Schaeffer's Outside the Box Blog
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Steven Sears takes on an interesting topic in The Striking Price column (subscription required) this week: Should the OCC go public?

At a time when almost everything on Wall Street is valued and traded, Options Clearing Corp. remains an exception. The OCC, which issues and settles all U.S. options contracts, is a true monopoly that remains privately owned. Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), CBOE Holdings (CBOE) Nasdaq OMX Group (NDAQ), and the International Securities Exchange unit of Deutsche Borse (DB1.Germany) are the owners.

In years past, the OCC has been discussed as an initial-public-offering candidate. The OCC says it has no plans for a stock offering, but how to maximize the organization's value is a topic worth revisiting.

My opinion? Noooooooo!

I do agree that it could grow profits by going public, much in the same way all of its owners listed above turned into coin-minting businesses. There are questions about serving the greater good, though, and it's hard to see how turning the OCC into a bottom-line-oriented company serves those needs.

As (the one and only) Steven Sears notes, it's a total monopoly now. For starters, you'd really need to open up the clearing business to competitors. If not, then a public OCC might start charging $50 or $500 to clear some trades. So, let's say we do open up clearing to competitive bids, then what?

Well, the companies will compete on the pricing end, which is great for everyone. But, they'll also have to compete on the servicing end (i.e. -- making good on transactions). Any trade you make now is effectively not with the party on the other side of the transaction. Rather, you're each technically trading with the OCC, which is acting as a guarantor. It's a gigantically important function in that it protects the system from collapsing in case a firm somewhere goes bad and causes a domino effect of defaults.

For this service, they extract a relatively small fee. Think of it as insurance.

To me, having OCC as a quasi-public utility serves this goal way better. Nothing is ever totally guaranteed. If memory serves me correctly, fears about the ultimate solvency of the OCC hit the radar screen in the 2008 meltdown. Then again, fears about every institution cropped up. It just feels like in times of crises, we're better served with an entity like the OCC having ultimate loyalty to the system and not the shareholders.

Now, of course, OCC would need heavy regulation under any structure. Banks have heavy regulation too, which serves as an endless topic for debate. They always want less -- which makes perfect sense given that they're public companies, driving for profits. Which gets back to my whole point that that's not really the battle you want to see a public OCC waging somewhere down the road.

Disclaimer: Mr. Warner's opinions expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of Schaeffer's Investment Research.


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Remember that question about which is better, stock trading or sports gambling? We're (maybe) about to get a better test.

Gov. Chris Christie's administration issued a directive Monday allowing the state's casinos and racetracks to offer sports betting, a move likely to be challenged in court by sports leagues.

The governor said he took his cue from previous federal court rulings that found that nothing in New Jersey law prohibits the casinos and horse racing tracks from offering sports betting, so long as it's not sponsored or licensed by the state. Besides issuing the directive, he asked a federal court to approve it.

I'll believe it when I see it. It's going to happen eventually, but in some ways now may be the perfect moment. The leagues may challenge New Jersey (OK, they definitely will), but will their heart and full army of lawyers really be in it?

The NFL is knee-deep in PR disaster control thanks to its incredible bungling of the initial Ray Rice punishment.

The NCAA has its hands full trying to preserve its business model of keeping as much of its massive revenues in as few hands as humanly possible.

The NHL is looking at expanding to Las Vegas. Or not. It's certainly on the table.

And the NBA?

The NBA isn't taking a hard-line position against sports betting anymore. Commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at the Bloomberg Business Summit in New York, said on Thursday that the league will eventually profit from legalized gambling on sports in the future.

And that really gets to the heart of the issue, as far as the leagues are concerned. They're clearly not as oblivious to the prevalence of wagering as they pretend to be in depositions. They just need to figure out how they can profit from it. I doubt we're anywhere close to having teams wearing betting-house logos on their jerseys like they do in English soccer, but I'm pretty sure you're going to see some tie-ins coming to a broadcast and stadium near you.

Perhaps the biggest sign the leagues are about to ease up on their Captain Renault-like stance is that ESPN now has a dedicated sports gambling section.

Why's that significant? ESPN has contracts and often sycophantic relationships with pretty much every sport and league (besides the NHL). It's pretty implausible they'd keep expanding their wagering content without the express consent of everyone. And I'm guessing there's a 100% chance the ESPN page is going to ultimately include links to online betting sites, and that will serve to line everybody's pockets. Well, except the lion's share of bettors.

That's all far away at this juncture, but, for now, we have a test case here in New Jersey! I doubt it's any sort of magic financial elixir, but not for the reasons Gawker lays out. They don't differentiate casino gambling, which is indeed everywhere now, from sports gambling, which is only legal in Las Vegas. If it really does happen, New Jersey will at least have an East Coast monopoly for some amount of time, much the way Atlantic City did from the late '70s for a decade or so.

The problem is that we can only guess the real size of the betting market since it's mostly "offline." Las Vegas took something like $3.5 billion in bets last year, of which they hold about 5% (i.e., their profit). Even if the casinos fork over half of that to Nevada, that's not a fortune; it's less than $100 million, and New Jersey is theoretically starting from scratch with only a handful of locations that aren't always close to population centers. The theory, I suppose, is that it will draw in "new" customers to not only bet on sports, but also to buy dinner, play the slots and blackjack, and book a room.

Guess time will tell. I hope it works, but I doubt it's going to turn around Atlantic City or New Jersey's budget.

Disclaimer: Mr. Warner's opinions expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of Schaeffer's Investment Research.


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