Sunday, October 25, 2020

Are You Taking Enough Risk In Your Trading?

This is going to be a little technical, but please bear with me.  It is super important to your trading.

Imagine a variable that captures danger at one end of the spectrum and opportunity at the other.  Now imagine that life offers most of us a relatively normal distribution of dangers and opportunities, such that we mostly experience small risk and small opportunities in day-to-day life, but once in a great while encounter very large dangers and very large opportunities.  Such a normal distribution of outcomes looks like this when we plot it:

In such an idealized model, we encounter really large dangers roughly 2% of the time and really large opportunities similarly.  Over two-thirds of the time, we're dealing with modest opportunities and dangers.

Odds of 2% seem quite low, but over an annual period, we're likely to encounter a handful of really big risks and really big rewards.  On over 240 of those days, there will be no truly great opportunities or dangers.

Sounds a lot like trading, doesn't it?  

The personality trait of extroversion tends to be associated with risk-seeking.  To some degree, the trait of openness to experience also plays into risk appetite.  Think of a skier who goes after the largest mountains and steepest slopes.  That person is focused at the far right end of the continuum, seeking to capture the greatest opportunities.  Of course, in extreme sports as in trading, seeking those rare huge opportunities can also entail taking significant risks. 

The personality trait of conscientiousness is associated with risk-prudence.  The highly conscientious driver will not exceed the speed limit on highways and will only ski the safest slopes.  That person will generally never have the thrills of extreme sports, but will rarely have bone-crushing accidents.

OK, now we get to the juicy part:

Early in our development as traders, risk-prudence is paramount.  We cannot win the game unless we stay in the game.  At firms where I work, such as SMB Capital, the initial goal is not to become a hugely profitable trader.  The goal is to become a consistently profitable trader.  In skiing terms, the consistently profitable trader is one who can master small hills, then somewhat larger hills, then small mountains, etc.  It is the repetition of success--the consistency of successful experience--that builds confidence and inner security.

Imagine if we were simply risk-seeking and began our trading career by placing large bets.  Inevitably we would also encounter large losses and that would shatter our development of confidence and inner security.  (Recognize that, in trading, risk is relative to the size of our portfolios.  If I limit my daily losses to $1000, that may seem like modest risk-taking, but not if I'm trading a $10,000 account!)

The path toward becoming a highly profitable trader is first becoming a consistently profitable traderIt is consistency of process, mindset, and selection of opportunity that provides us with the emotional capital to go after larger rewards.  I cannot emphasize this too highly.

However, there is a danger that the comfort and security of being consistently profitable can lead us to never go after those larger rewards.  Think of an entrepreneur.  The successful new enterprise requires consistent profitability, but what if the entrepreneur never takes the larger risks of opening new stores, developing new products, or forming new partnerships?  The entrepreneur might end up as a profitable local businessperson, and that might be fine for them, but they will never grow the kind of business that they could eventually take public.

In becoming that consistent trader, we can so emphasize conscientiousness that we never take the greater risks that are associated with larger rewards.  In poker, it would be like being dealt three aces and still placing modest bets.  Once in a while, life--and markets--present us with those 2+ standard deviation opportunities that come along 2% of the time.  When we stand aside on those occasions, we ensure that we will never reap great rewards.

So there it is:  greatness, in any endeavor, is a distinctive blending of general risk-prudence and selective risk-seeking.  Greatness is staying in the game, adapting, and winning--and then pouncing on occasional unique opportunitiesThe mindset of consistent winning is what provides the resilience of big winning.

Now you see why I emphasize trading psychology methods that increase our access to intuition and implicit knowing.  Very, very often, it is that intuitive knowing that alerts us to the larger opportunities, those 2% of occasions when we're meant to take larger swings.  Consistent trading will not help us if we do not also cultivate consistent openness of mind.  Most of the time, the military sniper lies in the weeds and takes little to no risk.  But once in a while, the high value target appears and it's worth taking the shot that may alert the enemy.  The mindset while in the weeds is calm focus and patience, but also extreme openness to and readiness for the high value opportunity.  

So much of the challenge of trading psychology is the challenge of sniping:  blending consistency of shooting and the patience of waiting with the aggressiveness of taking the risks associated with special opportunities.  Once you have learned and mastered the patterns associated with consistently profitable trading, it's time to master the intuitive knowing that alerts us to the greatest rewards.  In my next video, I'll outline a method for cultivating and acting upon this knowing.

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