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Penn gaming exec slams foreign corruption rules; says AC is "O-V-E-R"

Friday, 8 Nov 2013 | 5:03 PM ET
Boardwalk, Atlantic City.
Getty Images
Boardwalk, Atlantic City.

The U.S. government is too restrictive in trying to prevent its companies from corruption abroad and it's hurting business expansion in Asia and elsewhere, according to Penn National Gaming Chairman Peter Carlino.

"There's a little bit of overzealousness in this," Carlino said during a speech at the Baron Investment Conference in New York on Friday. "Those are limitations that American companies face that others don't."

Carlino said he wants to get into the lucrative Asian casino market—Las Vegas Sands already has a large presence in Macau, for example—but hasn't been able to out of fear of violating U.S. rules. That southern Chinese territory saw gambling revenue soar nearly 32 percent last month to reach $4.6 billion, the highest on record.

"There's a problem for U.S. businesses, frankly. We had an interesting opportunity in a country that I won't name; we were hampered in a major way by the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," he said. Under that law, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission continue to aggressively pursue investigations of bribery abroad.

Carlino said Penn looked at expanding into the Asian country via an existing company but one of the line items of the business was to pay off the border guards.

"It seems OK to me, frankly. If that's the game, we'll play it," Carlino said to chuckles from the mostly retiree Baron fund-shareholder audience. "There are problems for American companies trying to do business."

"If it's there, we're looking at it. Problem is, the pickings are slim," he said of countries like Burma, India and Sri Lanka.

"So finding the right opportunity, although we look and I trust we will, is tough," Carlino added.

(Read more: Macau gambling revenue hits record hit in October)

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Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn Gaming runs casinos and raceways across the U.S. and Canada, many under the Hollywood Casino brand.

The company was set to be sold to private equity firms Fortress Investment Group and Centerbridge Partners in a $6.1 billion leveraged buyout, but the deal collapsed in 2008 as the economy slid. Penn shares also crashed, but have rebounded since to near their peak since the crisis.

Penn recently spun of a real estate investment trust with property assets called Gaming and Leisure Properties.

On the U.S. market, Carlino said Atlantic City was "O-V-E-R" in terms of its ability to compete as a marquee gaming destination.

"Atlantic City is a tragedy from a lot of points of view," said Carlino, who is not involved in the market.

"They had a 100-year head start with a pile of cash. ... Atlantic City could have and should have been Cannes; and I'm not joking. It could have been the finest city, like the French Riviera."

Instead, Carlino said: "They still have street people pushing carts down the street, and worse, in that town. They did nothing with what they had, nothing."

Carlino says Penn's brand of lower-cost casinos will drive value for shareholders using properties in smaller markets.

"We are totally and completely driven ... (by) how do we get the most excitement for the fewest dollars," Carlino said, referring to "ego" driven, expensive casinos that others focus on in Las Vegas and other large markets.

"That is where we excel," he said. "I think we do this better than anyone in the U.S."

(Read more: Despite record highs, stocks are cheap: Ron Baron)

The Baron conference is in its 22nd year, run by founder Ron Baron to showcase his stable of portfolio managers and the companies his funds invest in to shareholders and other clients. The events are also known for their surprise musical guests; this year Barbra Streisand, Counting Crows and Melissa Etherage performed.

—By CNBC's Lawrence Delevingne. Follow him on Twitter @ldelevingne.

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