Trading Both Sides of the Market

Boris Schlossberg

Last weekend I was in Madrid for David Aranzabal’s annual Forex Day conference and as always it’s my favorite trip of the year. I love the food. I love the people. I love the city. I love the casual elegance of European way of life. But mostly I love hanging around traders talking markets.

Two of my colleagues Asharf Laidi and Rob Booker were presenting as well. In the heyday of retail FX growth before the GFC we were on the road always and used to see each all the time. Now we are all older, settled with kids and don’t around as much anymore. So it was a pure pleasure to catch up.

Each one of us trades in a radically different style. Each one of us has seen almost every imaginable market possible. And I think it is fair to say that as we grew older, each one of us has become much more humble in our approach to trading. That humility was evident when we sat down for coffee to discuss our specific techniques and discovered that we all do the same thing -- trade both sides of the market.

Ashraf is a classic techno-fundamentalist macro trader who can hold positions for months at a time. Such tactics require not only patience but the ability to withstand being wrong for hundreds of pips until your thesis plays out in the market. Ashraf noted that unlike in his younger days when he would stubbornly hold his view through long periods of drawdown, now he fully accepts being wrong in the near term and actually scalps ⅓ to ½ of his position in the opposite direction. This way he constantly reduces his cost basis on the initial idea making it even profitable when the market finally turns his way.

Robbie has a completely different approach essentially trading mean reversion with tiny, tiny size and a portfolio approach that often puts him on the opposite side of the market with similar pairs. He does not use stops and lets the offsetting trades net out to a positive return. He also does something very clever. He always makes sure that he is on the positive side of the carry. He told us a story of a short EURTRY trade that took 2 YEARS to resolve. During that time he lost 2,000 pips on the position as the lira disintegrated, but at the same time collected 3,000 pips in swap making the net position profitable in the end.

Unlike Asharf and Rob, I am much more of a classic algo-driven trader with exact entry and exit rules. And since I have the attention span of an ADD-addled 5-year-old, I generally never hold my trades more than 24-48 hours so my algos operate on a much shorter time frame. Yet, I too often find myself on both sides of the market. At least once or twice a week, one of my algos will open a long in some pair and when the price action goes against me will open a short in the same pair in a different account. This freaks BK members out as they can’t understand why I do that -- but the fact of the matter is that algos have picked up the signal that market conditions may have changed and while my “wrong” trade will most likely be stopped out -- my offset trade will take some of the string out of the loss by banking pips the other way. This by the way not only works on a granular level but on the portfolio level as well as sometimes Kathy’s strategies will take the opposite side of mine and will mitigate losses as well. It is, I think, the primary reason why the retooled BK service has been so successful lately making 1300 pips in past four weeks as contravening positions keep drawdown to a minimum and overall return positive.

They say that a true sign of intelligence is to be able to hold two contradictory concepts at the same time. There is no doubt that that principle holds true in trading as well where mental flexibility and psychological humility are the two key factors in long term success.

In Trading We Sell Greed, but Fear is the True Secret

Boris Schlossberg

This was the first week in five that I lost money on my weekly trades in BK and yet it was the best week I had.

I started out very long loonie, thinking that a relatively hawkish BOC, the high price of oil and decent eco data would give my trades a boost. I was also bearish euro as the pair faced the turmoil of EU parliamentary elections, the slowdown in Germany and the nasty fight between Brussels and Rome.

I was right but it didn’t matter. The loonie was bid up ahead of good news and euro sold down ahead of bad data, so the story impact was minimal and prices went against me almost from the get-go. Yet in the end, I managed to lose very little money which is actually the perfect way to trade.

A few weeks ago I noted that the only way to trade successfully is with a two target process, where you take half the trade off at some short risk target and let the rest float looking to bank 2 times risk or more. That second half of the trade is basically a lottery ticket. The “long profit” trade only happens 20-25% of the time but when does hit target that pip gain is responsible for the bulk of your overall return.

This, of course, is what everyone who provides trading education sells. “Risk one dollar to make ten!” “Double your account in a month!” “Trade one hour a day and make five figures a month!” The trading business is replete with bullshit because of course, that’s what we want to hear. We not only want to make money, but we want to make “easy money” with very little risk and massive payouts on a weekly basis. All trading education appeals to our instinct for greed which of course is why most traders fail miserably.

Greed trips us up in a million different ways. It entices us to chase trades with too much size but more insidiously it makes us hold on to losers way beyond reason and prudence. Most conventional wisdom says that we lift our stops because we are afraid of losing money, but I actually think it’s the opposite. If we were truly afraid we would get out. Instead, I think we hate the idea of not making money so stay in the trade against rhyme and reason desperately trying to claw back to even one pip profit so that we can feel like a winner.

How many times have you been in a trade that was deep against you -- maybe even a few pips away from the stop -- and then rallied halfway to your entry thus cutting your losses significantly -- but you refused to get out, hoping that it would “turn around” only of course to lose it all in the end?

