Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Most Important Reason Traders Can't Size Up Their Positions

It's really true:  confidence doesn't come from success alone, but rather from facing failure and moving beyond it.  When you've been tested and tested and tested again, you begin to recognize that the tests are what make you stronger.  They provide the opportunity of learning, not merely the threat of loss.

But many traders fail to look fear in the face.  They chronically undersize positions in an effort to prevent major losses.  When their ideas work out, however, their undersizing also prevents major gains.  Over time, those traders are nagged by the sense that they have skill, learning, and an edge in markets, but are not taking proper advantage of their strengths.

So they come to me and ask for help in risk-taking.  They want to size up positions, but can't bring themselves to do it.  It's too scary to look fear in the face, so they settle on quick glances.

Why is this?  Why are some very talented traders unable to take optimal advantage of their talents?

I recently met with a group of traders and reviewed their journals.  Most of the journal entries were very detailed, suggesting hard work and desire to improve.  The entries went through the trades they put on, how those trades went, and what they could have done better to manage the positions. Sometimes the journal entries also spoke of missed opportunities and positions sized too large or taken in the absence of a clear signal.

My first reaction was that these journals are a waste of time.  They outline problems, but don't contain any detailed plans for correcting those problems.

But I was wrong.  The journals were worse than a waste of time.  They were killing the traders.

Look at it this way:  Suppose I kept a detailed journal of your life and wrote down everything you did wrong, as well as the things you could have done better.  Better yet, imagine approaching a young son or daughter in this manner.  What would be the result?

Damaged self-confidence.

If you keep harping on what you do wrong, why would you internalize a sense of opportunity and achievement?  If all you focus on is what you could have done better, eventually you'll believe that all you can do is fall short.  A good sports coach or military leader knows when to praise and when to criticize: when to build up and when to tear down.  Without the building up, all we do is tear down.

So what happens?  We make money but internalize the sense of "could have done better".  What we don't internalize is confidence.  We're never on the front foot when taking risk because we've programmed ourselves to expect shortcoming.

Take a look at your trading reviews and journals.  Do they inspire?  Do they focus on specific learning and achievement, or are they simply ventings of frustration and things that didn't go as well as possible?  Many, many traders are not working on their trading at all.  They are working on tearing themselves down.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Turning Our Goals Into Commitments

One of our great vulnerabilities is that our intentions tend to be mood dependent.  When we've just lost money and are in a remorseful state of mind, we vow to correct our errors and stick to our best practices.  Then, the remorse gives way to curiosity and excitement and we forget our resolution.  We allow our new moods to create different intentions--and different action patterns.  True discipline means acting in a consistent manner regardless of mind state.  That requires commitment.  If we are truly committed to losing weight and getting in shape, we get to the gym no matter what time of day it is or what the weather is like.  When we are committed to self-improvement, we don't rest on our laurels when things are going well.  As Mike Bellafiore recently pointed out, we use positive performance the same way we use negative performance:  as a source of learning and development.

Commitment is something we do, not something we have.  The religious person starts each day in prayer; the basketball team meets each day for practice and conditioning; the world-class trader searches for opportunities and re-searches sources of new opportunities.  These are routines sustained by a sense of urgency and importance.  They are not mood-dependent because the sense of urgency transcends the moods of the moment.  I might not feel like going to the gym and eating a healthy meal, but if I know the health of my heart depends on those actions after I've just had a heart attack, my feeling state of the moment becomes irrelevant.  

Traders focus on setting goals to further their development, but goals by themselves lack power unless they are backed by urgency and are fueled by commitment.  If I deeply love my wife and am filled with gratitude for the many things she has brought to my life, I can be in a funk and yet still want to do things for her and with her.  If I urgently desire to win the next game, I'll shrug off my tiredness and push myself and my teammates in practice to take us to the next level.  Show me your daily routine, and I'll show you your commitments.  If it's in your heart, it will be in your calendar; if it's in your calendar, it will become an intrinsic part of you.  Our activities express our character and shape it.

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

Four Important Trading Insights

Here are a few valuable insights I've gathered from my recent work with skilled, successful traders:

1)  What you trade is as important as how you trade:  The successful traders are trading instruments that move in meaningful ways and that capture their best ideas.  That means trading instruments that show the right kind of movement, and it means expressing your ideas through positions that offer the best risk/reward.  The successful traders have many ways to capture ideas:  many time frames, many instruments (stocks, futures, options), many markets.

2)  Balance matters:  When trading gets difficult, it's often the traders most passionate about trading--who devote most of their waking hours to trading--that are most vulnerable.  It's easiest to see markets clearly when trading fits into your life, not when you are frantically fitting your life into trading.  The goal is to have a happy, fulfilling life no matter what markets or P/L are doing.

3)  The best trading ideas come to you:  So much of trading boils down to real time pattern recognition.  You see many things, and you see them line up, and the idea comes to you that the market is making a top or bottom, that the momentum move will continue, etc.  Finding the good trade means shutting down the ego, emptying the mind, and becoming receptive to insight.  If you are actively *trying* to make money and thinking about how much you're making or losing, you fill your mind with outcome-thinking, which crowds out the process focus.

