How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

gamblingI saw a question posted on a popular social network. The question was: ‘What is the difference between gambling and investing?” I’m inspired to reproduce (edited with permission) the following excerpt from A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) which I believe provides as good an answer as one might find.

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

“How do you develop ‘smart thinking’ and when do you know you’ve got ‘avarice’?”

My instinctive response would be: “You always know when you’re being greedy. You just want someone else to say that your greed is okay.” Well, I’ll say it then: greed is okay. The proviso is that you fully understand when greed is motivating your decision and live with the consequences. Avarice is driven by desire, which is not a trait of an investor.

Remember, it’s best if investment decisions are rational and stripped of emotion. Greed is associated with elation on the one hand, and anger (usually directed at oneself) on the other hand.

When decisions are motivated by greed, I call it gambling. In my mind, there are different sorts of gamblers. Some gamblers place modest bets, and if they win, they move along to another game. For me this might be roulette. There are those who enjoy playing one game they’re good at, such as blackjack or craps, hoping for a big score. Finally, there are those who are addicts. I can’t help those folks, so let’s assume we’re just discussing the first two types.

It’s okay to do a bit of gambling with a modest part of your disposable income. In fact, investors can apply some of what they know and have fun too. Unlike the casinos, financial markets have no limits or games stacked in favour of the house. It’s the Wild West, and if an investor understands herd behaviour and the merits of contrarian thinking, and does some research, the results can be quite lucrative. Whether using stocks, bonds, options, hedge funds, domestic mutual funds, foreign equity or debt funds, or commodity exchange-traded funds (if you don’t know what these things are and want to know, buy a book that introduces investment theory and the various types of securities), applying investment principles will help you be more successful.

gamblerTo put it plainly: counting cards may not be allowed in a casino, but anything goes when it comes to markets. Just don’t forget that most of the financial industry is trying to make your money their money. There’s a reason why a cowboy sleeps with his boots on and his gun within reach.

The fine line between gambling and investing is hard even for old cowhands to pinpoint. Investing also involves bets, but the bets are calculated. Every decision an investor makes involves a calculated bet—whether it’s to be in the market or not at all, biasing a portfolio in favour of stocks versus bonds, skewing stock selection in favour of one or several industry groups, or picking individual stocks or other types of securities.

I met a lady once in line at a convenience store. She bought a handful of lottery tickets, and I asked her, “Aren’t the odds of winning pretty remote for those lotteries?” Her reply was, “The odds are good. There’s a fifty/fifty chance of me winning.” Confused, I asked, “How do you figure?” I laughed aloud when she said, “Either I win or I lose; that’s fifty/fifty, isn’t it?”

A maverick investor knows there’s always a probability that any decision to buy or sell or hold can prove to be incorrect. The objective is to minimize that probability as much as is feasible. It’s impossible to make it zero. This is why financial firms have sold so many “guaranteed” funds lately. People love the idea, however impossible, of being allowed to gamble with no chance of losing. Whenever there’s a promise that you won’t lose or some other similar guarantee, my senses fire up a warning flare.

There’s usually a promise of significant upside potential and a guarantee that at worst you’ll get all (or a portion) of your original investment back. Many investors a few years ago bought so-called guaranteed funds only to find that the best they ever did receive was the guaranteed amount (extremely disappointing) or much less after the fees were paid to the company offering the product. If you think this stuff is new, trust me, it’s not.

guaranteedA fancy formula-based strategy back in the ‘80s called “portfolio insurance” was popular for a brief period. An estimated $60 billion of institutional money was invested in this form of “dynamic hedging.” It isn’t important to know in detail how the math works. Basically, if a particular asset class (stocks, bonds, or short-term securities) goes up, then you could “afford” to take more risk because you are richer on paper anyway, so the program would then buy more of a good thing. If this better-performing asset class suddenly stopped performing, you simply sold it quickly to lock in your profits. The problem was that all these programs wanted to sell stocks on the same day, and when everyone decides they want to sell and there are no buyers, you get a stalemate.

