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    Monday, May 08, 2006

    The stock market is a form of gambling

    Perhaps at the heart of many other stock market myths is the idea that investing in stocks is a form of gambling. Remarkably, I recently heard someone who was introduced as an "economist" say as much on a national radio news broadcast! As of this writing (1995), some of this myth has been dispelled by the relatively steady returns enjoyed by investors is recent years, versus the up and down markets experienced during the 1970s. Still, many folks consider stock investing to be fundamentally different than investing in bonds, certificates of deposit, and other more-predictable investments. To understand why stock investing is inherently different than gambling, first we need to review what common stocks are. In the most basic terms, a share of common stock entitles the owner of that share to a fraction of what is left over after all other stakeholders in a business have been paid. So, the firm takes in revenue from customers in return for the firm's product, and with that revenue pays for raw materials, employee wages, energy, supplies, and pays interest on borrowed funds. Whatever is left over, if anything, belongs to the holders of the firm's stock, who are essentially the owners of the firm. Depending on business conditions and how well the company is managed, the amount left over for the shareholders can be very large, very small, or even negative. It is obvious that the common shareholders see more variability (risk) in what they take home than bondholders, raw material suppliers, employees or anyone else involved in the operation of the firm. The common shareholder stands last in line to be paid, and because of this additional risk the shareholder demands a higher expected return than does the bondholder. In the stock market, investors are constantly trying to assess what will be left over for the shareholders both now and in the future. This is why stock prices fluctuate - because the outlook for business conditions are always changing, and what will be left over for the owners of a particular firm is always changing too. But, one thing is for sure: common shareholders expect their returns to be volatile, but they also expect them to be positive and permanent over the long run - and higher than the return on bonds, treasury bills, or other less risky investments. That is, the shareholders don't expect to give up all their gains - despite the fluctuations in value, the returns at some point become permanent. For as long as common stocks have existed (hundreds of years), this expectation has been met: Stocks have had their ups and downs, but have trended steadily higher in value over the years. And, they have increased in value at a faster pace, on average, than dollars invested in more predictable vehicles such as bonds or treasury bills. It is this steady upward progression in the value of stocks that sets them apart from gambling in a major way. You could buy a set of stocks, and hold them for the rest of your life. Although they would fluctuate in value over your lifetime, chances are they would greatly increase in value during that period of time. However, no other person would have lost money simply because your portfolio of stocks gained in value. This is not true with gambling. In gambling, every dollar won is a dollar lost by someone else. It must be this way because gambling produces nothing, creates nothing, and therefore can only return to a winner what it took from a loser. The value of common stocks increases without taking wealth away from anyone; in fact when the stock prices increase, the amount of aggregate wealth increases for society as a whole. This is because common stockholders do produce something: They postpone the consumption of goods (ie, they save some portion of their income ) in order to supply the seed capital needed to buy production equipment and produce goods. They get the ball rolling, so to speak, for firms wishing to produce goods. Here is another fact which highlights the vast differences between gambling and stock investing: When gambling, the longer you stay at the gaming tables, the more likely you are to walk away a loser. In the stock market, the longer you stay at it the better chance you have of coming away a winner. In fact, if you buy and hold a well-diversified portfolio of stocks, you are virtually assured of making money eventually. Of course, many people do lose money in stocks, but only because they fritter their capital away with excessive or ill-founded trading strategies. Every stock investor needs to know why investing and gambling are two totally different pursuits. Once you realize this, it will give you confidence in pursuing a long-term plan for investing and will make you less prone to the destructive forces of fear and greed. So, the two facts to retain regarding myth #1 are as follows: Gambling transfers wealth from a winner to a loser because it produces nothing. Investing increases overall wealth because the capital invested in stocks provides the initial funding for firms which exist for the purpose to producing goods and services. The value of stocks trends steadily upward over time. They do not seesaw back and forth in the same range forever. In the aggregate, stock investors demand and receive a return that is substantial and permanent.

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