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Warren Buffett says the stock market is increasingly ‘casino-like’—and young investors need to remember this ‘one fact of financial life’ to avoid the mess

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett shared a moving tribute to his fallen friend and right-hand man Charlie Munger in his annual shareholder letter over the weekend. The Oracle of Omaha lauded Munger as the “architect” of Berkshire’s success, eulogizing the “abominable no-man” by discussing some of his favorite whipping posts—including his comparison of the modern stock market to a casino.

“For whatever reasons, markets now exhibit far more casino-like behavior than they did when I was young,” Buffett wrote, adding that “though the stock market is massively larger than it was in our early years, today’s active participants are neither more emotionally stable nor better taught than when I was in school.”

Buffett’s words of caution were definitely a throwback to some of Munger’s favorite lines. Throughout his more than 75-year career, Munger argued that there were two types of people who buy shares in the stock market: investors and speculators. The investors—who are, above all, disciplined, hard-working, and thoughtful when buying assets—were always Munger’s people. But the speculators—those who seek nothing more than a quick buck without care for the intrinsic value of what they’re buying—well, Munger really didn’t like them much.

"They love gambling, and the trouble is, it's like taking heroin,” he said in an April 2022 interview with Berkshire Hathaway investment officer Todd Combs. “A certain percentage of people when they start just overdo it. It's that addictive. It's absolutely crazy, it's gone berserk. Civilization would have been a lot better without it."

Like Munger, Buffett fears that too many modern investors have become entranced by speculative investing. Rather than digging into Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to find the best possible business to invest in, too many investors, particularly young investors, are simply buying stocks that are trendy, hoping someone else will pay more for them a few months, days, or even hours down the line. What or who does Buffett blame for this rise in “casino-like” behavior in the markets? Well, the democratization and gamification of trading is certainly not helping. As the billionaire put it: “The casino now resides in many homes and daily tempts the occupants.”

Becoming a stock market ‘casino’

Part of the reason the stock market is becoming increasingly “casino-like,” according to Buffett, is simply that buying and selling stock has never been easier—or more fun—due to the rise of online trading applications. The SEC is happy about the first part of that sentence, but not so much the second. Here’s how SEC Chair Gary Gensler put it in a statement in 2021 after launching an investigation into the gamification of trading applications:

“While these new technologies can bring us greater access and product choice, they also raise questions as to whether we as investors are appropriately protected when we trade and get financial advice…In many cases, these features may encourage investors to trade more often, invest in different products, or change their investment strategy.”

Like Gensler, Buffett is worried that the gamification of trading is leading to an increase in speculators in the market, and in this modern era of connectivity, the Berkshire CEO worries that could lead market “panics” to happen more rapidly.

“Speed of communication and the wonders of technology facilitate instant worldwide paralysis, and we have come a long way since smoke signals,” he warned. “Such instant panics won’t happen often—but they will happen.”

Remember this key ‘fact of financial life’—and you’ll avoid gambling in the market

For the speculators that are using the stock market like a casino, Buffett had one main tip: Remember who is really making money from your gambling—the House.

“One fact of financial life should never be forgotten,” he wrote. “Wall Street – to use the term in its figurative sense – would like its customers to make money, but what truly causes its denizens’ juices to flow is feverish activity.”

Modern brokerage firms, at times, entice investors into stocks or complicated derivatives with new and fancy features on their trading apps. But they aren’t doing it to help the average retail investor, they’re doing it because they make money from fees on every trade. That means the more trades, the better it is for the House, even if that’s not true for investors.

During periods where more of the general public gets interested in stocks, Buffett explained, “whatever foolishness can be marketed will be vigorously marketed – not by everyone but always by someone.”

The Berkshire CEO noted that when the scene then “turns ugly,” and speculators lose money during a market meltdown, they shouldn’t expect a helping hand—or justice—either.

“The politicians then become enraged; the most flagrant perpetrators of misdeeds slip away, rich and unpunished; and your friend next door becomes bewildered, poorer and sometimes vengeful,” he wrote. “Money, he learns, has trumped morality.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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