I don’t think there is a retail trader out there who hasn’t done that at least a dozen times. The reality, of course, is that it is really hard to take losses just when things are starting to look up which is why I don’t even try. Our instinct for greed is impossible to tame so I prefer to work on my defensive skills. The beauty of short/long exit structure is that it locks in a small profit and instantly goes to breakeven ensuring that you won’t lose money on the trade. It essentially creates an institutional process for fear. And fear is highly undervalued in my opinion. Fear is the key factor that keeps us alive. Fear is what makes us spit out tainted food so we don’t get poisoned. Fear is what keeps us from crossing a five-lane highway in the middle of rush hour. Fear is what keeps us from rollerblading down a 3000-foot mountain road without a helmet ( Yes my younger stupider self actually did that once )

Unlike the romantic notion of bravery which gets all the accolades fear never gets good press, but as General Patton once said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

Trading is very much the same way. Returns are made not through big gains but through avoidance of massive losses. Last week I was able to lock down small gains in EURGBP and EURCAD shorts before they blew up against me and that kept my weekly loss very manageable and kept my overall pip tally way in the green.

Hooray for fear. It’s the secret to trading.

The Difference Between Reaction and Response is Worth Hundreds of Pips

Boris Schlossberg

It’s been an intoxicating week at BK. We’ve been winning on every trade structure -- swing, news trading, day trading and even algo. A big part of the reason is simply the much more accommodative market environment. Nothing like pick up in volatility to make your continuation trades hit all their profit targets.

But it’s something more. The ability to win on both the news level and the swing level made me realize that I am starting to master a very distinct set of skills, that are really useful in understanding how markets really operate.

One common refrain that I often hear from retail traders is, “I never pay attention to the news. It can’t help your trades anyway.” Although I refrain from saying this to their face, my immediate thought is that the only thing stupider than that statement are traders who tell me, “I never pay attention to technicals, they are just squiggles on a screen.”

Both attitudes are woefully myopic because trading is always and forever a mixture of fundamental catalysts, market positioning (trend) and price levels. It is a multi-factor game and just looking at “squiggles on a screen” or chasing the latest headline is a sure path to ruin in trading because you are flying partially blind.

Still, because retail traders are predominantly technically oriented and pay only cursory attention to fundamentals it’s really important to understand the difference between news reaction and news response.

One of the reasons that so many retail traders are frustrated by news trading is that it seems to follow Murphy’s rule of law. Good news gets sold and bad news gets bought. Nowhere is this more evident than in commodity dollars where a few primary bank dealers control the order flow and enjoy nothing more than wrong footing traders who chase headlines.

Let’s understand what happens when FX news comes out. The moment the headlines hit the wires algos from HFT firms like Citadel and Virtu will sweep all the offers or hit any bids in a matter of microseconds. So often the move between pre-news and post news highs or lows is accomplished within a 1-minute candle leaving absolutely nothing for the point and click retail chasers who are fighting latency and wide spreads. Furthermore, the dealers who are on the opposite side of this flow have now inventoried a lot of one-way trades and need to carefully unload their position at a profit.

Contrary to the paranoia you’ve heard in retail chat rooms, dealers are not “always manipulating the market”. They are just doing their job as liquidity providers while trying to keep a positive P/L. So naturally, prices will often rise after an initial sharp drop or fall after a spike higher. That’s how the game is played, so don’t hate the player.

This is simply news reaction and in BK Live Trading I often take advantage of that dynamic by doing the exact opposite of what makes common sense and capture the “retrace profit” along with the dealers.

But news reaction is frankly chump change. The real money in FX trades is made on news response when a piece of data has far-reaching implications that go beyond the next few hours or even the next few days. A prime example of this dynamic at play was the RBNZ presser in March. The New Zealand central bank announced a clear shift to an accommodative stance, essentially warning the market that a rate cut was coming. The price instantly dropped but then actually consolidated and rallied for a few days after.

N00b traders would be forgiven for thinking that this was the end of the story, but for traders who actually understood news response this was just the beginning. That’s because the markets players who truly move prices -- the corporates, the hedge funds, the asset managers and the pension fund managers were making multi-month long adjustments to their positions that would inevitably have a directional impact on price. Sure enough a few weeks later the kiwi was substantially lower than post RBNZ and those traders who had the foresight and the patience to stay with the trade capitalized on the move.

I often say that day trading is for dopamine. We all want it. We all need it. But just like junk food it’s not really a recipe for long term success. Dollars are made on the Daily. It’s boring. It’s tedious. It’s certainly not sexy, but it’s where the real money in FX is made.

RBNZ.Example

Why R is the Most Important Letter in Trading

Boris Schlossberg

R in trading parlance is simply a uniform unit of risk with all your rewards are expressed as multiples of R. So a simple 10 pip stop and 20 pip target is a 2R trade. R can be expressed as pips, points, or dollars -- whatever suits you. The primary value of R is that it normalizes risk across all your trades, or bets as I like to call them.

