Investing vs. Speculating: Understand the difference so that you aren't taking needless and fruitless risks with your financial portfolio
What is investing? An attempt at a definitive definition.
Here's our definition for what investing is:
Investing, in the financial sense of the word, is the deployment of capital (usually money) into the purchase of shares, purchase of assets, development of commercial ventures, or other financial schemes in order to obtain a return on that deployed capital with a reasonable expectation (grounded in some sort of reasonable analysis) that the risk-adjusted or expected return is positive.
That's a long and somewhat fluffy definition, but any definition that would cover the broad range of activities that could properly be classified as investing will be somewhat fluffy. Let's break down the main elements of that definition and discuss them briefly.
...the deployment of capital...
This means you use some sort of capital (usually money) to invest. Without using or committing capital, you're not really investing. You can invest your time and energy into things, but that wouldn't qualify as financial investing. You must deploy capital in some way for your activity to properly be called investing in the financial sense of the word.
...or other financial schemes...
Investing requires the deployment of capital in a specific way. It requires that the capital be used to either purchase shares of a firm (the firm can be publicly traded or privately held), purchase assets (purchasing gold, Bitcoin, fine rugs, or fine art might qualify as asset purchases), develop commercial ventures (start a business or develop a new office building), or to pursue some other type of financial scheme. It's not easy to make an exhaustive list of the other possible financial schemes because there are many possibilities. For example, a properly documented and agreed upon private loan to an acquaintance can qualify as an investment. The purchase of various derivatives products might qualify as an investment as well. Even the purchase of rare grapes for the purpose of creating a unique wine could qualify as an investment. It's impossible to describe every possibility here, of course, but this should give you a general understanding of what I mean by a financial scheme.
...in order to obtain a return...
Investing requires that the deployment of the funds is done to obtain some financial return. If no return is expected or desired, then the deployment of capital is more like a donation or a purchase depending on the circumstances. Financial investing requires that it is done for the purposes of growing your capital base by receiving a return on the invested funds.
Investing requires that we are reasonable in our expectations of the financial return from our endeavor. If we are unreasonable or foolish, it's not investing in my opinion. A reasonable person using reasonable analysis techniques (they don't have to be complicated, just sound and reasonable) should be able to agree that a positive return is possible. This means that if unfounded, biased, or inappropriate techniques of analysis are used in order to determine what the potential return is (either expected return), it is not investing in the proper sense of the word. For example, using deeply incorrect assumptions that you know don't make sense to calculate your expected return wouldn't hold up to this standard. You wouldn't be investing here, but would instead be fooling yourself and possibly speculating. Additionally, not dong any analysis whatsoever before deploying capital would preclude the activity from being called investing. The analysis doesn't have to be complicated (although deeper analysis is likely better), but some sort of thought must be given to what is occurring if we are to call the activity investing.
...that the risk-adjusted or expected return is positive.
This point speaks to how we calculate the return. We state that the return has to be positive, but we need to know how to calculate the return. In calculating the possible return, a more sophisticated investor should adjust for risk, calculating what is called the risk-adjusted return or the expected return (these two names can generally be used interchangeably in a non-academic or unsophisticated setting). There are complicated mathematical formulae for calculating risk-adjusted numbers, but what is meant here is something more basic: the return you expect to get should from your investment should be the adjusted for risk, with less probable outcomes discounted more intensely. In other words, the return can be thought of as a weighted average of the possible returns, each return weighted by its probability of occurrence. Going further, this means that investing requires that the expected return is positive. That expected return might never occur, but at the outset (when we deploy the capital) the expected return should be positive. No rational individual would deploy capital into a financial scheme that has a negative expected return.
Speculation isn't investing; neither is work or saving!
Investing, in the financial sense of the word, can be distinguished from other uses of capital or energy. Investing is not:
Keep the definition of investing in mind to avoid foolish speculative bets or to confuse saving with investing
In conclusion, we see that investing is a specific type of deployment of capital and is distinguished from work, saving, and speculation. Keeping the definition of investing in mind could help us differentiate between investing and speculation by applying the definition in a disciplined way before we deploy our capital. Investing is a fundamental part of individual wealth-building and it allows for a society to grow and prosper, but it should be done wisely and carefully so as to make sure that foolish bets are not being taken.
Why you should have bought Bitcoin in 2015, and a way to approach any similar crypto purchases (Monesh Pabrai's Dhando way)
The below is a dated article from 2015 regarding Bitcoin. The analysis is an unsophisticated binary analysis that relies more on qualitative explanations than on quantitative approaches/methods. Crypto has come a long way since the article - it was written pre-crytpo proliferation, when Bitcoin was basically the only cryptocurrency really around.
