Hedging involves taking an offsetting position in a derivative in order to balance any gains and losses to the underlying asset. Hedging attempts to eliminate the volatility associated with the price of an asset by taking offsetting positions contrary to what the investor currently has. The main purpose of speculation, on the other hand, is to profit from betting on the direction in which an asset will be moving.
Hedgers reduce their risk by taking an opposite position in the market to what they are trying to hedge. The ideal situation in hedging would be to cause one effect to cancel out another. For example, assume that a company specializes in producing jewelry and it has a major contract due in six months, for which gold is one of the company's main inputs. The company is worried about the volatility of the gold market and believes that gold prices may increase substantially in the near future. In order to protect itself from this uncertainty, the company could buy a six-month futures contract in gold. This way, if gold experiences a 10% price increase, the futures contract will lock in a price that will offset this gain. As you can see, although hedgers are protected from any losses, they are also restricted from any gains. Depending on a company's policies and the type of business it runs, it may choose to hedge against certain business operations to reduce fluctuations in its profit and protect itself from any downside risk.
Speculators make bets or guesses on where they believe the market is headed. For example, if a speculator believes that a stock is overpriced, he or she may short sell the stock and wait for the price of the stock to decline, at which point he or she will buy back the stock and receive a profit. Speculators are vulnerable to both the downside and upside of the market; therefore, speculation can be extremely risky.
Overall, hedgers are seen as risk averse and speculators are typically seen as risk lovers. Hedgers try to reduce the risks associated with uncertainty, while speculators bet against the movements of the market to try to profit from fluctuations in the price of securities.