Now the internet is full of “R Billionaires” -- traders who claim in podcast after podcast that they have a 70% win rate and 2.45R average. (Just to show you how ridiculous that is -- it’s a 145% return without any leverage or taking $10000 to $77 Million in 10 years). But trader bulls-t aside, R is a very useful tool that should be part of our trading process regardless of what strategy we use.

It’s essentially a risk framework, that can quickly tell you how and why you make or lose money in the market. But before we delve in further -- allow me to digress. I stated above that we should stop calling trades -- “trades” and start thinking of them as bets.

Why?

Because the word “trades” has a false connotation to it. Trades imply open-ended narrative structures that can turn into psychological crutches as we hang on to the story arc long past its ending because we are convinced that we are “right”. Bets, on the other hand, are binary and final events- which is exactly how we should approach what we do. As traders, we don’t “invest” in stories, we make market bets and play the odds via R. (Yes, I have been reading a lot of Ray Dalio lately and regardless of whether you think Bridgewater is a cult or not, his philosophy of radical transparency is the perfect way to view our role in the market)

Lastly, stop thinking about daily, weekly, monthly, annual returns. The question -- how much can I make this year should never enter your mind again. Time is a completely artificial construct. Annual returns are simply marketing bulls-t pumped out by Wall Street for civilians who have no clue how markets work. The only way to honestly evaluate your performance is over a number of bets and 100 is as good a round number as any. So, if you can achieve some positive multiple of R over 100 bets. You. Are. Winning. At. Trading. Everything else is just noise.

Now, in reality, 2R trades happen 25% of the time (did you really think the markets would give you any more than that?) Occasionally, certain strategies and certain pairs can give you 30%-32% win rates on 2R trades and that is as good as it can get, because just like a casino with 51%-49% advantage in roulette, you can make a lot of money out of a
thin edge.

The key, of course, is to mitigate risk as soon as possible. There are two ways to do it. You can move the stop to breakeven as soon as trade goes 1R in the money and then wait for 2R to hit 31% of the time. If the b/e stop happens 50% of the time you are well ahead on this strategy. (Simple math -- 50 bets you lose 1R, 31 bets you make 2R, net result +12R). But that’s tough to do psychologically. We like to get paid more than 31% of the time. So most traders use a T1/T2 approach that I’ve talked about before. In that scenario, you start with 2R risk, exit half the trade at 1R move stop to breakeven and exit 2nd half at 2R. In fact, the nirvana formula for such an approach is 45-55-30 split where you lose 45 trades make 1R on 55 trades and make 2R on 30 trades. If you can do that consistently you actually will be an “R Billionaire” one day.

Looking at markets through the prism of bets and R has really helped me spot my own weaknesses much quicker. About 4 weeks ago after a very long period of focusing only on systems, I started doing weekly prop trades for BK (basically K beat me into submission into doing it). The results are seemingly exemplary. I am up more than +500 pips on the recs despite Trump’s best efforts to disrupt the FX markets on a daily basis. But taking a look closer at what I was doing I realized that I had a glaring flaw in my approach. I’ve been using 100 pip stops 40 pip T1 targets and 100 pip T2 targets for essentially a maximum .7R. Generally, you want to keep your maximum R at 1 to 1.5 so that you can be positive on anything better than 50%. Not only was I making inferior trades but I was taking on risk that was utterly unnecessary. None of the winners ever went 50 pips against me. So going forward I am cutting stops to 70 pips -- that’s still not perfect -- but it does put me at 1R maximum bet which should be a much more resilient structure if I can stay above 50% win rate.

Up to now, I’ve been lucky. Going forward with better R, I hope to be good. Be sure to start using it in your own trading.

The Amazing Power of Negative Thinking

Boris Schlossberg

Positive expectancy is a foundational concept in our business. It is the idea that whatever system, whatever algo, whatever visual setup you use will result in profitable trades. The whole point of trading is that you need a method that is not just simply blind luck gambling in order to win in the long run. So backtesting, front testing, live testing are all good and necessary steps to finding something sustainable and robust to trade.

The problem comes with expectancy. Expectation is the single most toxic thing in trading.

Think about what happens. Say you research an idea. Code it. Chart trade it. Maybe demo trade it. Maybe dime pip trade it. Backtest it some more and feel really good about it. The moment you turn it on -- what’s going through your mind? You are excited! You are ready to make money! You are primed for success -- you are Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, Michael Jordan all rolled into one!

It doesn’t matter if you are a triple Ph.D. data scientist working on the most complicated market-making algorithm ever or a just a regular Joe retail trader looking to pull some pips from the market. As human beings, we all expect positive results.

And of course, we get the exact opposite. Not only are market conditions different from the backtest or different from the past two weeks of price action, but they are literally transformed into such a challenging environment where every single trade you take turns into a stop.

