Everyone is a Speculator

Speculation: the practice of buying assets that incur risk to the speculator with the objective of selling those assets for a profit at a later date.

Arguably every investor is in some way a speculator. Every investor takes on risk to varying degrees in order to make a profit. This includes investors which purport to be buy-and-hold investors. With few exceptions I will touch on later, buy-and-hold investors are simply speculators in denial who theoretically operate on a much longer time-frame.

A buy-and-holder will slowly purchase the same, or similar assets throughout their working lives and then slowly sell those assets--hopefully for a substantial profit--when they are retired. I say theoretically because countless studies show there are few true buy-and-hold investors. When markets collapse, buy-and-hold investors sell in the panic with everyone else. However, nine years into a bull market cycle selling yourself as a buy-and-hold investor is easy and religiously gratifying.

I embrace speculation and I don't believe in buy-and-hold. Things happen in markets which should make every investor think very hard about their investment strategy. The perfect modern example is Japan where their stock market valuation is still just over 50% of the peak value in 1989--nearly three decades later. This issue isn't exclusive to Japanese stocks though; throughout the ages massive shocks have occurred in assets ranging from government debt to productive land to currency.

No asset is truly safe to hold by any individual investor.

Understanding Speculation

Broadly speaking the value of real, productive assets tends to increase over very long periods of time. This includes things like productive farmland, productive timberland, and other assets which generate some form of generated return.

Tangible, non-productive assets tend to hold their real value absent spoilage. This includes gold and silver, quality furniture, or the structure of a well-built, durable building.

However, over shorter time periods these observations do not hold true at all. Sometimes, such as today when ample credit is available, farmland values get very, very expensive relative to their historical value. Other times, as in the 1930s during the Great Depression, farmland could be bought very cheaply as farmers across North America were going broke. That said, despite the gains in crop production and general decline in food prices, the financial return a farmer could generate from their land has been very similar over the ages.

This same logic doesn't apply to other businesses. Successful businesses can earn substantial profits for their shareholders, but they all eventually fail. The ones that gain effective monopolies can last longer than businesses who do not, but competition means all businesses are eventually extinguished. While buying and holding good farmland or timberland forever could be logically plausible, if not a nerve-wracking investment, holding businesses is ridiculous.

Speculation, or at least the embrace of speculation as many perceive it today, is a great way to profit from the price movements in assets over shorter and medium time frames. It's not as much a bet on the asset itself as it is a bet on the prevailing human psychology which is attempting to price that asset at any given time. Speculation is truly a bet on the collective human emotions involved in the market for that asset.

Playing Both Sides of the Market

Since price of any asset can increase or decrease over the shorter-term, it's important to embrace being "long" or "short" the market as a speculator.

There are many ways to speculate in the market and it seems the list of instruments is growing all the time. The standard method is to simply buy an asset directly or indirectly. An example of a direct holding is buying an individual stock, treasury bond, or currency, while indirect holdings can be through ETFs or mutual funds. However, the derivatives market shouldn't be ignored by more advanced speculators. This includes everything from futures to CFDs to options.

Just like buy-and-hold, being a speculator is risky. You can lose all your money, but you can also make a lot of money. Risk control and understanding your asset is of absolute importance! Limit the size of your positions, maintain stop-loss orders on every position to a low level of loss as a percentage of equity, and spread your bets across numerous assets.

To profit from both sides of the market, you must use a system. Trading on gut feelings or fundamentals is not reliable and is likely to result in very poor returns. Betting on price changes means you should use movements in price only to trigger your bets. Moving averages and breakouts are great tools to help you identify price trends. Buy the upside when the trend is up, sell the downside when the trend is down.

Betting on the Upside

It is generally quite easy to buy, or take a "long" position on any major asset (productive or non-productive). You can buy individual stocks, index funds, call options, futures, bonds, and currencies in any brokerage account. The cost is very low, typically a small commission fee plus interest costs if you borrowed any money to execute that asset purchase. Even the interest costs are very low with the better brokerages.

As discussed before, productive assets collectively have a long-term uptrend in real valuation. This is because businesses (as a whole) generate profits, farms produce food, forests produce timber, and dwellings generate rents. As long as the assets remain productive, this won't change. This is the logic behind buy-and-hold investing.

Non-productive assets will also increase in value, but increases are generally limited to inflation and the price of alternatives. There are countless shorter-term impacts which generally revolve around supply capability and product demand.

Betting on the Downside

Taking a "short" position against a productive asset can be much more difficult and risky. It's important to understand how betting against an asset works and what instruments you should choose to bet on price declines. Price volatility tends to increase when prices fall. This means a large price decline can be followed by a sudden, aggressive price increase (called a bear rally).