The “insurance” might have worked if you actually could sell the securities just because you wanted to, but if you can’t sell, you suffer along with everyone else—the notional guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Remember these are markets, and even though you see a price in the newspaper or your computer screen for a stock, there’s no trade unless someone will step up to buy stock from you. The market crash that began on Black Monday— October 19, 1987—was, in my opinion, fuelled by portfolio insurance programs. The market was going down, so the programs began selling stocks all at once. There weren’t nearly enough buyers to trade with. By the end of October ’87, stock markets in Hong Kong had fallen 45.5%, and others had fallen as follows: Australia 41.8%, Spain 31%, the U.K. 26.4%, the U.S. 22.7%, and Canada 22.5%.

Minimizing the Probability of Stupidity

If you’re gambling, follow the same steps you would as if you were investing. If it’s a particular stock you are anxious to own, do some homework, or at least look at someone else’s research available through your broker or on the Internet. When I was a younger portfolio manager, there were limited means to learn about a company. I would have to call the company and ask for a hardcopy annual report to be sent to me. When it arrived after several days, I’d study it a bit so I didn’t sound too ignorant, then I’d call and try to get an executive (controller, VP finance, or investor relations manager) to talk to me. If asking questions didn’t satisfy my need to know, then I’d ask to come and meet with them in the flesh. Nowadays, you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

Money.ca is a PRIME example of just one such source of valuable information available to investors today!

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

Self-Education is THE Path to Prosperity

You are playing the Money Game. There is no way to take yourself out of the game. It is just a fact of life. The good news is you can learn how to play the game better. How you do that is by committing to getting an education on money and to make learning about money (and learning in general) a regular part of your life.

Fortunately there are so many ways that you can learn about this wonderful and exciting game. Take a course or two, that are offered through the internet, correspondence courses, or classes offered through your local continuing education office. Start talking to financially successful people to find out how they make their financial decisions and what has worked for them. Watch a television show that deals with the subject of money.

Go to your local library and check out all the many available books on the subjects of budgeting, investing, insurance, and emotions around money or better yet go to your local book store and start building your own collection. A few good authors on the various topics surrounding money that I recommend are:
Dr. Thomas Stanley
T. Harv Eker
Suze Orman
David Chilton
Gail Vaz-Oxlade
David Bach
Robert Kiyosaki
Gordon Pape

There are so many wonderful resources available to anyone that is willing to look. Start learning, start questioning, and start taking an active role in your financial life. It is a decision that you will never regret.

If you would like to start your kids or grandchildren off on the path to prosperity I would highly recommend (and yes I know I’m biased) my children’s financial books. www.financialfoundationsbooks.com

As you learn more about money you will automatically make better choices that will move you forward. Go out there and start asking questions and finding the answers.

“Nourish the mind like you would your body. The mind cannot survive on junk food.”
Jim Rohn

Is it all over for stock market investors? Don’t bet on it!

I’ve been reading lots of articles suggesting that the stock market is ‘overbought’ (an expression meaning that we’re in some sort of a bubble, stocks are overvalued and risk is high that they’ll plummet) but then I’ve been reading the same thing over and over for a few years.  In fact I’ve been hearing the same thing ever since I suggested buying stocks while writing my book (A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook, Insomniac Press) back in 2010.  I’ve been a portfolio manager for a very long time, and find it fascinating that investors – even professional money managers – let their judgement be unduly influenced by their opinions which are biased by experience.  Experience is a funny thing.  For instance, the wife of a good friend of mine went to the trouble of working towards getting her motorcycle license.  Although she passed the test with little difficulty, she hopped on her husband’s bike to go for a ride, lost control and dropped the bike.  She never tried riding a bike ever again because of one bad experience.

Consider this quote from a smart friend of mine:

‘How much has your equity portfolio given on a yearly basis from January 1 , 2007 to today ( 6 years in 3 weeks. By bet is around 2%. You are doing some wishful thinking Mal.  The growth game is over.”