I wrote about Bitcoin previously. You can see my original article Bitcoin here. I have learned more about Bitcoin, more about investing, and I have been able to look at Bitcoin through a different lens since writing that article.
The main part of my increased knowledge about Bitcoin has come from one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, podcasts called EconTalk. On an episode of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts interviewed Bitcoin evangelist and Xapo CEO Wences Casares. The interview was both interesting and informative. You can access the interview as well as a good amount of extra learning material here. I highly recommend that you listen to the interview and read some of the material on the website if you are interested in Bitcoin or are planning to make a purchase.
In the interview, Casares discusses many things but what I want to focus on here is Casares's postulation that purchasing Bitcoin is a very low-risk/high-reward endeavor. Casares believes that there is a non-trivial chance that Bitcoin will grow in popularaity and become a global currency. Even if 1% of global trnsactions are done in Bitcoin, Casares argues rightly that Bitcoin's value will grow immensely in value. This is easy to understand. If 1% of global transactions will be done in Bitcoin at some point in the future, the total value of all Bitcoin in existence wold equal (0.01)(x), x being equal to the total value of all of the transactions done in that future year. If we include black market transactions, the value of Bitcoin will be even higher. It is important to remember that an inherent property of Bitcoin that separates is from every other national currency in existence is that Bitcoin are generated at a predictable pace and after a certain year, no more Bitcoins will ever come into existence. Therefore, Bitcoin cannot be deflated like the US Dollar, the Euro, the Yen, or any other national currency can. We can see that as the value of global transactions rises, the total value of all Bitcion in existence should rise (assuming Bitcoins comprise a stable percentage of all global transactions). So, if Casares is correct in saying there's an non-trivial chance of Bitcoin taking off and becoming a means of exchange for a significant (even 1% is significant) portion of global transactions, the value of each individual Bitcoin will rise tremendously. Casares believes that in the next few decades a single Bitcoin could be worth $1 million USD. That definitely sounds crazy in 2015, but it isn't at all crazy if Bitcoin takes off.
Of course Bitcoin has a very high probability of not taking off. Casares acknowledges this, but this acknowledgement doesn't stop him from recommending that individuals should purchase a few Bitcoin. He argues that purchasing a few Bitcoin will cost less than $1000 as of the writing of this post (this will obviously change as Bitcoin fluctuates on a daily basis). A person who takes Casares's advice now has two possibilities for his or her future as depicted by the tree below.
The above options are different than investing in stocks, real estate, or commodities. Investing in those things requires a large up-front investment and historical growth rates for those investments are nothing spectacular. With Bitcoin, a very small investment is more than sufficient to position you to take advantage of a potential meteoric rise in the value of Bitcoin. If Bitcoin takes off, it will be much more valuable than it is today. It could potentially make you a millionaire off a $1000 investment in a decade or two. Thinking about it this way reminded me of great investor and author Monesh Pabrai and his book The Dhando Investor. In it Pabrai describes the concept of Dhando, a concept that echos Warren Buffet's investing style. The concept of Dhando mean taking calculated risks that have extremely limited downside potential while having extremely amazing upside potential. By using the concept of Dhando with skill an investor can take risks that are of a very particular variety, the kind where making a mistake doesn't mean disaster. To be Dhando is to be like Pabrai or Warren Buffet. To be Dhando is to take those risks that have very little downside but very big upside potential.
Casares's recommendation had Dhando qualities. It is a recommendation that is geared toward a Bitcoin investor entering into a position where his or her downside is limited but where the upside is great. Although the chances of winning here are slim, it is Dhando because it preserves your wealth and positions you into a place to profit should things go well.
This is now how I view investing or purchasing Bitcoin. I don't know much about Bitcoin mining and I almost have no use for Bitcoin for use in making transactions at this stage. I view Bitcoin as a Dhando endeavor where I can place my bet and think of it no more. In a decade or two I'll either be rich or I'll be indifferent about it. It takes a small amount of time and about $1000 for me (for you it might be a different amount - BUT it should always be an amount that allows you to remain Dhando - meaning an amount that you will be pretty much indifferent about losing should Bitcoin fail totally).
Coinbase is a user-friendly, reputable, and seemingly secure way for purchasing Bitcoin and other cryptos
For my first foray into purchasing Bitcoin I decided to go with Coinbase. Coinbase is a Bitcoin wallet that also provides Bitcoin trading services and APIs for developers related to Bitcoin.