Suddenly you are 5%-10% in the hole. You a miserable and frantic and teetering on the state of what poker players call “tilt” -- a moment when you lose all rational faculties and start just trading randomly, swinging wildly at the market in a desperate attempt to. Just. Win.

Why?

Because you expected success. Think about it. You are never as vulnerable as when you expect something to happen. It’s almost never the results that kill us psychologically it’s always the expectation. The market, which is the ultimate poker game, knows this very well. The very point of all good poker players and market traders is to psychologically destroy their competition through deception and subterfuge. Once your opponent is defeated mentally it’s a piece of cake to defeat them physically.

So the market, in its very perverse way requires skills that are the opposite of everyday life. To win you actually need to walk into the ring expecting to lose -- because lose you will. Sometimes, like in the current Alice-in-Wonderland market for what may seem like an eternity. And the only way you will survive the pressure is to step into the arena expecting to lose. In the market, the power of negative thinking is the greatest superpower of all. Because if you expect to lose, you will trade small size. You will control your bankroll. You will take every trade. You won’t lift stops.

By expecting to lose, you will do all the right things to win in the long run.

I am always amused by financial planners who ask, “What is your tolerance for risk?” Clients always murmur something like “20%”. Do you know what the real answer is? ZERO. Nobody puts money in the market because they expect to lose -- which is why I am certain that Ma and Pa Main Street who have been brainwashed to buy every dip and hold the ETF forever, will puke up all the gains of the past decade at 50% loss because there will be a time when the market does not come back. Not in a month. Not in a quarter. Not in a year. Not even in a decade and none of them will have the trading skills and the mental strength to understand just what kind of a sucker bet they made.

Oh and by the way, if you still believe in the Horatio-Alger-pull-yourself-by-the-bootstraps-power of-positive-thinking approach let me leave you with this quote from Michael Jordan.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Prop versus Algo – Like Minetta Tavern vs. Mickey Ds?

Boris Schlossberg

This month, after endless prodding from K I went back to prop trading. Surprisingly, it’s going well. Even more surprisingly I don’t hate it. I know, I know -- for the past six months I’ve been screaming that the future of trading is rules-based algos, but trading prop has actually made me appreciate the art of the former as well really clarify the science of the latter.

Let’s agree on one thing. Prop is never going to go away. Human beings will always want to make decisions and furthermore the world of solely algos creates a recipe for disaster as machine choices either bring the markets to a halt (perfect equilibrium) where no trade can make money because all information is instantly factored into price) or worse markets crash with no support in sight -- (2011 anyone?) but this time REALLY NO SUPPORT which could bring the whole system to it knees.

In any case, human judgment will always be a part of markets because markets are ultimately human enterprises. So it’s good to think about how prop differs from algo and more importantly how each approach has vastly different end goals that we need to understand.

This week the Beyond Meat IPO launched to a 150% pop on the first day of trading, so hamburgers are really on my mind. Besides who doesn’t love a burger? Last week in Cali I tried BM burger right next to a “real” one and I really liked it more than meat -- but I will leave the sectarian battle to the food purists. What I want to propose today is that prop versus algo is very much like Minetta Tavern versus McDonalds.

Most of you probably haven’t heard about Minetta Tavern burger, but it is considered to be the best in the city. Again, I have no desire to fight a food war here (I am a guy who actually thought that burgers at Legal Seafood were some of the best I ever tasted, so I will leave my culinary judgment out of it), Instead I want you to think what it takes to prepare a perfect burger at a fancy restaurant. Each patty is carefully selected, checked a hundred times over for proper fat to meat content, individually cooked and dressed and presented to the patron in the most appetizing manner. Furthermore, if any flaw is discovered on the plate, the whole thing is quickly thrown away and a new one is made.

Prop trades are very similar. Each weekend I pour over all the charts, consider the event risk facing me, think about the current sentiment and positioning and try to put three perfectly curated trade ideas “on the plate”. Furthermore, if any of those ideas turn “sour” due to some fresh information in the market, I may decide to scrap the whole thing well before it hits my stop.

Now think about Mickey D’s. They are not trying to produce a great hamburger. They are trying to produce a “good enough” hamburger that they can serve a trillion times. That means that they take a lot of short cuts with their product, but on the other hand, produce the exact same patty in Dubai as in Detroit. No one at Mickey D’s can afford the Hamlet-like hesitation about the “perfect fat texture of their product”. Mickey D’s is looking for success in the aggregate whereas Minetta Tavern is looking for perfection in the particular.

And that ultimately is the difference between prop and rules-based algo.

The biggest problem most traders make is they attempt to turn each Mickey D’s patty into a Minetta tavern masterpiece and that is the road to ruin. Algo trades are not meant to be perfect. That means that they will suck a lot. They will be subject to idiosyncratic wobbles in the market. They will sometimes post six, seven, eight losers in a row -- something that would horrify a prop trader. But that is perfectly normal. As long as your quality control remains in place -- and for algo trades that means that you’ve created the best possible risk-reward structure and have not overleveraged the account in any way -- the long term expectancy will be positive and those pips will pile up.

