Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Criminal activity?

I've just seen the numbers from the most recent of the Gambling Commission's regular surveys on attitudes to gambling in the UK. The good news is that the number of people who think gambling is conducted fairly and can be trusted has gone up since last year. The bad news is that it's still true that fewer than one in every two people hold this view!

In fact, it's incredible to think that after a decade in which attitudes to gambling seem to have changed beyond all recognition, such that it has become a mainstream leisure activity (a change charted in Colin Cameron's book, You Bet!), an astonishing 41.3% of the 4,000 adults surveyed still agree with the statement that "gambling in this country is associated with criminal activity".

When asked what the ‘criminal activity’ entailed, the answers were broken down as in the table below. As political background, it brings some context to the debate about proper regulation, and underlines why there should be no surprise that it takes place in such a febrile atmosphere.

Personally, I find it slightly baffling. Perhaps that's because of how I came into the gambling industry; how I viewed it at the time; and how I still see it now.

I started my professional career at the US investment bank JPMorgan, where I was a bond trader. When I left there because my JPMorgan colleague Edward Wray asked if I had an interest in joining his gambling start-up, I looked at the Betfair product and saw it as being just the same as what I was doing. For me, the only difference between trading UK corporate bonds and betting on a horse race was that for one you studied balance sheets and income statements, and for the other you studied the form. When I made this point some years later, speaking at the Swiss Futures and Options Association annual gathering at Burgenstock (I get all the good gigs!), an audience which started as sceptical eventually agreed that there was actually little or no difference between the financial world and the regulated bookmaking market.

I wonder what the percentages would come out if those members of the British public who have been asked about gambling were also asked about banking and financial services? Even after the events of the last couple of years, it is clear that the numbers would be miles apart from those below.

Which set of responses is an unfair reflection of reality?

Table 3: What crimes do you yourself, associate with gambling?

Category of Crime



Thefts committed by gambling addicts to support their addiction



Money laundering



Violent crime



Other serious/organised crime



Other financial crime (excluding money laundering)



People who run gambling businesses acting illegally



Criminal organisations illegally influencing sporting events



Criminal organisations buying and/or operating gambling businesses






Crime not specified



1 comment:

  1. It’s a point well made about the similarity between trading UK corporate bonds and betting on a horse race. Buying and selling shares is nothing more than opinion based gambling and yet somehow it is widely regarded as a more acceptable and respectable undertaking. I look forward to the day when sports events are genuinely accepted by everyone as a mainstream asset class and warrant precisely the same investment approach.

    I think the association between gambling and criminality is nothing more than a historical and cultural legacy that will in time disappear as regulation improves and more people participate.

    It’s just that gambling on a company’s future performance happens to have been legal and regulated for an awful lot longer than gambling on the performance of a football team or a thoroughbred horse.

    And in those parts of the world where the latter is still illegal it is inevitable that criminals will seek to benefit. Just look at who were the primary beneficiaries of Prohibition in the US during the 1920s.

    I note from the Gambling Commission’s report that participation in gambling was associated with a more positive perception of gambling, and that the percentage of those who associate gambling with criminal activity was significantly higher among those who do not gamble. I’d therefore expect to see the percentage of people associating gambling with criminal activity continue to fall in coming years.