Markets the new racetrack for gambling addicts

People with a betting problem are seekinga way out through investing in stocks

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 4:18am

John Brown is a part-time trader. He manages the habit alongside an interest in legalised gambling through the Jockey Club, although lately it is hard to distinguish between what he does in the share market and what he does at the racetrack. He has a gambling problem, and he trades stocks as an outlet.

He started on blue-chip equities, but soon began to experiment with dicier shares in more risky parts of the world: India, China and Africa, mostly. And while he will not say exactly how much he has lost, he says the amount is "significant".

Brown (not his real name) demonstrates the thin line between gambling and investing.

Some may think investing is a legitimate and even healthy outlet for those who like to gamble. Markets tend to offer better odds than the casinos and is socially accepted. Gamblers' skills at odds-making are also perfectly suited for investing.

But, for those with a problem, investing is a compulsion that leads to over-trading and excessive risk-taking, which typically leads to losses.

Caritas Addicted Gamblers Counselling Centre says that more than 7 per cent of all who have been in treatment use markets to gamble.

"The appeal of stocks over casino gambling is the illusion that people believe, with the right information, they are equipped to make better decisions," says a hedge fund trader and occasional poker player. "But short-term performances of stocks are likely to be completely random, and the public information available to most investors provides no edge."

Others go so far as to say that, if you are a short-term speculator, you should not bother researching. "Is research necessary? Banks, analysts and large investment funds will tell you yes, as that is how they can justify themselves," says the former head of a stock trading desk for an international broker. "But statistically, a tracker fund or a monkey with a pen has just as much chance of outperforming."

In other words, returns are random, and you might as well punt on a stock as you would place chips on an arbitrary number at the roulette table.

Patrick Lau, a counsellor at the Caritas centre, says gamblers and investors believe they can identify patterns in the things they bet on, when the outcomes are in fact completely random.

"When they win, they perceive they got it right, but actually it's just by chance," he says.

Winning at investing also brings a special kind of ego boost. Punters can believe they are cleverer than the market, that they have special powers that others lack.

"When you make an investment and it goes up, you feel like you're insightful, that you're a small fry but you've managed to beat the system. When you gamble, you just feel lucky," says Brown.

It's an ego trip, confirms Dr Gracemary Leung, a University of Hong Kong professor who specialises in gambling psychology. "They [day traders] hunger for the good feeling of being 'successful' dealers with … predictive powers, creating a reputation with dollar signs behind their initials."

For those looking at using markets to gamble, there are a variety of instruments well suited to the task. Warrants pay out handsomely if a stock or index trades above or below a set level.

Then there are accumulators, which likewise pay off if a security trades above a set threshold, but can result in big losses if not. They are highly speculative and exciting to trade - just like gambling.

You can even take a humdrum investment and give it casino-like returns with leverage. Banks send out mail invitations offering loans that can be used for quick punts on the markets.

The city has high inflation and, these days, low bank deposit rates. That means people need to invest to have a fighting chance of beating inflation, and that can lead to speculative punts on high-risk assets. This leads to an investing style that brushes the line with gambling.

"The locals here are crazy day traders whose risk appetite is too great," says the former broker. "I've lived in major cities in America, Europe and Australia, and Hong Kong is by far the worst in terms of this gambling mentality."