The one key difference -- and this is perhaps the most important point of all -- pips profits do not pile up like hamburger profits. There probably no business that has less volatility than a McDonalds franchise. By that I mean, there are probably very few MCD franchises in the world that lose money on a daily basis EVER. That, of course, is totally not the case with algo trading. Pips come in batches and often leave in batches and you have to fully be prepared for a very lumpy distribution.

But in the end -- whether you trade prop or algo or both -- KNOW the DIFFERENCES -- it will help you succeed with each approach.

The Only Money Management System that Works in Trading

Boris Schlossberg

By now, everyone should be familiar with the Pareto distribution. Named after an Italian economist from the late 19th century it is colloquially known as the “80-20 rule”. In many disciplines in life, 80% of results come from 20% of factors.

Pareto first noticed the phenomenon with respect to land ownership in Italy where 80% of the land was owned by just 20% of the population. The distribution is not always exact but it is a good general approximation for how things work in real life. The Pareto principle shows up in phenomena as diverse as geography (80% of the population lives in 20% of cities in the US) software (80% of all computer errors in Microsoft products was caused by 20% of bugs) to of course income distribution (where roughly 80% of all assets in the US are owned by 20% of the population).

The Pareto principle is part of the larger structure called power laws and love it or hate it is an inextricable part of life that we need to accept if we are to understand how the secret of success.

Nowhere is the Pareto principle more evident than in financial markets which are the very quintessence of power laws in action with most spoils going to the very few. In trading, the universal truth is that 80% of your profits will come from 20% of your trades, or conversely if you choose to trade like an insurance company 80% of your losses (more like 90% in real life) will come from just 10%-20% of your bets.

This is precisely what makes trading so challenging for most people. It is psychologically impossible to accept losing 8 out of 10 times only to make everything back on just 2 big bets. It’s especially so because after losing 3 or 4 times in a row most traders pass up on a setup -- which inevitably turns out to be the one trade that is the winner that pays for all the losers.

Essentially trading is the art of looking for lottery tickets -- just read the history of any of the great traders from Soros to Tudor Jones to even Jesse Livermore and that fact become obvious.

So how do you create a money management system to accommodate the Pareto principle and at the same time make it psychologically palatable? The only way I know how to achieve that goal is with a short exit/long exit structure or as K and I always call it T1/T2. The idea is to always trade with 2 units. The exit on the 1st unit should be slightly less than the stop and in an ideal world allow you to win 60% of those trades. Then you move the stop on the 2nd unit to breakeven and aim for at least two times risk and maybe even three times risk on the second part of the trade.

This week in my coaching webinar we ran test after test of our trading strategy against a variety of major currency pairs looking at the past 100 trades in each. Inevitably the T2 target was hit between 19%-25% of the time, proving the Pareto principle right.

But!

Although on the face of it such payout odds would seem to be a losing system (run 10 trades with 50 pip stops and 100 pip targets and only win 2 out of 10 times) the blended strategy actually proved to be very profitable.

The reason the T1/T2 strategy worked was that the short exit eliminated about 20% of additional losses. As Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger often say the key to their success is not picking winners, but avoiding as many losers are possible.

The T1/T2 structure offers two key benefits. First it skews the math in your favor making the overall results positive or far less negative because it minimizes the number of losses, but more importantly, it creates a much more human-friendly trading environment by increasing the total number of winning trades.

By the way one final note on our tests this week -- only two out of ten currencies we tested produced positive results that were responsible for the vast majority of the overall pip profit, proving that the Pareto principle operates on the portfolio level just as it does on the single trade level.

There is nothing we can do about power laws in nature, but to accept their presence. But we can survive and thrive in the market environment if we start using the T1/T2 money management system to conquer both Mother Nature and our own behavioral biases.

In Trading Losing is a Feature not a Bug

Boris Schlossberg Uncategorized

One of the best things a trader can do is run the strategy tester function in MT4 on any 1-minute chart. Ideally, you’d like the test result to be positive in the end, not because it will show you how to make money, but because of what it will teach you about the nature of trading.

The one minute chart, as I’ve said many times in the past, is an amazing hack that allows you to look at hundreds of trades over just a few weeks of data. So run the strategy in MT4 and watch the graph dynamically build itself in real time as each trade gets added.

One thing you will never see is a straight 45-degree line running from left to right. There are no regular paychecks in trading, What you will see instead is the equity curve rising 10% in an uninterrupted fashion only to drop back to zero and then below it. You may see that a few times during the lifespan of the strategy and every time that happens more than 90% of you will stop trading the system. Yet in the end, after a few months or a year or even a few, the system could end up being incredibly profitable.

All of us come to trading with an absolutely wrong model of how things work. Sure, we can imagine, one, two maybe even three losses in a row. But after careful study, hard work and discipline we imagine that we can eliminate those mistakes and embark on smooth consistently profitable money making adventure.

