4 Simple Ways to Determine if Your Trading System is Truly Viable

Boris Schlossberg

One of the best trading resources that I recently discovered is Andrew Swanscott’s podcast called Better System Trader. Even if you are not interested in systematic research and just want to trade discretionarily, the trading insights from the interviews are worth a listen.

One episode I found very valuable is an interview with Art Collins who is long time systematic trader in US stock and bond futures. Art wrote a book, called Beating the Financial Futures Markets which I have yet to read, but his analysis of what makes for a viable trading system really impressed me so I thought this week I would share his ideas with you.

Before all else, Art makes a point that I’ve heard over and over again from many different traders. The single most important aspect of the system is that it be in sync with your personality. If you are like me and like constant action then trading 100 times per day on a 1-minute chart is perfectly fine, as long as you adjust the system to the reality you’ve chosen. If you are like Kathy and think that such an approach is utterly ridiculous and prefer to make 2-3 well-chosen trades per day using the four-hour chart -- that fine too. (I would rather get a root canal without anesthesia, but to each is own.)

That being said, Art has four key metrics to judge a system.

One.
Does it make sense? Do you understand the underlying drivers? If you do not understand what the system is doing you will abandon it at the first sign of trouble. Generally, as I’ve noted many times before there are only two types of trading systems -- continuity and mean reversion. Systems will naturally underperform in adverse market regimes, but If you have a favorable market environment (trending) and your continuity system is not performing you need to quickly assess what’s wrong and to do that you need to know how the trades work.

Two.
Don’t Optimize. Don’t Tweak. Don’t try to avoid the pain. Accept the drawdown because if you don’t it will only get worse. So if you are looking at a series of parameters make sure that if you chose a slightly different one the results will not be much different from all the other parameters. If they are that means your parameter is less than worthless because it only works on a particular set of data in the past.

Three.
At very minimum, the system must work on related markets. For Art that means that if the system is designed for S&P it must also work on Nasdaq and Russell. For us, in FX we need to make sure that the trade idea works on several related pairs, not just one. Earlier this week I had a system that looked very promising but when I analyzed the underlying data I realized that GBPUSD was responsible for 62% of the profit but it comprised just 16% of the trades. My new version was much better balanced with no pair accounting for more than 25% of the profit while comprising 16% of the portfolio. That’s the kind of distribution you want because that means you are capturing repeatable price behavior rather than one-off action.

Four.
And this is perhaps the most important and overlooked aspect of system analysis. Make sure that the bulk of your profits does not come from a very narrow time interval because then it’s a function of luck rather than skill. Since I day trade around the clock with fixed stops and losses, I avoid that problem by creating as much uniformity in my trades as possible. But if you trade on longer time frames with variable profits and losses you should study your results very carefully to make sure that they are not skewed by one or two lucky big trades.

Lastly, Art says that one of the best ways to analyze the robustness of a system is to divide the total profit by maximum drawdown -- something I’ve intuitively done for years and prefer much more than the traditional Sharpe or Sortino ratio measures. But even here you need to be careful. If your system has massively large stops it could provide you with a very unrealistic picture of its robustness. For example one of the best traders in my room had a “return on account” (that’s what this ratio is called) of more than 10. She was up 22% on equity with a drawdown of only 2%. But that’s because the system was trading with massive negative skew (the risk-reward was 1:5) so the losses were rare and provided a false sense of security. Fortunately, she wasn’t fooled by the data and traded at very low leverage to prepare for any large losses that could come like an avalanche. Generally, the return on account of 2:1 or better is a sign that you are doing things well and a much better way to assess the risk of the strategy than the simple risk/reward ratio of any given trade.

I’ll be in Madrid next week at the annual Forex Day show, so no column next week, but come say hi if you are there, it would be great to meet everyone at the show.

There is no Such Thing as a Winning System

Boris Schlossberg

I’ve often made the argument that there are only two types of trades. Continuation or Reversal. Flow or anti-Flow. Trend or Fade. Call it whatever you want, but whenever anyone places a trade they are always implicitly making a bet that prices will extend in the prior direction or will reverse.

That’s why there is no such thing as a winning strategy. All strategic success depends on a market regime. In trending markets momentum strategies perform great. In choppy markets reversal strategies bank pips. You can do all sorts of things to finesse returns around the edges by using fancy money management techniques, but ultimately if you are caught in the wrong market environment you will get stopped out and sometimes even slaughtered.

