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OK. Guilty of click bait as charged. Buffett would never day trade in his life. His holding time is years rather minutes, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn valuable lessons from him about trading. There are a few core principles that Buffett holds which we as day traders can adopt for our own purposes.
1. Don’t Lose Money.
How important is this rule? Buffett once quipped that this was his rule #1. When asked what his rules #2 was he said, “See rule #1”. Everybody talks about not losing money, but I think it’s important to understand just why this is the single most important factor in trading success. Losing money is not just psychologically unpleasant, but more importantly, it is mathematically very challenging. It’s the two-steps-back-one-step-forward problem. If you take two steps back, making one step forward isn’t going to cut it. Even two steps forward won’t help you much. You need to make three consecutive steps forward to move beyond the two-steps-back losses.
That’s why the single most underappreciated move in trading is the scratch.
A few days ago I listened to a great interview with Virtu President Doug XX. Virtu is one of the leading high-frequency trading firms in the world, and almost everyone thinks that they make all their money by front running orders -- yet if that were true they would be gone long ago as other faster competitors would beat them to the punch. Virtu’s actual skill is in market marking, and specifically in scratching out trades. They only win about 51-53% of their trades, but unlike amateur traders, they don’t lose on the rest, they simply scratch out at even on most of them. That’s the great secret to winning at the day trading game.
Buffett for his part also knows the value of keeping your drawdown to the minimum. During the 2000 -- 2002 cycle when the S&P was down -11% and -21% respectively Buffett was down just a few percentage points making the recovery in 2003 much easier for him.
2. Let it Come to You.
Buffett is well known for not overpaying for assets. In fact, his favorite dictum is -- Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful. The underlying philosophy of this approach is that risk on balance is always lowest when markets dislocate to the downside and always highest when they ramp to the upside. Now there are plenty of individual examples of when this strategy fails. Momentum moves could decimate even the stingiest bid and leave even the most aggressive offer biting the dust. But this is an actuarial argument. Just because some smokers live to 100 years of age and some marathon runners die of heart attacks at 45 does not mean you change your premiums to accommodate the exceptions. If anything exceptions in insurance as well as in investing prove the rule -- don’t f-ing chase price! You may succeed once but you will fail ten times and end up losing in the end.
3. Stick to what you know
Are you good at making 10 pip trades? Do you excel at reactive rather than predictive trading? Do you feel much more comfortable trading with trend than against it? Each trader has personal strengths and weaknesses. Unlike real life where we are taught to constantly “improve” ourselves trading will actually only make you much worse if you go against your natural strengths. Buffett has been adamant about not investing in technology because he did not understand it -- and when he broke his own rules by buying IBM -- he demonstrated just how bad of a tech investor he is. Now he may have missed Google and Microsoft and Amazon, but his performance still remains much better than the vast majority of active managers (though not much better than the S&P). The point being is that by sticking to his formula of buying “old business” companies he still managed to perform very well and found plenty of profit opportunities away from tech. The greatest thing about the market is that it is not a monolithic entity -- there are literally thousands of niche strategies that can be profitable. The key is to find the ones that work best with your personality.