Wrong.

To borrow a line from the software business -- losing is a feature, not a bug. In fact, almost all great investors lose or underperform for long stretches of time. Warren Buffett underperformed the market by a whopping 54% in the late 1990s and has had several drawdowns of 40% in his career. Almost no one who tried to copy his trades would have stayed with him through the losing times and yet his long term record is one the best ever.

That’s why the single greatest lesson any trader can learn is not risk management, or strategy selection or market analysis. All of those are crucial to long term success but will be utterly useless unless the trader accepts the fact that stomach-churning losses will never stop.

Here, the Oracle of Omaha can be a useful guide. You can’t make losses disappear, but you can do your best to survive them. To that end Buffet offers two great pieces of advice -- don’t do stupid things and don’t overlever your trades.

Both Buffett and his investing partner Charlie Munger have always claimed that their success came not from making smart choices but mostly from avoiding the dumb ones. If you are running a system and a given instrument is only producing mediocre results -- continuing to trade that instrument on that system is sheer idiocy. There is no guarantee that any of the well-performing instruments will maintain their edge, but there is almost complete certainty that a poorly performing instrument in the past will cause you losses in the future. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule but that’s precisely the point. Strategies are about rules, not exceptions.

Still, the single best advice from Buffett is not to over-leverage. Leverage is the single biggest reason why most retail traders blow up their account. You can survive a lot of adverse market regimes on low leverage but you can’t survive even one mistake on high leverage. That’s why it’s worth it to always start trading with no gearing whatsoever by trading one times equity per trade. The natural leverage of multiple positions will be more than enough to keep you on your toes.

You’ll Never Understand Trading Unless You Read This

Boris Schlossberg

If you’ve run hundreds of backtests over the past few days like I did you come to a startling conclusion.

There are no winning trading systems.

There are only systems that drawdown a little less than they run up.

EVERY SINGLE system you trade will lose money if you trade it long enough and sometimes it will lose a lot.

I call this the Law of Paying the Pip Piper. Basically, the absolute best that you can hope for is that your drawdowns are slightly less or equal to run-ups. So that a system that just made you 300 pips over the past few months will -- as surely as day follows night -- now proceed to lose you 150 to 250 pips over the next few weeks.

Why does this happen? Because market regimes change and every single system is optimized for one or the other set of conditions -- continuity or mean reversion -- or to put in more colloquial terms -- trend or tread. In continuity (trending) markets systems that bet on continuation will thrive. In markets that tread the exact opposite bet pays out. There is only one letter difference between trend and tread but that tiny change is all you need to make a lot of pips or lose them.

Trading is the closest thing we have in the modern world to the natural state of volatility. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors fully appreciated the idea that tomorrow will not at all be like today and more importantly that pleasant comfortable weather will inevitably turn into a miserable multi-week storm or rain and destruction. But the very goal of civilization is to completely annihilate the volatility of everyday life. We built massive furnaces up North which allow us to live in comfortable 65F weather in Sweden and we build massive air conditioning complexes in the south allowing us to do the very same in Las Vegas. We smooth out our income streams through the magic of “salaries” and smooth out our food supply chain through some of the most complex logistics ever imaginable so that it becomes as natural to eat a peach in December as in June regardless of whether it comes from Chile or Georgia. So little wonder that our modern mind, so carefully protected from the vagaries of nature is, so coddled by the myriad of tools of civilization is so ill-equipped to handle trading.

That’s why backtests are so useful. Not because they will provide you with the one answer to true riches. No, they’ll never do that. But they will show us the narrative of the trade. Like time-lapse photography, they will compress thousands of hours of market action into just a couple of minutes of results so that we clearly see how and why we will fail and how and why we will succeed. In short, the backtest will “uncivilize” our minds and open us up to the true nature of the task.

Now lest you think that these principles matter only to us lowly system traders and don’t apply to stock pickers, allow me to tell you about an exchange I had with the great Eddy Elfenbein this year. Eddy runs a great newsletter called Crossing Wall Street and you probably have seen him many times on CNBC’s Trading Nation. He is truly a great stock picker and his newsletter has beaten the S&P many years running. One time Eddy tweeted out about LUV (Southwest Airlines)

“Here’s a long-term chart of Southwest. Note the log y-axis to see how amazing the stock has been. Up 26,600% since 1980. RIP Herb Kelleher.”

I took look at that chart more closely and realized something and responded back to him,

“And yet Eddie it lost 75% of value between 2001-2010 -- that required real belief to hold on.” (This btw was way before its current troubles with Boeing’s 737).
To his credit, Eddy fully acknowledged that point.

So the point is -- if you trade you always have to Pay the Pip Piper -- even if you don’t trade FX.