To short individual stocks or standard ETFs in a traditional manner, you must borrow the security from someone who owns it and pay them an interest fee and the cost of dividends for that privilege. Someone shorting stocks can easily be forced to close their short position at a loss when bear rallies occur. Even experienced players can very easily lose money this way.

It's generally better to bet against productive assets with more advanced instruments such as put options. Longer dated put options can help a speculator with risk-control while providing the potential for outsized returns. The return profile of options are very asymmetric: you can lose 100% of your investment, but you can gain hundreds of percent on your investment.

Futures and CFDs are other great tools to use when betting on price declines. Although the leverage must be controlled (minimum leverage ratios can be astronomically high), the cost of trading on the upside or downside is equal. There is no downside penalty built in these instruments.

You can also use inverse ETFs, but I would stay away from the leveraged ones for the volatility issue. The Canadian market for inverse ETFs is very thin, but there are several good choices on the U.S. stock market.

The least risky method to benefit from a price decline in a certain asset is to sell that asset and hold cash, waiting to purchase it at some later date for a cheaper price. Systematic switching from holding productive assets to holding cash can be very profitable with minimal costs. Dual Momentum is a great example of an asset to cash system.


All investors are speculators because they take risks in anticipation of generating a positive return on their capital. If you want to avoid the large medium-term drawdowns that occur in asset prices, you should embrace the idea of being a true speculator. This means betting both on price increases and price declines.

Our modern financial markets are huge and there is no real limit to speculation choices. Nearly anyone with some extra money can buy or sell anything from stocks to treasury bills, from gold to zinc, from oats to oil, from Chinese yuan to South African rand. You can't possible have a good understanding of fundamentals in such a wide variety of assets, so you must speculate using a price-driven system.

It's easiest to speculate on the "long" side of productive assets. This means betting that assets like businesses (as a collective), farmland, or timberland will increase in value over time while providing positive income during the holding period. Buying non-productive assets can also be very profitable during rising price trends.

Betting on price declines requires special care and attention, so you should consider all your choices across various financial instruments. Depending on the underlying asset you are betting against, the best way to profit could be simply selling the asset and holding cash, buying inverse ETFs, buying long dated put options, selling futures contracts, selling CFDs, or selling currencies.

Always use careful risk control in your account to limit losses on any one asset and your account as a whole. This includes stop-losses on position entries, diversification across non-correlated assets, and careful position sizing.

Comments & Questions

All comments are moderated before being posted for public viewing. Please don't send in multiple comments if yours doesn't appear right away. It can take up to 24 hours before comments are posted.

Comments containing links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.

Crypto-currencies Are Raw Human Emotion

If there's one noticeable trend that is going through a massive wave right now it is most certainly the crypto world. Due to its crazy dynamics and underlying setup, crypto-currencies might be the best example of human emotions mixed with investing since the tech bubble. It also might go down as one of the biggest booms and busts in the entirety of financial market history--on par with the Tulip Mania, Japan, and the South Sea Bubble.

The peak market cap of the major crypto-currencies reached over $800 Billion in January 2018. For some perspective, that's larger than the entire economy of countries like Turkey, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It's bigger than the combined economies of Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. It's bigger than Google, Microsoft, Amazon, or Berkshire Hathaway. All in bits and bytes that don't provide any revenue or production whatsoever! If that's not raw human emotion and madness of the crowds, I don't know what is.

Two of my favourite books, and must-reads for any serious investor, areĀ Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay and Devil Take the Hindmost by Edward Chancellor. While Chancellor's book focuses almost exclusively on financial markets, Mackay's book also includes topics from fashion trends to fortune telling. They are great reads on crowd psychology--a very important factor in successful trading.

Crypto Factors

While I have done a decent amount of reading trying to understand Blockchain technology, I still don't entirely grasp the whole concept of the associated coins (or tokens) and why they carry some significant valuations. Sure, Blockchain has the potential to be game changing in terms of contract making, record keeping, legal tracking of property rights and ownership, and money movement.

I think the Ethereum platform in particular is doing some very cool things in these areas and more. Perhaps not ironically, Ethereum's co-founder and chief brainiac Vitalik Buterin (a fellow Canadian) is one of the biggest critics of high valuations for crypto-currencies.