I chose Coinbase for primarily one reason - because it seems to be the most reliable based on the firms that back it. The two firms that caught my eye were the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and the seed accelerator Y Combinator. These two firms are well-known and well-respected in Silicon Valley, having had top Silicon Valley tech firms pass through their doors (Facebook, Box, Airbnb, etc). I’ve heard about these firms before I heard about Bitcoin and when I knew that they were involved with Coinbase, I automatically put Coinbase above the many other Bitcoin and cryptocurrency wallets that exist. There are competitors which I find very interesting of course (notably Xapo - I will very likely try it out later), but Coinbase seems to be the most secure. I obviously am using a heuristic in deciding what Bitcoin wallet is most secure – unable to see what is happening behind the scenes and unable to fully understand all of the complex technology behind cryptocurrency, I must use some proxy or some heuristic in order to make my decision, and here I use perceived reputation or perceived reliability based on affiliation with other strong organizations.
Coinbase is not the cheapest Bitcoin wallet. Coinbase charges 1% to purchase Bitcoin but it is free to receive Bitcoin as long as you don’t convert into USD. I am aware that 1% isn’t cheap compared to other ways to purchase the cryptocurrency, but when it comes to such a new technology, security and reliability is primary for me. For that 1%, however, you get a trusted firm through which you can purchase your Bitcoin. The more tech-savvy individuals among you might choose a more do-it-yourself option, but I don’t have either the time nor the inclination ( (nor risk-tolerance) to choose that route. Those who do might be more well-served by doing it themselves, where they can save money on the fee, but more importantly have a chance at learning some interesting things about Bitcoin that one cannot learn by simply using a very user-friendly Bitcoin wallet such as Coinbase.
I have been impressed with the front-end security of Coinbase. To sign up you are required to upload a photo ID. This is antithetical to many of the reasons why people have been drawn to cryptocurrency and Bitcoin (privacy in making purchases online), but I am not so much concerned with privacy as I am with security and reliability. I primarily purchase Bitcoin as a form of speculations, not as a means of transacting. Therefore, the photo ID requirement didn’t deter me at all. Additionally, logging in to Coinbase requires two-factor authentication and it requires a third factor (email verification) when logging in from a new device or a new computer. This is impressive. I have only use the iOS app and it has a passcode and is compatible with Touch ID. I didn’t like that the passcode can only be 4 digits. Most banks have eliminated 4-digit passcodes for their lack of security (10 x 10 x 10 x 10 – 10 thousand possible combinations make it relatively easy to hack into). Since the app is always logged into your account (meaning your entire Coinbase account lies behind that 4-digit pin) and given the prevalence of Touch ID, I think a more secure passcode option might be a better idea (6-digits +).
Overall, I think Coinbase is an elegant, secure, and easy-to-use way to purchase Bitcoin for the average user. It might not please those that are very tech-savy and willing to take on a more hands-on approach with purchasing and securely storing Bitcoin.
Bitcoin and Crypto: Similar to precious metals and commodities, they may add diversification to your portfolio but aren't good standalone investing strategies
If you're here, then you probably already know something about the digital currency called Bitcoin, which has grown in popularity over the last few years. Therefore, we won't discuss what they are, how cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are obtained, or how they are mined. We will be attempting to answer a simple question: Should you invest in Bitcoin?
More precisely, the problem should be: Should you PURCHASE Bitcoin? This is because Bitcoins can be either purchased or obtained through mining. I won't be discussing Bitcoin mining here because I have only done minimal research on the topic, and your success depends greatly on how you approach the endeavor.
So, should you buy some Bitcoin? Should you spend your US Dollars (or whatever form of currency you use) to purchase this new and unregulated digital currency?
Currency is generally not a good investment for most investors, and Bitcoin and other cryptos are sort of like currencies
For the vast majority of investors, investing in currency or currency trading is a fool's game. There is a lot of risk and uncertainty, and there are always people who are playing the same game but are more informed than you. What makes you think that you will be better able to predict the movements of the Yen or the Euro than another currency trader with more education, a faster computer, and better software? That's what you have to do to succeed in currency trading because the only way you make money in currency trading is when you make the right "bet." Bitcoin is just another type of currency. It's not government-issued or government-regulated, but it is a currency nonetheless. The same principle of currency investing that applies to the plethora of government-issued and government-backed currencies apply to this new digital currency called Bitcoin.
I did say you were making a "bet" when currency trading. You might say, "don't you make a bet on any investment, be it a stock, a bond, real estate, etc.?" The answer to that question is a resounding yes. However, when you purchase some investments, it's a different type of bet you're making.
As we discussed in our article on investing in precious metals like silver and gold, if your gold coin goes up in value it only goes up because of the forces of supply and demand. If my share of Tesla Motors goes up in value, it may be for the same reasons of supply and demand, but it also might be because the underlying value of the company increased. That's an important difference.
