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.

*Good morning/afternoon everyone!* The U.S. dollar is trading lower against most of the major currencies this morning as risk appetite improves after yesterday’s brutal selling. Stock futures are up, helping to bolster pairs like EUR/USD and USD/JPY. However as we begin the NY session, the decline in Treasury yields could also tip the scale and push USD/JPY lower. Yen crosses on the other hand will take their cue from stocks today. The currency most vulnerable to weakness is the Canadian dollar because oil prices are down more than 2% after President Trump tweeted that he hopes Saudi Arabia and OPEC will not cut oil production because he thinks oil prices should be much lower based on supply. Despite a softer Eurozone ZEW survey, EUR/USD is trading above 1.1250 on the hope that progress could be made on the Italian budget front. the expectations component of the ZEW surely also increased. The best performing currency this morning is sterling which is up on higher wages (despite a higher unemployment rate) and continued Brexit optimism. On the Brexit front, we are getting closer to a deal but with some counterproductive headlines, traders are still reluctant to overload sterling positions but when an announcement is made, we can almost be assured that there will be a strong followup rally. AUD and NZD are also up from yesterday but having risen strongly in Asian trade, they are mostly consolidating and even weakening slightly. We also have our eyes on the Swiss Franc which appears to be topping below 1.0130. *The MAIN THEMES I see today are* +EUR +CHF -CAD -JPY *Trading Biases* +EUR, +CHF, +GBP, -CAD, -JPY mildly +AUD, +NZD, -USD *Today’s Initial Trades* Here’s the summary – 1. Buy EURCAD at 1.4885, Stop at 1.4857, Target 1.4912 2. Buy EURUSD at 1.1247, Stop at 1.1219, Target 1.1275 3. Buy AUDCAD at .9531, Stop at .9503, target .9559 4. Sell AUDCHF at .7270, Stop at .7298, Target .7242

Swing

*Good morning/afternoon everyone!*

The U.S. dollar is trading lower against most of the major currencies this morning as risk appetite improves after yesterday’s brutal selling. Stock futures are up, helping to bolster pairs like EUR/USD and USD/JPY. However as we begin the NY session, the decline in Treasury yields could also tip the scale and push USD/JPY lower. Yen crosses on the other hand will take their cue from stocks today. The currency most vulnerable to weakness is the Canadian dollar because oil prices are down more than 2% after President Trump tweeted that he hopes Saudi Arabia and OPEC will not cut oil production because he thinks oil prices should be much lower based on supply. Despite a softer Eurozone ZEW survey, EUR/USD is trading above 1.1250 on the hope that progress could be made on the Italian budget front. the expectations component of the ZEW surely also increased. The best performing currency this morning is sterling which is up on higher wages (despite a higher unemployment rate) and continued Brexit optimism. On the Brexit front, we are getting closer to a deal but with some counterproductive headlines, traders are still reluctant to overload sterling positions but when an announcement is made, we can almost be assured that there will be a strong followup rally. AUD and NZD are also up from yesterday but having risen strongly in Asian trade, they are mostly consolidating and even weakening slightly. We also have our eyes on the Swiss Franc which appears to be topping below 1.0130.

*The MAIN THEMES I see today are*

+EUR
+CHF
-CAD
-JPY

*Trading Biases*

+EUR, +CHF, +GBP,
-CAD, -JPY
mildly +AUD, +NZD, -USD

*Today’s Initial Trades*

Here’s the summary --

1. Buy EURCAD at 1.4885, Stop at 1.4857, Target 1.4912
2. Buy EURUSD at 1.1247, Stop at 1.1219, Target 1.1275
3. Buy AUDCAD at .9531, Stop at .9503, target .9559
4. Sell AUDCHF at .7270, Stop at .7298, Target .7242

What Stock Traders Can Teach Currency Traders

Boris Schlossberg

All of my investment money is run by @HedgeFundGirl -- not only because she the best stock picker I have ever seen, but because she knows how to put together an intelligent portfolio. Whenever I check the statements I am always surprised at how many losing positions there are on the books and yet how she is able to make money and beat my FX returns every single month and every year that we’ve been married.

Try our Forex Trading Signals and Trading Club for:

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Portfolio management is one the best lessons that stock traders can teach currency traders. Most of us in the FX land are used to basically following the prop model -- one trade at a time win or lose -- then count your pips at the end of the month. But constructing a portfolio of trades to diversify your bets can open up a whole new way of looking at the market.

A recent New York Times article about diversification put it best -- if you are not perpetually pissed off, you are doing it wrong. The portfolio approach to trading basically assumes that you will always be losing on part of your positions. The underlying philosophy of the portfolio approach is based on humility.

The portfolio trader assumes at the outset that he does not know which bets will pay off and therefore makes a multitude of them, hoping that when the dust settles the winners will outrun the losers. Instead of serially picking his trades, the portfolio manager will spread the risk (and yes possibly dilute the return) in order to dampen drawdown.

For forex traders the portfolio approach is especially interesting when applied to algorithmic trading. If you are running the same strategy on multiple pairs then you are in fact practicing the portfolio method. However, quantitatively based currency traders often commit a very serious sin. They love to over-optimize their strategies creating very different entry and exit parameters for each currency pair.

But portfolio trading is not like prop trading. It’s kind of like the difference between team and individual sports. ( I can still hear my football coach yelling, “There is no “I” in team boys!”)
What may in retrospect be good for one currency pair may not be good for the portfolio as a whole.

The truth of the matter is that if you change the strategy parameters on one currency pair you are in fact over or under weighting that pair relative to all others and that creates a whole set of risk factors that you may not have anticipated. That’s why when trading algorithmically, its best to give equal weight (i.e. same entry/exit rules) for all the currency pairs -- because after all you really don’t know which ones will succeed and which will fail.