Why did she pick that particular date?  It’s probably not an accident.  Timing is everything when it comes to volatile assets and the stock market is nothing if not volatile.  Randomly chat with folks (like I do) and you’ll find some just can’t believe the stock market has made anyone any money…..EVER!  Talk to someone else and they might tell you they’ve been very happy with their experience.  Have a look at this graph:

If you’d invested your money (starting point) five or six years ago, you’d understandably be disappointed – see the red line.  If you’d decided to include stocks in your financial plan ten years ago (green line), it’s likely you’re satisfied and have no difficulty weathering a temporary storm.  An investor who read my book and put money to work coming out of the financial crisis (orange) will not only be ecstatic, he/she will no doubt have an exaggerated sense of their own investment ‘skills.’

In my estimation (which could be dead wrong) economic growth has only just begun to accelerate and I am not the only soul that believes it.  John Aitkens is an old friend and an excellent investment strategist at TD Securities.  These are his words (and his chart):

We continue to believe that global policy stimulus is driving a re-acceleration of US and global growth that will become increasing evident over the next few months. We therefore continue to recommend an overweight in stocks and an underweight in bonds. We recommend overweighting non-price sensitive cyclical areas (technology, industrials, consumer discretionary), while underweighting defensive sectors (utilities, telecom, consumer staples). We have financials, resources and health care at market weight.

Over many years John and I have been in agreement about the direction of markets…..i.e. he’s usually right.

 

Mal Spooner

Investing Is Tough Stuff

By: Don Shaughnessy

Profit is a poor proxy for success and investors should not rely on the number without considering other facts.
Strangely a business can become bankrupt while it is profitable. This profit ambiguity causes problems for business owners, managers, policy makers and investors.
What do you mean by profit?
Suppose an incorporated business earns $1,000,000 using the tax rules and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) In Ontario, the tax bill would be $220,000 leaving $780,000 to invest. Clearly profitable!
BUT, only within the system of GAAP and taxation. In the real world, the result might well be very different.
Suppose the business must invest $1,500,000 to remain competitive in its industry, (same market share and same technology as the leaders in the industry.) Did it really make a profit or did it really lose $720,000?
The economic answer is it lost $720,000, and even that is not simple.
By investing the profits and borrowing, the business continues to exist and possibly a weak entrant in the industry will become weaker still and succumb. So the true long-term economic loss is actually somewhat smaller. Maybe a lot smaller and possibly not a loss at all. Some of the cash loss is an investment in future market share.
Management faces the task of deciding if they will survive long enough to benefit. Especially true if the government bails out the weak ones.
For those looking at profit alone, other expenses matter too. Marketing, advertising, R&D, employee training and more, pay off over long periods but have immediate cost. Good for tax expense but hard for the analysts to validate. Some other expenses, like pensions, have a visible price today but an unknowable future cost.
In both accounting and taxation, profit is not the result of facts but rather is the result of rules and opinions. Things like depreciation rate, inventory and product obsolescence, bad debts, investment rate to be earned on the pension fund, future technology effects and more.
As an investor, is there anything at all to be gleaned from the financial statements?
Maybe.
In most cases, it makes sense to pay attention to the management letter. I know a high performance fund manager who looks for the words challenge or challenging in that letter. If he sees either he throws the statement away. In his words, “I have only limited resources, so why would I invest with people who have challenges?”
When looking for an investment, use commons sense first. I like the product, I like management, I like the industry and so on. Then look at the numbers.
• “Cash is real, profit is opinion.” Or at least cash is more likely to be real because you go to jail if you fool with it. Not so much with profit.
• Look for dividends. They impose a discipline on management and the cash paid out reduces the homeless dollar problem. When management finds that problem, some pretty dodgy projects get funded.
• When things go wrong, quit quick. Holding losers and waiting for recovery is a losing tactic. The price of tulip bulbs, which peaked in Holland in February 1637, has, as yet, not returned to that high.
Good look!
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.  don.s@protectorsgroup.com