It's the same thing with currency. If the value of the Euro goes up, it's only because of the forces of supply and demand. Maybe more people want to hold Euros (eg. interest rates in the Eurozone increase) or the supply of Euros decreases (eg. The ECB decides to print fewer Euros). There can be many other events and factors that affect the supply of and demand for Euros. Either way, there is no underlying value to Euros besides the paper they are printed on. They are worth what we say they are worth. This is profoundly different than the underlying value of a company like General Electric, which makes all kinds of things that people want to buy. If you own a share of General Electric, you own a share of all of its business and you own a share of an income-generating organization.
Getting back to the main point of this subsection, currency trading is just like making a bet on what the future value of a currency will be. If you buy Bitcoins with US Dollars you hope that sometime in the future the Bitcoins will be worth more than they are today. You hope that your Bitcoins will be able to buy more dollars than a number of dollars you used to buy the Bitcoins.
Note: We're ignoring inflation above for simplicity purposes, but you'd want to consider inflation in any such discussion, crypto-related or otherwise
Bitcoin and other cryptos don't generate income
This was briefly addressed above. Bitcoins are just a "thing." You hope that "thing" will be will be worth more in the future. That's the nature of your Bitcoin investment.
I would contrast this with the nature of many other types of investments. If you purchase stocks, you are hoping that the underlying value of the company (based on many factors) improves. If you purchase bonds, you are effectively making a loan to a government or a company and you are hoping that you are repaid an amount greater than your original investment adjusted for inflation. If you purchase real estate, you are hoping that the price of your real estate goes up. That real estate price is dependent on supply and demand for real estate in the community, but it's also dependent on the rental income your real estate can generate and the improvements you make to the property. In the above three examples, the investments are tied to some kind of cash flow: corporate profits or dividends, interest payments, or rent payments.
With investments in currency, there is no income and there is no cash flow. You will sit with that currency until you are ready to sell.That's why investors who aren't overly cocky about their abilities and who have a medium-term or long-term approach prefer to invest in equities, bonds, and real estate rather than currency. Bitcoins are just another type of currency and they have all of the same drawbacks when it comes to investing that any traditional government-issued or government-backed currency would have.
Bitcoin and other non-currency-backed cryptos will add serious uncertainty (in the form of volatility) to your portfolio
The final reason why you should be very cautious in deciding whether to purchase Bitcoin is that there is a lot of uncertainty and most Bitcoin purchasers seem to have less information about what they are purchasing than a traditional investor in equities would have.
Before you purchase a stock you research the company. You look at their financials and their management. If you are a smart investor you look at the actual company itself. You might walk into a store, look at their product, and really think about what this company makes. You then make a decision based on this information about whether investing is a worthwhile risk.
With Bitcoin, you are investing in a digital currency. There's not store to walk into. You know that the supply is increasing (for now) and that the difficulty of creating new Bitcoin (mining) is correlated with the number of people attempting to create them (attempting to mine for them). You know that you need relatively powerful computers to mine Bitcoin. You hear the news stories about people making money by purchasing or mining Bitcoin. But, how much do people really know? To me, it seems like many people are engaging in classic speculation.
There's no way to know whether Bitcoin will collapse tomorrow or whether it will increase in value by ten thousand times. There's even no way to know if people will accept it in the stores you shop at. There's no way to know what the government will say about Bitcoin. There's no way to know if a competing digital currency that is better in every way will come out tomorrow and Bitcoin will become completely worthless.
Even though it's risky, adding Bitcoin and other cryptos to your portfolio might have a benefit or two
Bitcoin might become something you might want to purchase in the future, even if just for using it as a means of exchange. Bitcoin might or might not last, but it's likely that some kind of virtual currency (be it Bitcoin or another virtual currency that does or doesn't exist yet) will become widely used. Throughout history, currencies change and there's no guarantee that the US Dollar (or any other currency that's widely used) will remain popular. It might just be the case that virtual currency will be attractive and used as a possible means of exchange. It might just be that virtual currency will be like money in the future.
Therefore, we can't completely say that you should never hold Bitcoin or virtual currency. However, if we do hold it, we should hold it because it is a useful and efficient means of exchange, not because we are deluded enough to think that holding currency in general or virtual currency specifically is a wise investment compared to the plethora of other investment options available to investors novice or expert.
And now, given the rise of cyrptocurrencies and crypto assets to quasi-mainstream financial assets, we're dedicated to providing quality, relevant, and interesting material on cryptocurrencies and cryptoassets. Articles on Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, Cardano, and many more cryptocurrencies and cryptoassets can be found on Pennies and Pounds - all that in addition to a plethora of information on what cryptoassets are, how the entire crypto industry came to be, blockchain/immutable ledger technology, mining, proof of work, proof of stake, and how to prudently invest in crypto if you are so inclined (based on your risk tolerance and ability to withstand the volatility that will come with a crypto portfolio).