So... while Ethereum is busy downplaying the valuation of its associated tokens and is doing cool things, the biggest crypto-currency--Bitcoin--has always seemed a whole lot more shaky to me. I've found Bitcoin to be strange in its allure and freakishly fraudulent in its promotion. It's actually the perfect fraud in many ways with all kinds of big red flags waving in your face: it's unregulated, the real coin holders are not traceable, invest is heavily promoted to the public by people with a vested interest, the platform has created an illusion of scarcity, and it's been adopted by a generally uneducated, inexperienced public market (in an investing sense, of course). Consistent with other famous bubbles, the higher it went the more outlandish the claims of valuation became. Predictions of Bitcoin $5,000 somehow became Bitcoin $1,000,000.

Another strange concept is the underlying valuation arguments for Bitcoin. The idea that a currency written by computer code and horded by its buyers can somehow be truly scarce is absurd. Yes, I understand the code only permits around 21 million Bitcoin to be released, but it's still just computer code and entirely non-tangible.

If some investors argue gold as a currency is useless, Bitcoin as a currency is really, really useless. At least gold looks pretty, has some industrial and jewelry usage, and is tangibly scarce making it a great representation of a store of wealth. Nevermind the fact that gold has been used as a currency and to measure of wealth for thousands of years. The suggestions that Bitcoin is a form of digital gold is totally insane.

What does Bitcoin really do and what value does it bring? Hell, the most valuable part of the whole thing, the Blockchain ledger concept, is open-source and free for anyone with moderate to great programming skills to copy and modify for their own use as they see fit. By nearly every metric, there are other Blockchain platforms which are now much better than the Bitcoin platform in every way.

The only other valuation argument, the cost of "mining", is also a type of Ponzi scheme in itself. The more popular Bitcoin becomes, the more miners jump on board to process transactions, the more expensive the mining process becomes. Nevermind the insane amounts of electricity and computing power being wasted.

I don't know and I won't pretend to know where Bitcoin will go from here. I think there are two very real possibilities over the next few years: 1) Bitcoin holds its own and makes new highs, or 2) Bitcoin grinds its way down to nothing.

One thing that Chancellor and Mackay's books so clearly established is that Financial Bubbles are entirely unpredictable. Human psychology and emotions, especially when it comes to money, can be irrational for a long time. Betting against human emotions is a very tricky and dangerous game. This leaves just one reasonable way to make money from crypto-currencies: trading.

"The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent." - John M Keynes

Trading Bitcoin

I admit that I missed a huge trading opportunity with Bitcoin (and other cryptos). While its easy to have regrets about the things you don't do, I will stick by my strategy and conviction only to invest in liquid instruments in which I have some understanding.

I still don't really understand Bitcoin as a currency, which is one big issue that kept me away from it. Another big problem is liquidity. Until recently, there was no way to trade Bitcoin in a liquid environment for a reasonable cost. The popular wallets seem prone to hacking problems and their transaction fees were way too high.

I wouldn't trade stocks or ETFs if my brokerage was hacked every few weeks and liquidity dried up every time my system called for a sell signal. By that logic I also shouldn't trade cryptos.

However, there were some amazing profit opportunities in Bitcoin over the past few years and I thought it would be fun to take a look at the charts and see where the trading opportunities would lie. Due to the volatility in Bitcoin, I used a 20-week (similar to 100-day) EMA to keep the stops tighter to the price.

Full Bitcoin Chart with No Signals (July 2010 to March 2018)

Source: Yahoo Finance

I find this chart to be very interesting it itself. Bitcoin started at around US$0.05 per BTC. Looking at this chart from a logarithmic perspective (arguably the only way you should look at returns over time), you can see that Bitcoin did much better in the first half than the latter half. From 2010 to 2013, the price expanded from $0.05 to $1,241--an increase factor of 24,820!

From that peak until the next major peak in 2017, the price only increased from $1,241 to $19,870--an increase factor of 16. Still incredible of course, but you can see here that the real money in buy-and-hold was made at the start. The individuals who got into Bitcoin before the end of 2012 would have been able to accumulate massive amounts of Bitcoin for low overall cost. I would consider those buyers to make up the majority of the inside crowd because they control large chunks of the total Bitcoin supply.

Beginning in 2013, Bitcoin made its first big run. This is also around the time that I first heard about Bitcoin.

2-Year Bitcoin Chart with 20 Week EMA Signal (2013 to 2015)

Source: Yahoo Finance

The 20-week Exponential Moving Average is the highlighted blue line. This time period captured the first major move in Bitcoin. In 2013, the price started at $14 per BTC and ran up to $1,241 by November. However, by the end of 2014 the value had fallen back down to $264--a near 80% decline!

