I'm an investor, not a trader

PHOTO: I'm an investor, not a trader

To the layman, the terms "investor" and "trader" may appear to mean much the same thing - and I couldn't really tell them apart either when I started as a financial journalist four years ago.

Fortunately, a remisier contact told me the difference before I could make a fool of myself.

6 ways to be a savvy investor

  • Market conditions are unpredictable so a company that has done well in the past may not do well in the future.
  • Nicholas says: “You should at least read the company’s quarterly or half-yearly reports to keep abreast of its current business situation.” This takes time, but it’s basic research that every investor should do.
  • Ordinary investors won’t have access to some markets and those operating in different time zones may be hard to monitor.
  • To determine your investment portfolio ratio, deduct your age from 100. For example, if you’re 30, you should invest 70 per cent of your money in equities and 30 per cent in bonds.
  • “The younger you are, the more time you have to invest, so you can afford to take more risks,” suggests Vikrant Pandey, associate director at UOB Kay Hian Research. The numbers will change as you age, to reflect your falling risk appetite.
  • Anne elaborates: “Markets in Europe are not fully opened up, so you can’t just go online to purchase their stocks; you also won’t have the ground experience to react in a timely manner to market fluctuations.”
  • Your investment portfolio must take into account changing lifestyle needs, says Andrew Chow, head of research at UOB Kay Hian Research.
  • “If you’re planning to buy a house in three years, you can’t afford to lose your capital. Even if you’ve always been an aggressive investor, you may need to switch to more stable investment instruments, like bonds, to balance out your investment risk.”
  • “You’re in the right time zone and place to respond quickly to market conditions,” says Andrew. You won’t have to worry about currency movements either.
  • Before you invest in a company, Nicholas advises that you check the Investor Alert List – a watch list issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) – to notify investors of companies that are not regulated or licensed by the MAS.

"Investors" refer to people who buy and hold shares for the long term, probably years or even decades, he said.

"Traders", on the other hand, take a short-term view and look for quick profits - their holding period is minutes, hours or days at the most.

With this in mind, I've been content being an investor, and a recent opportunity to trade currencies and stock indexes using a demo account has convinced me that trading is probably not my cup of tea.

To each his own, of course. But no matter what you choose, you should be very clear from the get-go in deciding whether you want to be an investor or a trader.

The tools involved in performing each role are as different as chalk and cheese.

Investors look at the health of a company - its financial statements, business prospects and dividend yields - in a field of study known as "fundamental analysis".

Traders, on the other hand, use "technical analysis" - the study of chart patterns to determine where the price of an asset is heading.

One trader's comment sticks in my mind. He said he didn't care about the quality of the asset.

"I could be trading jellybeans, for all I'm concerned," he said. "All that matters is where the price is headed."

Put a trader and an investor in the same situation and they may take exactly opposite action. If a trader holds a stock which plunges, he will deduce that the tide has turned against him and sell the stock quickly to cut his losses.

But an investor in the same situation may well look to buy more stock at the cheaper price, if he is confident about the company.

All the books I read when I started out were on investing rather than trading - so I've always been more concerned about the company prospects for the shares I buy, rather than what the price will be in a day or a week.

Last month, though, I got my chance to try out trading.

A brokerage offered a crash course to journalists, and opened demo accounts for us to try trading.

We were given $100,000 in fake money to trade on the platform, which offers trading in foreign exchange (forex), commodities and stock indexes.

Clueless as I was, my first trades just followed the tips in one bank's technical report, which I received in my work e-mail. They involved betting that the New Zealand dollar would fall against the US and Singapore dollars - asset classes which I knew very little about.

But the experts were right. Soon I was $4,000 in the black - and the thrill of making money, even fake money, got me quickly hooked.

"Hey, this is easy, I'm making money just by following the experts," I told myself.

I wasn't the only one getting into it. A colleague who went with me for the talk told me "this is really addictive", as he actively monitored his trades on his phone.

That night, I spent hours reading up on the tools of traders, such as chart patterns with bombastic-sounding names.

But before I could celebrate, things started souring and I began to lose much more money than I made.

"Perhaps it's because I don't understand forex enough," I thought, as I started betting on the Tokyo and New York stock indexes as well.

That hasn't helped much, unfortunately. At the time of writing, my account is down to $79,500 - meaning I'd lost more than 20 per cent of my seed capital in one month.

I cannot help but compare this to my long-term stock portfolio - many of my shares are in the black and have provided me with healthy dividends to boot.

Why the difference? An explanation may lie in the fact that trading is largely a zero-sum game - if you win on a trade, there will be another trader out there who took the opposite position and is nursing losses.

Considering that the forex and stock landscape is increasingly dominated by ultra-fast computers that can react faster than you can to data and chart patterns, you are almost definitely going to be on the losing side.

Traders claim that the tools of technical analysis give them an edge but they're really swimming against the tide.

New York-based online newspaper International Business Times said in 2011 that 70 per cent of retail traders lose money, while other articles claim higher figures of more than 90 per cent.

My colleague compared trading to gambling and his analogy makes sense. Both can be addictive and tend to make people lose money over time.

For novice traders like me, making a trade is taking a stab in the dark, like placing a bet at the roulette table. Compare this with investing.

Stocks can generally be expected to grow in value over time owing to economic expansion, which will improve the profits of companies.

So, while traders will find it hard to tell what a stock's price will be in a day or two, investors can reasonably expect their holdings to go up over many years.

This difference means that investing is no longer a zero-sum game - all parties can win from it.

Considering that regular folks like you and me are at the bottom of the food chain, investing long term is probably one of the better ways to avoid being eaten up by the experts and computers for a quick profit.

The longer holding period for investors also allows more time for you to recoup your losses. Of course, you must keep to the basic rules of diversifying and buying some dividend stocks to ensure a flow of income.

Still, trading can be fun if I don't lose actual money.

So while my real money will continue to go into long-run investments, I'll keep on trying to make fake money - or minimise the losses - on my demo trading account.

I intend never to risk any of my hard-earned savings in trading forex or stocks.

It's just like the Blackjack game on the mobile phone - not involving real cash and played only for fun.

So, excuse me while I study the charts of the US dollar-Japanese yen movements. I'm down to $79,500 in my demo account, and just hope that I won't slide to zero.

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