All investments carry some risk, but the difference between speculating and investing is the amount of risk involved. Speculative investments are typically short-term, and far riskier than traditional investing products and strategies, and may involve the risk of total loss.
Investing typically indicates a more long-term approach to making a profit, with an eye toward managing risk.
Defining Investing and Speculation
Speculating often describes scenarios when there’s a high chance the investment will deliver losses, but also when the investment could result in a high profit. High-risk, high-reward investments include commodities, crypto, derivatives, futures, and more.
In contrast, investing generally refers to transactions where an individual has researched an asset, and puts money into it with the hope that prices will rise over time. There are no guarantees, of course, and all types of investing include some form of risk.
Examples of Investments and Speculative Investments
Assets that are thought of as more traditional types of investments include publicly traded stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), bonds (e.g. U.S. Treasury bonds, municipal bonds, high-grade corporate bonds), and real estate.
Even some so-called alternative investments would be considered more long-term and less speculative: e.g., jewelry, art, collectibles.
Assets that are almost always considered speculative are junk bonds, options, futures, cryptocurrency, forex and foreign currencies, and investments in startup companies.
Sometimes it isn’t as simple as saying that all investments in the stock market or in exchange-traded funds or in mutual funds hold the same amount of risk, or are “definitely” classified as investments. Even within certain asset classes, there can be large variations across the speculation spectrum.
💡 Quick Tip: Before opening an investment account, know your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. These fundamentals will help keep your strategy on track and with the aim of meeting your goals.
The Traditional Approach to Investing
When it comes to the more traditional approach to investing, individuals typically buy and hold assets in their investment portfolios or retirement accounts, with the aim of seeing reasonable, long-term gains.
Traditional forms of investing focus on the performance of the underlying business or organization, not on the day-to-day or hour-by-hour price movements of an asset.
For this reason, more traditional investors tend to rely on various forms of analysis (e.g. fundamental analysis of stocks) and analytical tools and metrics to gauge the health of a company, asset, or market sector.
Speculation: A High-Risk, High-Reward Game
The difference between speculating and investing can be nuanced and a matter of opinion. (After all, some investors view the stock market as a form of gambling.) But when traders are speculating, they are typically seeking super-high gains in a relatively short period of time: e.g., hours, days, or weeks.
In the case of commodities or futures trading, the time horizon might be longer, but the aim of making a big profit fairly quickly is at the heart of most speculation.
Speculators may also use leverage, a.k.a. margin trading, to boost their buying power and amplify gains where possible (although using leverage can also lead to steep losses).
The Psychology of Investing vs. Speculating
The psychology of a typical investor is quite different from that of a speculative investor, and again revolves around the higher tolerance for risk in pursuit of a potentially bigger reward in a very short time frame.
|Taking calculated or minimal risks||Willing to take on high-risk endeavors|
|Pursuit of reasonable gains||Pursuit of abnormally high returns|
|Willing to invest for the long term||Willing to invest only for the short term|
|Uses a mix of traditional investments and strategies (e.g. stocks, bonds, funds)||Uses single strategies and alternative investments|
|Infrequent use of leverage/margin||Frequent use of leverage/margin|
Historical Perspectives on Investing and Speculation
The history of investing and speculating has long been entwined. In the earliest days of trading thousands of years ago, most markets were focused on the exchange of tangible commodities like livestock, grain, etc. Wealthy investors might put their money into global voyages or even wars. Thus many early investors could be described as speculators.
But investing in forms of debt as a way to make money was also common, eventually leading to the bond market as we know it today.
The concept of investing in companies and focusing on longer-term gains took hold gradually. As markets became more sophisticated over the centuries, and a wider range of technologies, strategies, and financial products came into use, the division between investing and speculating became more distinct.
Recommended: What Causes a Stock Market Bubble?
Speculation History: Notable Market Bubbles and Crashes
The history of investing is rife with market bubbles, manias, and crashes. While the speculative market around tulip bulbs in 17th-century Holland is well known, as is the Great Financial Crisis here in the U.S. in 2008-09, there have been many similar financial events throughout the world — most of them driven by speculation.
What marks a bubble is a well-established series of stages driven by investor emotions like exuberance (i.e., greed) followed by panic and loss. That’s because many investors tend to be irrational, especially when in pursuit of a quick profit that seems like “a sure thing.”
