What Really Matters in Trading

Trading can be deconstructed into three parts -- analysis, setup, and structure. We spend an inordinate amount of time on the first two components, but it may be the third part of the process that is most important to long-term success.

Analysis be it fundamental, technical or both is of course crucial to making good trades, but in the end it all boils down to handicapping human behavior. Every trade is an implicit IF/THEN statement that assumes some sort of causation. In a highly dynamic environment like the market where a new input could upend the underlying thesis anytime (just ask anyone who has ever run into a news bomb or some massive order that completely flipped the supply/demand balance) noise is a huge problem for anyone who trades. The shorter the time frame, the greater the noise. That’s why day trading is such a challenge and why I’ve been arguing that the 1-hour time frame is the shortest reasonable period for retail traders to consider.

Of course, we all want to trader shorter because longer-term charts are boring, signals are few and we have to practice the most dreaded four letter word in trading -- WAIT. The issue is further complicated by a seemingly sensible but highly deceptive assumption we all make -- shorter-term trading needs smaller stops, therefore we can use larger leverage. On the face of it, it makes sense. After all, a 10 pip or 20 pip stop is nothing! We can trade on 10:1 lever and still only lose 1% to 2% of equity max. But we always forget the noise factor. A choppy, intraday market can seduce us into false breakout three, four, five even ten times in a row. That’s how most traders lose 10-20% of an account in a day even they hold tight stops. The only way to survive the vicissitudes of daily price action is to actually risk just 10 basis point per trade, but who amongst us does that?

Pulling away from the endless discussions of day trading which often remind me of medieval debates about how many angels can dance on the tip of a pin, we need to realize that what really matters in trading is structure. By structure, I mean the risk/payout factors on every trade. Conventional wisdom always argues for a 2 to 1 risk reward approach. That’s nice in theory where you can argue that you need only to be right 40% of the time to make money, but in practice, it is impossible to do. 40% win rate implies a 60% loss rate -- and that is under the best circumstances!

Imagine losing six trades in a row before you hit a winner. Now imagine doing that five, ten, twenty, fifty times a year. The human psyche is just not designed for so much consistent disappointment. My personal experience with retail traders is that most people can tolerate three losers in a row. After that, they either get angry or depressed, but in both cases, they walk away from the setup -- even if it proves to be profitable in the end.

The only way to overcome this problem is to create a structure that is both logically and psychologically robust. And the only way I know how to do that is with a two target exit. You need a short target that can be hit frequently and long target that will be hit rarely but will pay for your losses when you hit it. By definition, such a structure calls for a 2 unit entry and therefore doubles your risk on every trade. That’s why this final part is KEY to making this structure work. In order for your trades to have a long-term edge, the sum profit of your target must be larger than your risk. For example let’s say you are trading with a 50 pip stop, a short target or 40 pips and long target of 100 pips. There are three outcomes to this trade. You lose 100 pips. You make 40 pips and the second unit stops out at break even. Or you hit both targets and make 140 pips. Notice that in scenario number three your total profit of 140 pips is greater than your risk of 100 pips. That’s exactly what you want. If you have strong set up a third of the trades will stop out at -100. A third will bank 40 pips and the final third will make 140 pips and pay for all the losses.

Almost every quant will tell you that scaling out of a trade is not a logically optimal strategy. And they are absolutely right. And absolutely wrong. To succeed in the markets you need a plan that is both logically sound and psychologically optimal which is what makes this structure so robust.

Boris Schlossberg

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