It occurs to me that the typical individual who buys and sells common stocks makes little or no distinction between the concepts of speculation versus investment. Instead they are much more interested in the daily fluctuations in their stock portfolios which are reflected by their current bid and ask prices. Indeed, it is the daily quotations rather than the underlying value of their stocks which derives their sense of success or failure. It is exactly that misguided sense of priorities which dooms them to long-term underperformance or in the extreme case, financial ruin.
The purpose of today's article is to help readers to distinguish between whether they are speculating or investing. I intend to use the framework provided by Ben Graham and elaborated upon by Warren Buffett to distinguish between the two acts.
It is important to note that the difference between investing and speculating is often times a fine line. Subjective judgments are frequently employed when one attempts to ascertain the intrinsic value of a stock. Errors in calculation are a fact of investing as is the tendency for human beings to possess an innate sense of overconfidence. Of course the answer to those potential pitfalls can be remedied by employing a substantial margin of safety. However, that is a topic for another day, today we will focus on separating speculation from investment.
The Concept of Pricing vs. Predicting Market Fluctuations
"There are two possible ways to take advantage of the recurring wide fluctuations in stock prices, by way of timing or by way of pricing" — Ben Graham
Frequently when a novice reporter interviews Warren Buffett, he is asked his opinion in regard to the direction of the market looking forward. His standard answer is that he makes no attempt to predict market movements. Rather he expends his energy by attempting to price individual securities. What exactly does Mr Buffett mean when he makes that statement?
The concept of pricing lies at the core of value investing; an investor attempts to profit in the long term by purchasing stocks at a substantial discount to their intrinsic value, while a speculator attempts to profit by successfully predicting the short term fluctuations of a stock. In other words, the speculator believes price volatility and the ability to prognosticate the direction of that volatility is of paramount importance.
Price volatility is important to the investor as well but only when it is considered in relation to the calculated value of the stock. The successful investor endeavors to purchase stocks when the market is overly pessimistic. The investor then attempts to purchase a stock at a substantial discount to its calculated intrinsic value. During periods of market optimism, the investor is perfectly happy to sell his stock when the market offers a price which approaches or exceeds his/her calculated intrinsic value of the equity.
At first glance the distinction appears to be semantic maneuvering; all investors/speculators attempt to profit by the upward movement of a stock (unless they are short the equity), otherwise they would not purchase the stock. So what is the underlying difference between a speculator and the investor?
The difference lies in the defensive nature of the investor versus the speculator or more specifically the probability that the transaction will not result in a loss of principal. In other words, the distinction is largely a function of risk. When one purchases an "undervalued" stock, risk is directly correlated to the investor's ability to properly discern the underlying value of the stock. In other words, the risk is consummate to an error in calculation. On the other hand, risk for the speculator is directly correlated to the short-term volatility (price movement) of the stock. In other words, risk is consummate to improper timing.
The premise for the aforementioned concept is reflected in Buffett summation of Ben Graham's philosophy: "In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine." — Buffett's 1987 Annual Letter
In the case of the investor, time is his ally; in the case of the speculator, proper timing is the essence of his game. Applying that schema, it is easy to understand why a patient investor consistently outperforms a speculator in the longer term.
Patience and Investing
Two things are paramount to the success of an investor:
1) The ability to calculate a reasonably accurate intrinsic value for a stock
2) The patience to hold the stock until it approaches its intrinsic value
Since time is one of the two key elements which favors the investor over the speculator, patience becomes instrumental in the ultimate success or failure of the investor.
When an investor successfully uncovers an undervalued equity, he or she can not expect to reap the gains of the mispricing overnight. Frequently such stocks have been undervalued for a long period of time and unless the investor has also uncovered a catalyst for the stock, they are likely to remain undervalued for an extended period. It is the waiting game that frequently unnerves the investor, particularly if the overall market is advancing while the "undervalued" equity remains stagnant.
It is mandatory that investors take a multi-year prospective when investing in undervalued stocks. Warren Buffet offered the following advice in that regard:
"Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years".
"I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years."
Clearly, the element of patience and the ability to "sit chilly" while the rest of the investment world is reacting to daily fluctuations in stock prices is a fundamental requirement for all successful value investors.
Warning Signals of Market Speculation
I would like to conclude today's article with a set of warning signs which might signal that an investor is entering the realm of speculation:
1) Undue emphasis on quarterly results
If your investment strategy relies upon buying or selling a stock based upon its most recent quarterly report, you are probably speculating rather than investing. While it is important to sell a stock if one uncovers a fundamental miscalculation in the value of an equity, hasty decisions based upon a quarterly disappointments are rarely beneficial to the investor in the long run. Nor are hasty buying decisions which are based upon a quarterly earnings surprise.
2) The tendency to trade stocks based upon current market sentiment
If you are more likely to purchase stocks during periods when the market is rising or tend to sell out of positions during periods of market pessimism, you are probably speculating excessively. The emotional urge to trade based upon the direction of the market has nothing to do with investing or attempting to ascertain the underlying value of a common stock.
3) Purchasing stocks without attempting to price them first
If you buy a stock simply because you believe it will rise or simply because it has dropped precipitously, you are speculating rather than investing. Buying stocks following a huge drop is part of every value investors arsenal; however if you have not attempted to ascertain the intrinsic value of the stock then you are speculating instead of investing.
4) Relying upon macro conditions to time the market
Ralph Wanger once pointed out: "The Stock market is a reliable indicator of where the economy is headed, but you’ll get no help looking at it the other way around"
The market invariably anticipates economic improvements well in advance. If you attempt to base your investment decisions upon your current perception of the economy rather than attempting to price individual stocks, you are definitely speculating rather than investing.
5) Investing in a stock without fully understanding the business
It is an excellent idea to pay attention to the stock purchases of respected investors; however, blind coat-tailing is merely an advanced form of speculation. If one does not understand a business or attempt to ascertain the intrinsic value of the stock, it is impossible to make an intelligent decision as to when the stock should be purchased or sold.
The line between investing and speculating is frequently blurred. It could be argued that many successful investors are also astute speculators. For instance, many value investors now require a perceived catalyst before they will invest in an undervalued equity. Frequently that catalyst is little more than a speculation. Maybe the investor believes the sector is improving, the business is about to turn profitable or that recent M&A activity is likely to drive the stock towards fair value.
Successful speculation is largely a function of knowledge which is created by extensive reading. Additionally it is no coincidence that savvy investors are frequently better market timers than ordinary investors. The reason is that successful investors understand the relationship between pricing and market volatility as well as holding a superior understanding of the business its overall sector. Good investors tend to purchase equities when opportunities exist, while the average person tends to purchase equities during periods of positive momentum.
The best time to purchase common stocks is when they are on sale. Unfortunately for investors that is also the time when their emotions tell them to back away. I would submit that most outstanding investors, Seth Klarman for instance, engage in market timing. Klarman is notorious for pulling out of markets when they are expensive and loading up when he deems them to be cheap. The lesson is clear; market timing should be a function of price rather than momentum.
Clearly, market timing is a form of speculation and value-based market timers are frequently early. What separates them from traditional speculators is two-fold: 1) they have patience and do not panic 2) they rarely employ leverage which would introduce a time element into their market timing.
As Warren Buffett has pointed out on numerous occasions, leverage is the only element which can take an investor out of the game. On that note I conclude today's discussion.