Editor’s note: Today, we are doing something different. Robert approached us with a question that we found interesting, so we decided to pose it to some professional investors. In addition to our regular coverage, we are pleased to feature his framing of an interesting debate. We will be publishing select responses to the question over the next few days. If you are compelled, we invite you to comment below, tweet us @cfainvestored, or reach out to us via email.
What is the difference between investing and speculation? At first, you think the answer is simple because the distinction is obvious — that is, until you actually put pen to paper and try to answer the question.
Go ahead; take a few seconds and think about it. Write down “investing.” Now write the definition. Do the same for “speculation.” If you are like me, frustration quickly builds because the answers do not come quickly or easily, and they should. After all, these terms have been a part of the financial lexicon since Joseph de la Vega wrote Confusion of Confusions in 1688, the oldest book ever written on the stock exchange business. In his famous dialogues, de la Vega observed three classes of men. The princes of business, called “financial lords,” were the wealthy investors. The merchants, the occasional speculators, were the second class. The last class was called the “persistent speculators” or the “gamblers.”
Since the Dutch shipping firm Vereenigde Oost-Indische became the first company to trade its shares on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, investors and speculators have coexisted in the marketplace. Over that 400-year time period, the noteworthy have offered their own definitions of investing and speculation. But none have stuck.
Philip Carret, who wrote The Art of Speculation (1930), believed “motive” was the test for determining the difference between investment and speculation. “The man who bought United States Steel at 60 in 1915 in anticipation of selling at a profit is a speculator. . . . On the other hand, the gentleman who bought American Telephone at 95 in 1921 to enjoy the dividend return of better than 8% is an investor.” Carret connected the investor to the economics of the business and the speculator to price. “Speculation,” wrote Carret, “may be defined as the purchase or sale of securities or commodities in expectation of profiting by fluctuations in their prices.”
Benjamin Graham, along with David Dodd, attempted a precise definition of investing and speculation in their seminal work Security Analysis (1934). “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.” Despite being the “dean of security analysis,” Graham’s definition left readers wanting more — a fact he confessed years later when he wrote The Intelligent Investor (1949). “While we have clung tenaciously to this definition,” said Graham, “it is worthwhile noting the radical changes that have occurred in the use of the term ‘investor’ during this period.”
Graham was concerned that the term “investor” was now being applied ubiquitously to anyone and everyone who participated in the stock market. He explained: “The newspaper employed the word ‘investor’ in these instances because, in the easy language of Wall Street, everyone who buys or sells a security has become an investor, regardless of what he buys, or for what purpose, or at what price, or whether for cash or on margin.” Graham went on to say: “Since there is no single definition of investment in general acceptance, authorities have the right to define it pretty much as they please. Many of them deny that there is any useful or dependable difference between the concepts of investment and of speculation. We think this skepticism is unnecessary and harmful. It is injurious because it lends encouragement to the innate leaning of many people toward the excitement and hazards of stock-market speculation.”
John Maynard Keynes, best known as one of the founders of modern macroeconomics and thought to be the most influential economist of the 20th century, was also a skilled buyer and seller of stocks, bonds, commodities, and currencies. In addition to thinking about economics, he was intrigued with the stock market. Tucked inside his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), is a chapter titled