How many times during a discussion with friends about investing have you heard someone utter, "Investing in the stock market is just like gambling at a casino"? Is this adage really true? Let's examine these two activities more closely and see if we can point out some of the critical differences and also some surprising similarities.
Investing and gambling both involve risk and choice. Interestingly, both the gambler and the investor must decide how much money they want to risk. Some traders typically risk 2-5% of their capital base on any particular trade. Longer-term investors constantly hear the virtues of diversification across different asset classes. This, in essence, is a risk management strategy, and spreading your dollars across different investments will likely help minimize potential losses.
Gamblers must also carefully weigh the amount of capital they want to put "in play." Pot odds are a way of assessing your risk capital versus your risk reward: the amount of money to call a bet compared to what is already in the pot. If the odds are favorable, the player is more likely to "call" the bet. Most professional gamblers are quite proficient at risk management. In both gambling and investing, a key principle is to minimize risk while maximizing profits.
But, when it comes to gambling the house always has an edge—there is a negative expected return to gamblers, on average and over the long run. On the other hand, investing in the stock market typically carries with it a positive expected return, on average over the long run. This doesn't mean that a gambler will never hit the jackpot, and it also doesn't mean that a stock investor will always enjoy a positive return. It is simply that over time, if you keep playing, the odds will be in your favor as an investor and not in your favor as a gambler. (To learn more, see Measuring And Managing Investment Risk.)
Throwing It in the Pot
Sports betting is probably one of the most common "gambling" activities in which the average person engages. From the weekly football office pool to the Final Four, sports betting is an American tradition. Only by thinking about your betting habits will you realize that you have no way to limit your losses. If you pony up $10 a week for the NFL office pool and you don't win, you lose all of your capital. When betting on sports (or really any other pure gambling activity), there are no loss-mitigation strategies.
This is a key difference between investing and gambling. Stock investors and traders have a variety of options to prevent total loss of risked capital. Setting stop losses on your stock investment is a simple way to avoid undue risk. If your stock drops 10% below its purchase price, you have the opportunity to sell that stock to someone else and still retain 90% of your risk capital. However, if you bet $100 that the Jacksonville Jaguars will win the Super Bowl this year, you cannot get part of your money back if they just make it to the Super Bowl. Betting on sports is truly a speculative activity which prevents individuals from minimizing losses.
Another key difference between the two activities has to do with the concept of time. Gambling is a time-bound event while an investment in a company can last several years. With gambling, once the game or hand is over, your opportunity to profit from your wager has come and gone. You either have won or lost your capital. Stock investing, on the other hand, can be time-rewarding. Investors who purchase shares in companies that pay dividends are actually rewarded for their risked dollars. Companies pay you money regardless of what happens to your risk capital, as long as you hold on to their stock. Savvy investors realize that returns from dividends are a key component to making money in stocks over the long term. (For more, see Dividend Facts You May Not Know.)
Playing the Odds
Both stock investors and gamblers look for an edge in order to help enhance their performance. Good gamblers and great stock investors study behavior in some form or another. Gamblers playing poker typically look for cues from the other players at the table, and great poker players can remember what their opponents wagered 20 hands back. They also study the mannerisms and betting patterns of their opponents with the hope of gaining useful information. This information may be just enough to help predict future behavior. Similarly, some stock traders study trading patterns by interpreting stock charts. Stock market technicians try to leverage the charts to glean where the stock is going in the future. This area of study dedicated to analyzing charts is commonly referred to as technical analysis. (To learn more, see our Technical Analysis Tutorial.)
Another difference between investing and gambling is the availability of information. Information is a valuable commodity in the world of poker as well as stock investing. Stock and company information is readily available for public use. Company earnings, financial ratios and management teams can be studied before committing capital. Stock traders who make hundreds of transactions a day can use the day's activities to help with future decisions. Nonetheless, stock information is far from perfect, otherwise, there would not be insider trading or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
If you sit down at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, you have no information about what happened an hour, a day or a week ago at that particular table. You may hear that the table is either hot or cold, but that information is not quantifiable.
The next time you hear someone say that stock investing is the same as playing in a casino, remind them that in fact there are some similarities and some major differences. Both activities involve risk of capital with hopes of future profit. Gambling is typically a short-lived activity, while stock investing can last a lifetime. Some companies actually pay you money in the form of dividends to go along with an ownership stake. In general, most average investors will do better investing in stocks over a lifetime than trying to win the World Series of Poker. (To learn more, check out our Investopedia Special Feature: Investing 101.)