Are you speculating or investing?

I think when most people begin to invest in stocks, they buy companies that make a product that they really like or that they think will be beneficiaries of major trends. This seems completely reasonable, but is simple speculation until cash flow enters the equation. Before I get into how I approach investing in companies, I’ll first break down the significant differences between the two, as I think it’s an important distinction and provides a valuable backdrop before we put money to work.

Back in the 1990’s, the commercial internet had just dawned. What was clear was that it would change the way we live forever; what was not clear was how. One new service was going to offer grocery delivery ordered online. It would deliver groceries to customers during a 30-minute period of their choosing. This presumably would change the way we shop for groceries forever (sound familiar?). Their plan was simple; they would raise cash from an IPO to fund investments in warehouses and expand to new cities. Clearly, THIS was the future. The company raised $375MM in an IPO to fund expansion and the company at peak was valued at $1.2BN. Moreover, they had an uber experienced and already successful founder, Louis Borders (of Borders bookstore fame), in addition to top-of-the-line VC money and guidance.

The company was growing too. It achieved 750,000 users, had 3,500 employees, and for the 3 months ended Dec-31-2000, the company did $84MM of revenue compared to $9MM in the 3 month period in the prior year (+833%!). However, the company’s losses expanded to $173MM from $49MM (and cash flow was a similar story) as it tried to expand quickly and needed to invest back in the business. In the end, the company was running out of cash, capital dried up (the tech bubble burst, closing the public equity markets), and it declared bankruptcy in 2001. The name of this company was Webvan if you want to study it further.

Ok, so how is that different than investing? Both investing and speculation involve taking risk. As Ben Graham said, investing inevitably has “substantial possibilities of both profit and loss.” However, in speculation the risk vs. reward is often miscalculated. You believe, since the price of something has gone up in the past, you can anticipate these movements and gain profitably from them. And maybe this strategy works for a little while, but see how similar that sounds to a roulette wheel? “It hit black 3 times in a row… it must be red next time.”

Think about today’s market. Infrastructure spending, tax reform, the next tech event… nothing has actually even been laid out yet, which has allowed investors to write their own narrative. This has led to speculation and driving stocks higher.  

When investing, we must take a calculated, fundamental approach to what we are buying, while also being realistic. We are buying an asset that we want to produce cash flows in the future to grow our capital or pay us back. However, we can’t pay any price for it if we want our capital to appreciate at a fast rate – which should be our goal! That philosophy alone also eliminates some “investments” out there, such as art, popular crypto currencies, etc. – to wit, anything that is not a producer of cash.

We must understand the industry, the company’s position, management, and cash flow. Unfortunately, this is harder than speculating, but also can create more significant wealth with much less risk. There is no free lunch, so it does require challenging work, but it can be well worth it and will be the subject of future posts here.

Think about it; is something in your portfolio right now that you’d equate to Webvan? Good concept, excellent product, or immense potential, all they need to do is… make a great leap? Or you’ve seen this stock rise so much in the past, you don’t want to miss the opportunity. This is all speculation and yes, sometimes there is a place for it in our broader portfolios and yes, it can be hard to draw the line between investing and speculating.

In future posts, I will delve further into my investing approach. But for now, I want to leave you with the following; if you have a large speculative position in a company, consider taking some risk off the table in favor of a real investment.

– Diligent Dollar

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