OPAP shares hit setback

Shares of Europe’s biggest gaming company, OPAP, fell sharply yesterday after the group said it would not return cash to shareholders, disappointing investors. OPAP shares closed 1.52 percent lower at 31.16 euros, after sliding as much as 5 percent during the session. «Shareholders had expected OPAP would find a way to return capital. The fact that it finally decided this was not possible disappointed investors,» said Alpha Finance analyst Dimitris Giannoulis. OPAP said in a stock market filing it could not return cash to shareholders due to legal and accounting obstacles. The company had hired advisers to look into whether it could improve its financial structure and possibly return cash to shareholders. OPAP has already distributed a 0.48-euro interim dividend for 2005. The company also said it would take control of its highly profitable Stoichima betting game operation when the contract with current operator Intralot expires next year. Analysts have said the move will bring OPAP cost savings. Intralot, the world’s third-largest lottery supplier by revenues, operates the game on behalf of OPAP until early 2007, and receives a fee of about 9 percent on Stoichima revenues. OPAP said it would call a tender to pick an outside consultant to help it manage Stoichima temporarily before it fully takes over the game’s operation. The specifications of the tender to select the partner will be finalized in March. Fixed-odd betting game Stoichima, launched in 2000, is one of OPAP’s most successful products. The company has recently taken a series of measures to boost the revenues of the game, which has been declining since the start of the year, due to increased competition from illegal Internet betting. Stoichima revenues fell by 23.3 percent year on year in the first nine months of 2005 to 946.6 million euros, compared with a 31.8 percent drop in the first six months of 2005. OPAP, 34.5 percent state-owned, has exclusive rights to run betting and numerical games in Greece until 2020.

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