Trading based on short-term market movements for retail investors shares more characteristics with sports betting than it does with investing.

Sport plays a significant role in the Australian psyche, and in an Olympic year that usually – COVID permitting in 2021 – goes up a notch on the international scale.

Australians are also partial to a punt on their favourite sport. You only have to watch a sports event and see the near saturation level of online gambling advertising. Clearly Australians enjoy taking a punt and similar trends emerged during last years' COVID distribution with an uptick in both brokerage and online gambling account openings.

According to the Australian Gambling Research Centre, 30 percent of over two thousand Australians surveyed opened an online betting account in June-July 2020.

There was also a significant increase in how often people gambled during this period, with an 11 per cent rise in those who placed bets more than four times a week.

As retail investment brokerage platforms continue to evolve their digital capabilities for the everyday investor, it's perhaps more important than ever to understand the crucial differences between investing and gambling, particularly when some of the leading online gambling providers continue to evolve their offerings. For instance, one recently advertised the ability to watch the flow of money in real time "just like the sharemarket".

Increasingly there's enough similarities in the way online share trading and online wagering apps appeal to the human psyche to encourage a blurring of behaviours. In the same way COVID-19 incited a dramatic uptick in retail investor trading activity, the pandemic also spurred a boom in online gambling. Both are socially-distanced activities that could be done from the comfort of one's own home, with the added incentive that it could increase wealth while staving off boredom.

Just to be clear, having a punt on your favourite sports team is nothing like investing in the sharemarket.

Rationally the odds are against you when you gamble. Everyone hopes to beat the odds based on skills or knowledge as a gambler, but clearly most people don't, which is why casinos and online gambling companies are profitable.

In contrast by investing in the sharemarket, you are aiming to have odds work in your favour over the long-term and over the last 5 years the Australian sharemarket has returned almost 8% because you are riding the long-term growth of Australian business and the broader economy more generally.

Where gambling and share investing likely converge is through day trading. During the COVID-19 impact last year, the financial regulator ASIC observed an increase in trading frequency in the retail investor space which led it to issue a cautionary report raising concerns about day trading amongst retail investors.

Nearly 5000 new accounts were opened daily on retail brokerage platforms in February-April 2020, with investors on average holding on to securities for just 1 day, compared to the 4.5 days prior to the observed period and 80 per cent of them having lost money.

While it's unfair to liken all trading activity to gambling, it is however accurate to say that trading based on short-term market movements for retail investors shares more characteristics with sports betting than it does with investing. Namely, the greater likelihood for loss than not.

In 1934, Ben Graham (known as the father of value investing and author of The Intelligent Investor) split market participants into investors and speculators, with the latter engaging in riskier behaviour.

In many instances, engaging in speculation isn't as brazen or as obvious as the recent Gamestop saga. It can be a lot more subtle, like mistaking news headlines as research and 'taking a punt', or by timing the market to execute day trades.

Aside from the risk of financial loss, the one certainty about frequent trading are the fees that will make already uncertain profits even more so.

Investing, on the other hand, does not depend as much on luck as speculating or gambling does.

Instead, it depends on having a clear investment plan and the discipline to adhere to it over the long run even when there's temptation to stray.

So while there's always risk involved in investing and it can never be a sure bet, it sure is more conducive to creating wealth than speculating.

An iteration of this article was first published in The AFR on 10 May 2021.

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