Monday, December 18, 2006

Three Pieces of Trading Wisdom

Over the years, I've been the fortunate recipient of much good trading advice and wisdom from those far more experienced in the markets than me. Here are three gems that have stood me in good stead in up markets, down ones, and everything in between:

1) Focus on being profitable for the week - Individual trades may go against you and individual trading days can offer little opportunity. As a senior trader once explained to me, for the active trader, however, there are enough fresh opportunities in a week to make it reasonable to set a goal of being profitable for the week. You won't reach your goal every single week, but the mere act of setting the goal keeps you focused. For example, you don't want to lose so much money in a single day that you can't make it back during the other days of the week. You also don't want to lose so much money on a single trade that you can't come back during the remainder of the day. When you really push yourself to be profitable every week, you don't let individual days get away from you. And when you don't let individual days get away from you, you start managing each trade carefully to ensure that your largest loss won't exceed your largest gain. Time and again I've seen a consistent sign of progress among developing traders: they stop digging themselves into holes.

2) Take what the market gives you - Today I peeled out of several short positions after a spate of very negative TICK readings in the afternoon. I've learned that such concentrated selling often precedes nasty short-covering rallies. My S&P position hadn't made as much profit as my NASDAQ and Russell positions, but the market doesn't care about that. I took what the market gave me and started the week green. Did the market go down even further after I exited? Absolutely. As one experienced trader explained to me, when the market rewards your position right off the bat, you want to take something off the table. You might let a piece of your position ride if you have a longer-term opinion, but never give green a chance to become red. A winner that turns into a loser is a double loss.

3) Always have something to "lean on" - Scalpers will notice heavy and persistent selling at a certain tick, accompanied by large offers in the order book. They'll lean on that information to find a good entry to sell the market. If the offers disappear from the book or if new buyers start lifting those offers in size, they can get out quickly. Knowing you have something to lean on, however, allows you to ride out the noise between entry and exit. As long as what you're leaning on doesn't vanish, you stay with your idea. Today I leaned on the inability of the Russell to make new highs on Friday. When we got some morning buying, but could not break above the early AM highs (and also above Friday's highs), I added to my shorts and vowed to stay short unless we broke the highs with expanded buying. Leaning on the pattern of Russell weakness enabled me to stick with a good trade idea during a choppy morning.

So let's restate the pieces of wisdom in reverse order:

1) Before you put your capital at risk, have a well-formed trade idea;
2) When your idea pays you out quickly, take some profits;
3) Don't get caught up in individual trades; focus on profitability over a series of trades and days.

I know, I know. These things sound ridiculously simple. But it's only been in the last couple of years that I can look myself in the mirror and say that I'm doing all three consistently. The spinning reverse dunks get the attention in basketball; the long touchdown pass makes the evening replays; and the big winning trades are the ones we like to talk about. The greater part of success, however, boils down to Xs and Os on the basketball court; blocking and tackling on the football field; and following basic fundamentals about framing and managing trades. It may not be sexy to execute on the fundamentals, but it gets the job done day after day and builds a career.