What Flip or Flop Taught Me About FX Trading

Boris Schlossberg

I have never owned a house. In fact, in more than half a century of being alive I have never held a deed to anything more valuable than a couple of rusted out 1990 Honda Civics. My life has resembled nothing so much than the classic 30 Rock episode where Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, interrogates Tina Fey’s character.

“Lemon, where do you put your money?”
“The bank.”
“What?! What are you -- an immigrant?”
(Guilty as charged)

So it’s no small irony that my one big weakness for TV is HGTV. I haven’t had cable for more than a decade, but when I am on the road, there is nothing I like more than binge-watching home renovation shows. I like the Scott brothers, the ever-chipper Chip and Joanna Gaines and Nicole Harris’s rehab, but I love Tarek and Christina el Moussa the most. (And yes I was heartbroken when they divorced).

There is no greater voyeuristic pleasure than watching Flip or Flop episodes as they go through the struggles of buying dilapidated property and then restoring it to its utmost beauty and value. Each show is a mini-drama that happily kept me glued to the TV screen in many hotel stays.

So I was instantly intrigued when a CNBC clip of Tarek popped up my Twitter feed this week, and like the fanboy that I am, I instantly clicked to watch it. What surprised me however was that in his two and half minute appearance Tarek laid down more trading wisdom than I’ve heard in years from seasoned market pros. Here are some of his pointers.

1. It’s not the exits, it’s the entries.

As Tarek says, “You make your money when you buy the house.” What he means, of course, is that every investment (or trade) is only as good as the price you pay for it. This made me step back and re-examine my own trading systems. The default move of my strategy is to go market when the signal sets up. What if, I wondered, I just laid out limit orders 3 pips under the market for day trades, and 10 pips under the market for swing trades? Would the price run away from me? Turns out that no. In fact, I pick up as much as five extra winning trades per week and for a guy who does more than 100 trades each month, that is a massive, massive edge that I intend to explore.

2. Less positions, more money.

When asked about how many flips he had going at one time Tarek noted that at his peak he was running as many as 74 properties which stressed him to no end. Currently, he runs less than half that amount but his profitability is actually higher.

This is a problem I struggle with all the time. Like everyone else in the FX market, I want -- More! More! More! And yet when I look at my P/L at the end of the week I realize that more strategies actually means more risk.

Did you know that finance academics determined that you can achieve 95% of the benefits of diversification with just 15 stocks? That’s why trading the 30 Dow stocks over the long run pretty much produces the same return as trading 500 stocks in the S&P.

When I look at my basket of algos I realize that just a few medium term swing strategies produce the vast bulk of profits. The rest just keep me glued to the screen and torture me with their seesaw swings in equity.

3. Trading is timing in more ways than one.

As Tarek says, instead of ultra-high-cost projects that could tie up his capital for months or years, he likes the “turn and burn projects” in the 300K-700K range. The risk of the market “shifting” in a long term project is really high and the prospect dead money could be detrimental to your “trading” capital. Much like him I find that the 4 hour chart is the perfect “turn and burn” sweet spot for my algos. The risk is very clearly defined so the drawdowns are bearable, and while the rewards are modest they truly add up as you flip those trades.

Here is the full interview -- hope you enjoy it.

Trade a Strategy Not a Stock

Boris Schlossberg

I’ve said this over and over that if you are not reading Matt Levine’s free daily newsletter you are really not an informed market actor. The man writes so well about so many complex financial issues that his daily missive is often the highlight of my day.

This week in a riff on Bill Gross and the meaning of Alpha, Matt truly outdid himself and I am going to shamelessly quote a very large piece of his note because I think it carries so many important lessons to those of us who switched to algorithmic trading.

Levine writes, “Did Bill Gross generate alpha? Well, and what if he didn’t? What is “alpha”? Often you read that alpha is an investment manager’s return above a benchmark—if the S&P 500 returns 10 percent and a stock manager returns 12 percent, he has added 2 percentage points of alpha—but academics and allocators tend to take a stricter view. If he just bought riskier stocks to get that extra return, that’s not really alpha; he’s not demonstrating any extra skill or “really” outperforming the market.
One stricter approach goes something like this:

1. Look at the manager’s returns over time, and get a rough sense of what he actually did to get those returns.

2. Construct some smallish number of mechanical investing strategies that are sort of similar to what he actually did. These strategies could be as simple as “buy all the stocks in the S&P 500 index” or as complicated as “use an optimal trend-following strategy of buying lookback straddles”; they could involve a passive buy-and-hold approach or constant trading; but the point is that they can be totally specified in advance and a fairly simple robot could carry them out.

3. See how much of the manager’s actual performance could be explained by those mechanical strategies: That is, if you had just replaced the manager with a handful of simple robots programmed to carry out straightforward strategies, how close would the robots have come to his actual performance?

4. If the robots’ performance looks nothing like the manager’s, then you have just chosen the wrong strategies: If there is little correlation between the mechanical strategies and the manager’s results, then that means that the manager is doing something very different from what the robots are doing, and you have learned nothing.