Some classic examples of financial bubbles that changed the course of history:
• The South Sea Bubble (U.K., 1711 to 1720) — The South Sea company was created in 1711 to help reduce national war debt. The company stock peaked in 1720 and then crashed, taking with it the fortunes of many.
• The Roaring Twenties (U.S., 1924 to 1929) — The 1920s saw a rapid expansion of the U.S. economy, thanks to both corporations’ and consumers’ growing use of credit. Stock market speculation reached a peak in 1929, followed by the infamous crash, and the Great Depression.
• Japanese Bubble Economy (1984 to 1989) — The Japanese economy experienced a historic two-decade period of growth beginning in the 1960s, that was further fueled by financial deregulation and widespread speculation that artificially inflated the worth of many corporations and land values. By late 1989, as the government raised interest rates, the economy fell into a prolonged slowdown that took years to recover from.
• Dot-Com Bubble (1995 to 2002) — Sparked by rapid internet adoption, the dot-com boom saw the rapid growth of tech companies in the late 1990s, when the Nasdaq rose 800%. But by October 2002 it had fallen 78% from that high mark.
Key Differences Between Investing and Speculating
What can be confusing for some investors is that there is an overlap between investing in the traditional sense, and speculative investing in higher risk instruments.
And some types of investing fall into the gray area between the two. For example, options trading, commodities trading, or buying IPO stock are considered high-risk endeavors that should be reserved for more experienced investors. What makes these types of investments more speculative, again, is the shorter time frame and the overall risk level.
Time Horizon: Long-term Goals vs. Quick Gains
As noted above, investors typically take a longer view and invest for a longer time frame; speculators seek quick-turn profits within a shorter period.
That’s because more traditional investors are inclined to seek profits over time, based on the quality of their investments. This strategy at its core is a way of managing risk in order to maximize potential gains.
Speculators are more aggressive: They’re geared toward quick profits, using a single strategy or asset to deliver an outsized gain — with a willingness to accept a much higher risk factor, and the potential for steep losses.
Fundamental Analysis vs. Market Timing
As a result of these two different mindsets, investors and speculators utilize different means of achieving their ends.
Investors focused on more traditional strategies might use tools like fundamental analysis to gauge the worthiness of an investment.
Speculators don’t necessarily base their choices on the quality of a certain asset. They’re more interested in the technical analysis of securities that will help them predict and, ideally, profit from short-term price movements.
While buy-and-hold investors focus on time in the market, speculators are looking to time the market.
💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.
Real-World Implications of Investment vs. Speculation
To better understand the respective value and impact of investing vs. speculating, it helps to consider the real-world implications of each strategy.
The Impact of Speculation on Markets
It’s important to remember that speculation occurs in many if not all market sectors. So speculation isn’t bad, nor does it always add to volatility — although in certain circumstances it can.
For example, some point to IPO shares as an example of how speculative investors, who are looking for quick profits, may help fuel the volatility of IPO stock.
Speculation does add liquidity to the markets, though, which facilitates trading. And speculative investors often inject cash into companies that need it, which provides a vital function in the economy.
Strategic Approaches to Investment
Whether an investor chooses a more traditional route or a more speculative one, or a combination of these strategies, comes down to that person’s skill, goals, and ability to tolerate risk.
Diversification and Asset Allocation
For more traditional, longer-term investors, there are two main tools in their toolkit that help manage risk over time.
• Diversification is the practice of investing in more than one asset class, and also diversifying within that asset class. Studies have shown that by diversifying the assets in your portfolio, you may offset a certain amount of investment risk and thereby improve returns.
• Asset allocation is the practice of balancing a portfolio between more aggressive and more conservative holdings, also with the aim of growth while managing risk.
When Does Speculation Make Sense?
Speculation makes sense for a certain type of investor, with a certain level of experience and risk profile. It’s not so much that speculative investing always makes sense in Cases A, B, or C. It’s more about an investor mastering certain speculative strategies to the degree that they feel comfortable with the level of risk they’re taking on.
One way to differentiate between investment and speculation is through the lens of probability. If an asset is purchased that carries a reasonable probability of profit over time, it’s an investment. If an asset carries a higher likelihood of significant fluctuation and volatility, it is speculation.
A long-term commitment to a broad stock market investment, like an equity-based index fund, is generally considered an investment. Historical data shows us that the likelihood of seeing gains over long periods, like 20 years or more, is high.
Compare that with a trader who purchases a single stock with the expectation that the price will surge that very day (or even that year!) — which is far more difficult to predict and has a much lower probability of success.
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