The primary purpose of entering the markets is to earn profits. Investors and traders have developed several financial strategies to profit from the movements in the market. Some financial strategies are relatively less risky and generate adequate returns, while others are slightly riskier but deliver higher returns. Arbitrage and speculation are two of the most well-known financial strategies often used by traders. Though arbitrage and speculation are spoken in the same breath, there is a difference between arbitrage and speculation. To understand the difference between arbitrage and speculation, let us dive deeper.

Arbitrage

Arbitrage is the act of buying and selling an asset simultaneously in different markets to profit from a mismatch in prices. Arbitrage opportunities arise due to the inefficiency of the markets. Arbitrage is a common practice in currency trade and stocks listed on multiple exchanges. For instance, suppose the shares of company XYZ are listed on the National Stock Exchange in India as well as the New York Stock Exchange in the US. On certain occasions, there will be a mismatch in the share price of XYZ on the NSE and NYSE due to currency fluctuations. Ideally, after considering the exchange rate, the share price of XYZ on both the exchanges should be the same. However, stock movements, the difference in time zones and exchange rate fluctuations create a temporary mismatch in prices. Seizing the opportunity, arbitrage traders buy on the exchange where the share price is lower and sell the same quantity on the exchange with the higher share price.

Arbitrage opportunities are very short-lived as markets have been designed to be highly efficient. Once an arbitrage opportunity is used, it quickly disappears as the mismatch is corrected. While arbitrage is more common in identical instruments, many traders also take advantage of a predictable relationship between instruments. Generally, the price of a mismatch is exceedingly small. To profit from a small price differential, traders must place large orders to generate adequate profits. If executed properly, arbitrage trades are relatively less risky, however, a sudden change in the exchange rate or high trading commission can make arbitrage opportunities unfeasible.

Speculation

Every trade is based on the expectation of the investor. The markets function only because someone is willing to buy and someone on the other end is willing to buy. The seller generally expects the price to fall and sells to monetise his profit, while the buyer expects the price to rise and hence enters the counter to generate returns. Speculation is the broad term for trading based on expectation, assumption or hunch. The speculation involves considerable risk of loss. The primary driver of speculation is the probability of earning significant profits. Speculation is not limited to financial instruments; it is common in other assets also. For instance, speculation is common in the real estate market. Extreme speculation leads to the formation of asset bubbles like the dot com bubble in the early 2000s and tulip bubble in medieval times. The profit margin can be high in speculative trades, so even small traders can trade based on speculation.

Arbitrage vs speculation

Arbitrage and speculation are two different financial strategies. The major differences between arbitrage vs speculation are the size of the trade, time duration, risk and structure. Only large traders can take advantage of arbitrage opportunities as they are short-lived, and the profit margin is small which requires scale. Speculation doesn’t have any such limitations; even small traders can place bets based on speculation. Speculative trades can last anywhere from a few minutes to several months, but the same cannot be said about arbitrage trades. Arbitrage opportunities arise due to market inefficiencies and disappear as soon as someone utilises it. Arbitrageurs buy and sell the same asset simultaneously. The simultaneous nature of arbitrage trade limits the risk for the trader. On the other hand, the risk of loss remains high in the case of speculative trade as speculative price movements are based on the assumption of many people.

Conclusion

Arbitrage and speculation are two different types of techniques to profit from the financial markets. The difference between arbitrage and speculation is that the former is a result of natural market inefficiencies, while the latter utilises potential price movements in certain assets.