5. If the robots’ performance looks a lot like the manager’s—if the correlation is high—but the manager outperformed the robots, then he is adding alpha: He has demonstrated skill that your simple robots can’t match. His strategy is not as simple as “buy all the stocks” or “buy all the stocks with high book values” or “buy all the stocks that went up yesterday” or anything else that you can fully describe in a sentence; his strategy instead involves buying stocks that are good and not stocks that are bad, based on his own mystical intuition or hard work or whatever.

6. If the robots’ performance looks a lot like the manager’s, but the robots outperformed him, then he has negative alpha. Perhaps this just means that he’s terrible and keeps losing money, but if you’ve come this far that is unlikely to be the explanation. Instead, what is more likely is that he has mostly made money, and has attracted investors and made a name for himself, but the way that he has made money is not primarily through mystical intuition about what stocks to buy. His intuition about what stocks to buy is mostly bad—worse than the robots’ mechanical selection—but his choice of strategies worked out fine. “

Now the money line in this whole long explanation is the very last sentence. “His intuition about what stocks to buy is mostly bad -—but his choice of strategies worked out fine.” Substitute the word currencies for the word stocks and the concept can be applied to any one of us. THIS is the key insight that makes me so excited about algo trading. The beauty of algo trading is that you do not have to make great trades. All you need to do is just make good enough trades -- AS LONG AS YOUR STRATEGY IS THE RIGHT ONE. This now turns you from a trade idea generator to a manager of strategies, which you can then compile into portfolios to make pips something like this.

BK.Systems3.7.2019

Ages ago, when K and I worked for FXCM and ETFs were just becoming mainstream I got excited about the whole idea of “Trade a strategy not a stock.” As usual, I was way ahead of myself, but now, more than a decade and a half later the technology is there and the possibilities for us retail traders are endless.

If You Aren’t Willing to Drink Your Own Pee – Don’t Trade

Boris Schlossberg

“Never depend on those luck moments -- they are gifts -- but instead always build your own back-up plan.”
— Bear Grylls
“Look, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, sometimes you need a bit of luck.”
— Bear Grylls

A trader friend of mine posted these two statements by Bear Grylls on his Facebook feed trying to point out the often contradictory things that people say.

But I looked at those statements as instantly posted, “Moral of the story -- unless you are willing to drink your own pee don’t trade!”

My snark received more a few laughs, but I was actually dead serious.

I am a huge Bear Grylls fan. I’ve watched all the shows. I’ve seen him drink his pee in the desert, swim naked in ice-cold waters of the Arctic and bury himself in the snow to survive the night. Here is the thing. Grylls didn’t do any of these things because he liked them but yet he did them willingly -- more than willingly -- joyfully because he knew that there was a greater psychological truth to his actions that would result in his survival.

Last week I told you I was bitten by some mysterious flu/stomach/norovirus combo that basically had me crawling on the bathroom floor for 24 hours straight.

Now prior that incident I drank 10 cups of coffee per day. That’s about 70 cups of coffee per week.

Ask me how many cups of coffee I had this week?

Two.

Now if you were to tell me two weeks ago that I would be drinking less than one cup of coffee per day and sipping hot water with lemon for the other 20 hours I am awake each day, I would have laughed you out of the room. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t even eat fatty or sugary foods. But the one thing I was certain of was that I was a caffeine addict. And yet here I am perfectly fine. No withdrawal symptoms, no headaches, no irritable behavior and most importantly no coffee. (Sidenote -- wow did I burn a lot of money on coffee!)

Why was it so easy to stop? Because there was a greater psychological truth to my actions. Post my illness my stomach simply can’t handle any irritants at all so giving up coffee was easy because it made me feel good.

Psychological truth ( something that seems true to YOU rather than being objectively true) is the single most overlooked aspect of trading. I realized that last week when I came back from my battle with the germ gods and looked at my trading system with a fresh pair of eyes.

I had designed my systems with the best possible logic and the most robust empirical evidence there was and yet I found myself overriding the system more and more frequently. Why? Because my psychological truth is to take profits early. I don’t care about giving 300 pips of possible profit. I care about not losing the 15 pips of certain gain. There are some traders who love the long ball and some who like to grind it out with base hits. I am definitely the latter type of player.

So instead of trying to fit myself to the system, I decided to see if I could make the system fit me. I asked myself what is the shortest possible take profit that would satisfy me, allowing me to trade the system to trade without interference. Then I adjusted the parameters to make mathematical sense within the new structure. I didn’t make one single change to my logic. I simply adjusted the odds to suit my personal behavior. I aligned the mathematical truth with the psychological truth and the end result was 22 trades without interference and a net positive week at that.

Now I am looking at the longer term time frames with the same mindset, adjusting the edge to fit my personality, rather forcing myself to trade to someone else’s idea of risk stricture. I am pretty certain that next week my longer term strategy will trade much closer to its intended plan. Align the mathematics with your personality and I bet the same will happen to you.