My Robot Trades Like Warren Buffet But I Can’t

Boris Schlossberg

The other day I saw a Youtube video of a guy trading the NFPs on his iPhone. He was randomly buying dips in USDJPY at clips of $1 Million, $3 Million, $5 Million at a time against an account size of $5000 USD.

Never mind that he was an American trading illegally with an unregulated overseas broker. Never mind that he was trading at 1000:1 lever factor. Never mind that he was never actually going to see a dime of his winnings (Do you REALLY think any broker who offers 1000:1 lever will actually return your money?)

In a few short hours, he turned that $5000 into 20K and I must admit it was exciting to watch. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with that video. It was the ultimate “dollar and a dream” lottery moment. It was that perfect hit of dopamine that we all crave from the market and of course, it is the road to ruin. Leverage is the opiate of the FX market. It can make us feel like a hero, but the high always wears out and the crash always comes.

The truth of trading is a lot more mundane. Like a sex scene in a Hollywood movie, like a comedy routine written from scratch, the reality of the situation is considerably more pedestrian and far less glamorous than we think. It’s 10 pips and a cloud of dust. Over and over and over again.

Which brings me to Warren Buffett and my robot. Today I read a very interesting article about Mr. Buffett that had a very different take on his success. In Buffett’s Underrated Investment Attribute the writer argues that Buffett’s greatest is skill lies not in picking great investment ideas, but rather walking away from bad ones. The writer gives the example of Sears which in 2005 looked like a toss-up -- yet Buffett passed on the idea without giving it a second thought, not because he was certain that it would go bankrupt but because he knew that turnaround would be hard and Buffett, the ever-astute investor, and ultimate realist wanted to spend his time owning stable, growing businesses that were easier to assess.

That approach dovetails with Buffett’s rule #1 for investing -- “Don’t lose money” which is then quickly followed by rule #2 which is “See rule #1”. Indeed if you look Buffett’s track record, it’s not that he consistently makes more money than the market, its that he loses LESS.

If we as traders are honest with ourselves, we’ll all admit that our underperformance is always caused not by the good trades we missed, but by the bad trades we refused to walk away from. Even as I sit here aimlessly tossing more lots against a rising USDCAD position, I have to admire my robot (which is trading my serious money) as it rests quietly perfectly happy not to engage with the market until a legitimate setup shows up.

That’s a thing about robots. They don’t need excitement. They don’t need dopamine hits. They don’t need to be always right. They are perfectly happy to grind it out, one trade at a time over and over again. And since we can’t all be Warren Buffett, they are as close to his temperament as we’ll ever get.

How to Turn Your Trading Robot into Your Servant, Rather Than Your Master

Boris Schlossberg

One of the most entertaining and thought-provoking interviews I listened to recently was a Two Blokes Trading podcast that featured Will Hunting who is really a kindred spirit of mine.

Will, who is a discretionary trader, rips apart all the conventional data driven platitudes that pass for “modern trading advice” for the retail trader. Namely, he takes issue with the idea that you need thousands and thousands of data points in order to prove your strategy “right.” Specifically, Will makes the counterintuitive point that the more data you have -- the less valuable your signals will be. Something that worked in 2011-2013 is very unlikely to work today even if the overall equity curve of the strategy is positive.

When I was a young trader I remember that like every newbie, I was enamored with rising equity curves -- the longer the better. Until one day I took a closer look at a system that was wildly positive over the past decade only to realize that it made equity highs 18 months ago and was actually slowly losing money ever since.

This death by a thousand cuts, or a lobster slow boil is the most common problem that trips up systematic traders. They do all the right things only to wind up with all the wrong results, or as Will put it in the interview, tongue firmly planted in cheek, “I have a lot of respect for professional system traders who keep going until they go broke.”

The point being that all systematic trading is the application of a static model to dynamic price action and while the model is important -- critical even -- to consistent trading success, it needs human oversight. Discretionary trading in the true professional sense is not just random placing of trades by “feel”, but the rather judicious use of your model under live market conditions. In short, good discretionary trading looks to minimize the selection of “bad” trades in your model.

Now I know that this is much harder to do than it sounds -- and it certainly requires experience and judgment, but in the end, I think it is the best way to trade.

Which got me thinking. In retail FX, we have the great benefit of encoding our trading models into MT4 EAs which do all the clerical drudgery of culling through price data to find the trades but then take every signal indiscriminately.

So one way to improve that is to run the EA on a demo account and then have the signals sent directly to your smartphone. If you like the setup you can place the trade on your real account. If not, you can pass it up. You are still using your trading model but you act as the human filter and this “pause” provides you with more control and more accuracy. It’s no panacea, but it is an intelligent way of introducing discretion into a formal trade model.

I, Robot

Boris Schlossberg

Robots will treat humans like “pet Labradors”.
Elon Musk Tesla Motors.

Speaking at a recent technology conference, founder of Apple Steve Wozniak said that at first the thought of artificially intelligent beings in charge of everything scared him. But now it’s a comforting thought. Fast forward hundreds of years to when robots are in charge. At that time, humans will probably be treated in a similar fashion to dogs.“It’s actually going to turn out really good for humans,” he added. “And it will be hundreds of years down the stream before [artificially intelligent beings would] even have the ability.”

So while the great minds of our times have already made peace with the idea that we will be nothing but playthings for the great machines of the future, I am not quite ready to concede all control to software just yet. Anyone who has ever run a algorithm on market data knows that “artificial intelligence” is the biggest oxymoron there is.

At BK we build EA’s all the time. We build news EA’s, we build trend EA’s we build day trading EAs but I am always astounded by the disappointment of some traders who ask -- “What -- I can’t just let it run 24/5?”

No my friend you CAN’T let an EA run 24/5 and expect it to make money. We are not making widgets here. It’s not like brewing beer, or pouring steel or doing some other mindless industrial process that you can duplicate over and over and over again. Trading is like life. Its different every day. It may be SIMILAR but it is NOT THE SAME.

That’s why anyone who thinks that an EA alone will make them money is the biggest fool there is. (Millisecond front running HFT algos that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to install are a different story -- and even they only win 54% of the time)

EA at their best are simply glorified order management systems. Very valuable to be sure, both in their ability to quickly execute trades and in their accuracy of controlling risk. But the ultimate buy and sell decision is always up to you.

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In the end trading is the art of reading the market and no robot can do that without some oversight. If they could, then there should be one EA out there that you can just buy off the shelf, plug into your account and then come back a year later to find a pile of profits. When you find one let me know.