2-Year Bitcoin Chart with 20 Week EMA Signal (2015 to 2017)

Source: Yahoo Finance

In this next two year period, Bitcoin was in a drawdown for the entire time! Bitcoin finished 2016 at around $900 per coin. Still lower than the peak in 2013. Anyone who was HODLing Bitcoin would have chewed their nails down to nubs by the time the price hit a low of $157 in the beginning of 2015--a huge 87% peak drawdown. But things slowly improved from there. As we'll look at later, a trader could have made some nice profits in this time period.

2-Year Bitcoin Chart with 20 Week EMA Signal (2017 to Current)

Source: Yahoo Finance

This last period includes the latest run-up in Bitcoin. Once Bitcoin crossed $1,000 again in the beginning of 2017, things started to get really heated. Trading volume exploded from a few hundred million trades per week to tens of billions of trades. Considering there's a total of 21 million coins, about 17 million of which are in circulation and most of them hoarded by insiders, the trading volume is absolutely insane. This is raw human emotion at work here and it makes for a great case for trading using careful rules.

Trading Bitcoin with a Simple System (2013-Current)

Lets look at how a trader could trade Bitcoin in their portfolio using some very simple, rudimentary trading rules.We'll use the same 20-week EMA for signals. We'll assume the remaining part of the portfolio is in cash to keep the calculations straightforward.

Scenario and Rules
Starting Portfolio Value: $100,000
Maximum Entry: 10% of portfolio value
Trading Frequency: Weekly

Trades and Portfolio Value
Trade 1 on Jan 1/13: Buy 714 BTC at $14, $90,004 cash, total portfolio $100,000
Trade 2 on Jun 30/13: Sell 714 BTC at $76.50, total portfolio $144,625
Trade 3 on Jul 7/13: Buy 153 BTC at $94.42, $130,178 cash, total portfolio $144,625
Trade 4 on Feb 2/14: Sell 153 BTC at $659.57, total portfolio $231,092
Trade 5 on Mar 2/14: Buy 36 BTC at $627.05, $208,518 cash, total portfolio $231,092
Trade 6 on Mar 16/14: Sell 36 BTC at $551.16, total portfolio $228,360
Trade 7 on May 18/14: Buy 40 BTC at $570.44, $205,542 cash, total portfolio $228,360
Trade 8 on Aug 10/14: Sell 40 BTC at $485.50, total portfolio $224,962
Trade 9 on Jun 28/15: Buy 83 BTC at $270.14, $202,540 cash, total portfolio $224,962
Trade 10 on Aug 2/15: Sell 83 BTC at $263.87, total portfolio $224,441
Trade 11 on Oct 11/15: Buy 85 BTC at $261.67, $202,199 cash, total portfolio $224,441
Trade 12 on Jan 28/18: Sell 85 BTC at $8,218.05, total portfolio $900,733
Trade 13 on Feb 11/18: Buy 8 BTC at $10,417.23, $817,395 cash, total portfolio $900,733
Trade 14 on Feb 18/18: Sell 8 BTC at $9,610.11, total portfolio $894,276
Trade 15 on Feb 25/18: Buy 7 BTC at $11,504.42, $813,745 cash, total portfolio $894,276
Trade 16 on Mar 4/18: Sell 7 BTC at $9,544.84, total portfolio $880,559

This is a great example of how you can profit enormously when trading, even with very simple risk parameters. It's probably fair to point out the level of risk in this system is still too high for me personally. I would limit my entry to something like 5% of the the total portfolio, but I also wouldn't have the rest of the portfolio in Cash.

In my example, assuming the rest of your portfolio made no returns, your portfolio would have jumped from $100,000 to $880,559 in just five years--a compound annual return of 52%.

Another interesting fact is only 50% the trades were profitable while the rest resulted in small losses. This rate of successful trades is common in trading systems. It demonstrates that you don't need to be right all the time, you just need a system and proper risk management.

An observant idiot would look at this example and say, "Yeah but if I would have considered Bitcoin as my 'play money' and HODLed the 714 BTC from January 2013, I would be worth $6.2 million right now!"

Sure, hindsight is always perfect in theory. But how would you have reacted through the 87% drawdown after the 2013 run? Or the 55% drawdown we're in right now? That's risking an enormous amount of your capital on one shaky asset. I'd take the 50% annual returns along with my sanity, thank you very much.

Trend following and risk controls are the path to sustainable wealth over long periods of time. HODLing anything, especially without very good diversification, is relying on wishes and prayers. We call that gambling, not investing or trading.

Comments & Questions

All comments are moderated before being posted for public viewing. Please don't send in multiple comments if yours doesn't appear right away. It can take up to 24 hours before comments are posted.

Comments containing links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.