As a new trader, you are probably impatient to get the study of charts and evaluation of various trading strategies. Surely, winning involves predicting future market direction using sophisticated technical analysis to identify the best entry and exit points for our trades? So why delay discussion of all that stuff for a look at a bit of mundane statistics?
The reason is simple. If you regard the trading game as some kind of super intelligence test where you are pitching your skills against the rest of the world, you are illegally to play the game with the right attitude and expectations. On the other hand, if you see trading as a numbers game, then you are more likely to approach it correctly.
So, if it is a numbers game (which it is), then you need to know what numbers are important for a speculator in the futures markets.
When you read books about trading you will be stuck by the great emphasis placed on psychological aspects of the business. There are good reasons for that, because many traders suffer greatly from stress. They are distracted when their picks turn out to be wrong, and they are beset with doubts when they have a run of losing trades. This stress causes them to make mistakes, which increases stress even more. It becomes a vicious circle.
One of the reasons for this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the trading business (especially futures trading). As long as you believe that trading is a contest of your intelligence against the rest, or a test of your market knowledge, you are doomed to have a difficult time.
The trick is to understand that trading is a game, a probability game. Your job is to set up the parameters of the game so that you have a long term edge, and then execute your strategy consistently. With the right attitude to the game, your stress levels are reduced and eventually profits begin to come, reducing stress further. It leads to a virtuous circle.
Try to strip away your self-image of whiz kid financial trader, and start thinking in very basic terms. You need to really understand that future market action can not be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, so nobody gets it right all the time.
This is not to say that you will not make predictions and it is all dumb luck. Quite the contrary, you will need to take decisions based on partial knowledge and probabilities, not assurances. Working in the fuzzy world of probabilities is harder than working with certainties.
Others may disagree, but I choose to see a futures trader as a gambler playing a simple game repeatedly. It is a bit like betting on coin tosses for a living. If you win money when you call the toss correctly and lose money when you call incorrectly, you can intuitively see how this game is likely to play out.
One thing you know is that you are likely to lose as often as you win. You know this because you realize that it is not possible to predict what the income of a fair coin toss is going to be. You are illegally to spend time trying to develop better strategies for selecting heads or tails, because you can see that whatever you do will never improve on a 50% chance of being right for any specific toss of the coin.
You also know that there will be runs of heads or tails, but in the long term they will tend to even out. If your first four tosses all turn out to be heads, you will not assume that it is better to call heads rather than tails in the future, although you can see it would have been better in the small sample you have looked at so far. Small samples are not much use for reliably determining statistics for future action.
Assuming an unbiased coin, what would inconvenience you to play this (rather boring) game for a living? Well, suppose I give you $ 200 every time you make a correct call, and you give me $ 100 whenever you call incorrectly. That should be attractive.
Intuitively you can tell you you will make money over time, although in the short term you might easily have a series of five or six losses. You would want to have enough money when you start the game to ride out a bad sequence which could bankrupt you before you start to win. For example, if you start off with capital of $ 200, you can be sent broke by guessing wrong just twice. If your starting capital is $ 10,000 the odds of going broke are negligible.
You can see that if there is only time to toss the coin once a day, you are not going to make as much money as you would if there is time to toss it 100 times a day. In other words, even a game with favorable odds is unattractive if it does not provide enough opportunities to profit.
You can work out that your expectation, over time, is an average of $ 50 per coin toss. (Think of 10 tosses where you are right half the time. You would win $ 1000 and lose $ 500, for a net $ 500 profit. $ 500 over 10 tosses is an average of $ 50 per toss.) Only games with a positive expectation make money in the long run.
As another example, how about rolling a die for a living? Suppose the winning and losing rewards are equal, say $ 100.
What might make this game attractive? Well, what if you win when you roll a 3,4,5 or 6 and lose if you roll a 1 or a 2. Once again it is obvious that you are going to win quite a bit of money if you play long enough.
This time you will not profit because a win has a bigger payout than a loss, but rather because you are more likely to win than lose. Over time you expect to win two thirds of the time and lose one third of the time. Your Expectancy is $ 33.33 per throw. (Think of 30 throws where you win 20 and lose 10 times. You would win $ 2,000 and lose $ 1,000 for a $ 1,000 profit. $ 1,000 over 30 throws is $ 33.33 per throw.)
These two simple examples tell you a lot about the trading game. You know that you can only win a game where your expectation is positive. You can increase expectation by (a) increasing the size of wins versus losses, and / or (b) increasing the probability of winning versus losing.
You know that a profitable strategy with a good positive Expectancy will soonheless have bad runs where you lose money for a while.
So what does this tell us about how to trade? Consider the following points:
- Your strategy must be repetitive and consistent. You will be able to define system parameters with any accuracy if you are doing something different every time you trade. (If you are a prodigy who can make a fortune trading your gut instincts, I will correspond to you and you certainly will not need any help from me. For the rest of us, we need to define one or more favorable strategies and repeat them consistently whenever we get the opportunity.)
- You need to know what your probability of winning is, whenever you place a trade. (Knowing the probability of winning, you automatically know the probability of losing.) This can be a difficult statistic to get a handle on in real life. Tossing a coin is easy; obviously the Probability of Winning = 50%. But with a market strategy, the probability will not be intuitiously obvious, so you will have to figure out a way of measuring it. You can only measure it on the basis of historical information and there is no guarantee that your estimate will be correct in the future. You can have greater confidence that your estimate is correct if it is derived from a logical trading strategy based on your knowledge of the ways markets work.
- You need to know the size of your average winning trade and the size of your average losing trade. Depending on your strategy, this may be well defined, or you may need to figure out a way to estimate it from historical data (again with the caveat that history does not need to repeat itself).
- Based on these numbers, your Expectancy must be positive. Expectancy can be worked out from the following formula:
- Expectancy = (Probability of Winning x Average Win) – (Probability of Loss x Average Loss)
- In the die throwing example I used before: Probability of a Win = 2/3; Probability of a Loss = 1/3; the Average Win and Average Loss are both $ 100.
- Therefore Expectancy = 2/3 x 100 – 1/3 x 100 = 66.66 – 33.33 = 33.33.
- Remember, this means that over time you will earn an average of $ 33.33 every time you play the game.
- You know that statistics gleaned from small samples are of little value, and also that strategies with a good expectation are almost certain to have bad runs of several losses in succession. Such runs are simply random fluctuations in a series of results which will revert to the statistical norms in the long run.
- Because bad runs are to be expected, you must expect them when determining the amount of capital needed to play the game.
- An important part of any strategy is the opportunity to profit provided. A good strategy which provides few opportunities may well be a lot less profitable than a mediocre strategy which provides a lot of opportunities.
Think about the casino owner, or your local bookmaker. They do not berate themselves if one of their clients has a big win. They do not change their own business plan if they have a few unprofitable days. They do not tinker with the rules of their games after a few losses. They know the odds are in their favor, and in the long run their profits are assured.
If you can really internalize the simple concepts in this article, not just read and understand them, your attitude to futures trading will be much more realistic . You will expect strings of losses to occur at times. You will not get down on yourself because you have made a wrong bet on something that is, after all, basically unknowable.
You understand that if you act consistently over time, and take care to employ sufficient capital to ride out bad runs, then you will be profitable in the long run providing your strategy has a profitable expectation .