Friday, November 07, 2008

Learning to Win at Trading by Learning to Lose

One of the fascinating conclusions of the research I posted yesterday is that traders learn by trading; that it is the number of trades placed--not the amount of time spent trading--that best predicts success in markets. That same research, however, finds that there is a very high attrition rate among traders; the most common learning that occurs in markets, quite literally, is that traders find out that they can't make money at what they're doing.

So we have a catch: traders need to learn by trading, but they also need to preserve their capital as they traverse their learning curves.

As I stressed in the Trader Performance book, much of learning in trading is pattern recognition. If that is the case, than it may be the frequency and intensity of exposure to patterns--and not the trading itself--that facilitates learning. This very much fits with my experience that traders can accelerate the development of competence by engaging in simulated trading (with live data) and by reviewing their trading via video. "Any techniques that you use in trading--whether for money management, self-control, or pattern recognition--require frequent repetition before they will become an ongoing part of your repertoire" (Psychology of Trading, p. 154).

Traders drop out of markets, perhaps not because they lack talent, but because they fail to achieve the necessary repetitions to internalize skills prior to depleting their capital.

They also fail because, even with repeated trading, they do not have a system for reviewing their performance, setting goals for improvement, intensively working on goals, and holding themselves accountable for those. Instead of a week's worth of experience, they repeat a single day's learning five times over.

The research cited yesterday, as well as this interesting study, suggest that an important component of learning to trade is learning to avoid behavioral biases in taking profits and losses. The traders who lose their disposition to sell winners early and hold onto losers are those that tend to be most successful. Ironically, turning loss-taking into routine behavior may be one of the most important learned skills in the evolution of a trader's success. The key is staying small enough, long enough to learn from the experience of losing.