They key is not to make things worse. And as traders we often do. That’s because we are obsessed with the idea of a “winning system”. That’s probably the single biggest lie ever told in the trading business. The only guy in the history of the markets who had a “winning system” was Bernie Madoff. For decades he fooled investors that he had the magic formula. And we all know how that turned out.

Indeed the key to winning in trading lies much more in NOT TRADING when the regime is against you than in forcing your system on the market that will chew it up alive. No doubt that’s hard to do with any degree of accuracy ahead of time and that’s why you have to accept the fact your great money making system will lose. Sometimes for days, weeks, even months on end. It does not mean it is not working. It just means it is not working NOW.

These days, I spend 90% of my time trying to figure out the most probable cases of when my set up will fail. Then, I try to studiously avoid making trades during those times. Again that’s not easy and answers change because market conditions change, but even if I can avoid three negative days per month, that could be the difference between winning big or just getting by.

Understanding that there is no such thing as a winning system should also help you to understand that there is no such thing as a winning trade. There is just the set-up and at any given time it can go either way. That’s why great traders trade positions not opinions. Opinions should be made before each trade. In fact, each trade is nothing more than an opinion. Once it’s in the market however, it becomes a position and that position either resolves to profit or a loss.

Most of us, however, develop opinions once the trade is in the market, which means that at that point we are no longer trading but practicing religion by relying on hope and faith. Hope and faith are very powerful human drives but they have nothing to do with trading.

Yet even the most atheist of us have prayed when a trade turned against us, especially if we changed its initial parameters with a post entry “opinion”. In fact the more we’ve changed the initial position the more intense our prayers become.

Tell me -- how’s that worked out for you in the past?
I thought so. The market can be crueler than the meanest of the Greek gods.

That’s why it all starts with understanding that there is no such thing as a winning system. Once you can come to terms with that you can start trading positions not opinions and save your prayers for when they can help.

You Will Never Make Money With a Trading System …

Boris Schlossberg

Let’s start with the basic fact of trading. No system -- no matter how good you think it is -- will ever make you money otherwise every EA buyer in the world would be a millionaire. And yet… hard as I look I can’t seem to find any EA millionaires in FX. There are plenty of demo millionaires. There plenty of ads that promise an EAs will make you a million for only $9.99 plus a tub of tupperware, but … There. Are. No. Actual. EA. Millionaires. Like unicorns they seem to be creatures only of our imagination.

Ok. Let me set my snark aside and tell you right up front that I actually LOVE trading systems and I use EA’s for every single trade I make. Yet I am not foolish enough to believe that this is the source of my profit. A system like a scalpel is simply a tool. In the hands of a gifted surgeon it can do marvels. In the hands of klutz it will just cut you badly and make you bleed out.

One of the greatest joys of my trading life this year was to create a live trading room that allows me to observe on a daily basis the variety of ways that the same system can be used by many traders. In our Slack room we now have more than 400 traders from across the world all trading essentially the same old fashioned market making method that I adopted for retail trading We all use the same EA, look at the same currency pairs and follow similar risk management rules. Yet while someone like me may only lay down out 3-5 trades per day another trader in our room will do as many 40 trade cycles in a 24 hour period.

Here is the kicker. We both make money, we both follow the rules and we both trade the same system -- but you would never know it if you just looked at the P/L runs of our accounts. The reason is that no matter how mechanical we want to be -- we are all human, all different in temperament, style and philosophy.

I trade essentially like someone with PTSD -- firmly believing that old Andy Grove observation that just because you are paranoid it doesn’t mean they are not out to get you. I view the market as field full of landmines and try cross it as quickly possible avoiding a misstep at any cost. That means that I often pass up many profitable trades or get out too early, but I live to trade another day.

The 40 trade per day trader on the other hand operates with the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. He trades every set up to its full conclusion -- good, bad or ugly. And he does it with a sense of serenity that I can never hope to achieve. He makes 1%-2% per day like clockwork- but when he gets clipped -- he can lose 4% of his capital in the blink of an eye.

Here is the thing though. Instead lamenting our particular foibles we should embrace them. It is after all our individuality that makes us unique and valuable. Instead forcing ourselves to adjust to the system which is what so many traders try to do, we should adapt the system to our own personality.

Here is a discount to team trade with us

That’s why no system can make you money until you make it your own. So no, all those EAs sitting in your Experts folder aren’t going to “make it rain”. Not until you begin to understand not only the science, but the art behind their algorithm.