer. Partly this is a matter of access: you don’t need to register an account to play on a FOBT, or have a computer. But the success of high-street FOBTs means that British gambling has become more visible than ever — and thus more distressing to the media and political classes.
From an investment point of view, the interesting question is where will the smart money go when the state finally clamps down on FOBTs, probably some time after Labour wins the next general election. Many gambling firms are anyway worried because of the Point of Consumption Tax, which is expected to come into force in December. This levy is meant to stop gaming companies from avoiding tax on their British businesses through subsidiaries in Gibraltar and Malta. A FOBT ban on top of the new tax could be a crippling double blow, even for giants such as William Hill and Ladbrokes. The most obvious beneficiary, however, would be Bet365, Britain’s biggest online operator. Interestingly, Bet365’s owners, the Coates family, have given the Labour party more than £400,000 over the last decade. I wouldn’t bet against them soon becoming Britain’s leading bookies.