4)  Develop a higher cause:  I hear traders fretting over losing trades, getting frustrated and losing discipline and focus because of missed opportunities.  Chill.  There are people with real problems in the world: their homes flooding, their lives in jeopardy, their futures uncertain--in Houston, in Florida.  I've been impressed with traders who are strongly grounded in their religion.  Of course they don't like making trading mistakes, but they don't let the most recent trades dictate their moods or perspectives.  Perspective is the most powerful psychological tool of all.

When we develop relationships with other dedicated, successful traders, we build role models.  We learn from their experience, accelerate our development, and contribute meaningfully to the growth of others.  Trading goes best when it is yoked to rewards (intellectual fulfillment and challenge; committed teamwork) that are independent of the most recent trading results.

Further Reading:  The Power of Doing Nothing
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Saturday, September 02, 2017

Overcoming Perfectionism in Trading

A reader recently asked the question of how to overcome perfectionism in trading.  Like many traders, the reader recognized that the quest for perfection was actually demoralizing him and leading him to trade worse and worse. Trying to buy the bottom tick and sell the top, he was missing trades. Losing money, he became his own worse critic.  Even when he made money, he found himself focusing on how he could have made even more by holding a little longer, sizing a little larger, etc. Slowly, perfectionism was stressing him out and interfering with his trading.

Sound familiar?  It's a fine line between being success-driven and achievement oriented and being perfectionistic.  We want to keep pushing forward, but at some point the push becomes part of a problem, not a solution.

There are two keys to understanding perfectionism:

1)  It is a way of talking to ourselves;
2)  It is a way of channeling anger and frustration.

The perfectionist is channeling anger inwardly, looking at the gap between the real (actual performance) and ideal (possible performance) and becoming frustrated at that gap.  That is why so much perfectionistic thinking is of the "should" variety:  you *should* have held the trade longer; you *should* have been sized larger; you *should have taken the trade; you *shouldn't* have taken the trade.  It's all frustrated self-talk.

As I discuss in my books, we generally possess enough social sensitivity that we would *never* consider talking to a friend or colleague in the tone we use with perfectionistic self-talk.  We would never get in some one else's face and tell them all the things they *should* and *could* have done better.  We would recognize right away that there is no constructive value in such talk.  It doesn't help anyone move forward.

That is the key point to recognize:  there is nothing constructive about perfectionism.  It's self-abusive; it doesn't move us forward.  It's a dumping of anger, not an effort to learn from mistakes.

Once the trader recognizes that the problem is not their trading, but their way of thinking about their trading, then they can begin the work of recognizing the frustration in real time, interrupting the perfectionistic thoughts, and introduce self-talk that is more similar to talk one would do with valued friends and colleagues.  

In practice, the sequence looks like:  "OK, I just lost money and I'm feeling frustrated.  I can feel myself getting caught up in *should* thinking.  That is the same perfectionism that has stressed me out and hurt my decisions.  I might have made a mistake, but I don't deserve having anger dumped on me.  Before I take my next trade, I'm going to review what might have gone wrong with the last trade and see if I can learn anything from it that will help the next trade.  I refuse to keep talking to myself in a harmful way!"

Many times, keeping a cognitive journal is a great way of structuring this process and developing new, constructive habit patterns.  The Daily Trading Coach book describes this journaling in detail; see also the reading below.  Once we become aware of the *consequences* of negative thought patterns, we can truly *regret* them, and build a determination to not repeat them.  It is very healthy to focus on self-improvement:  we move ourselves forward when we try to become better.  We shut ourselves down when we demand more.

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Turning Trading Anxiety Into Growth

Here is a powerful psychological technique that I learned from a wise therapist I saw when I was in graduate school.

Identify clearly what makes you nervous, uneasy, fearful, or anxious.  Typically, those will be situations that you find yourself avoiding.  Anxiety is a form of psychological pain. No one likes pain, and so it's often easiest to avoid the situations that make us uncomfortable.

A good trading example would be bumping up your trading size and hence your risk-taking.  You've been doing well in different market conditions and would like to take greater advantage of your edge in markets.  Increasing the size of your trades, however, will increase the P/L swings for each trade, each day, and each week.  That is not necessarily comfortable.  So we may find ourselves making excuses, avoiding the situation that makes us nervous.

The therapist I met with in Kansas specialized in dream interpretation, so much of our discussion centered on my dreams from the past week.  One dream was that I was on a playground, climbing a tall slide.  At the top of the slide was a lever.  You could set the lever anywhere from 1-10.  I realized that the setting would determine how fast you went down this large slide.  I decided to be prudent in the dream and selected a "5" setting.  

Now I should mention that the issue that brought me to therapy was feeling "blah" in my life.  I didn't feel all that much excitement about what I was doing and felt that the resulting malaise was keeping me from doing my best in all situations, from school work to relationships.

The therapist quickly perceived that the dream image of the slide with the lever was a creative metaphor for my life at the time.  I was going down the slide, but keeping my descent safe and predictable.  Perhaps it was time to try a higher setting on the slide.

That's when the therapist offered a keen perspective.  She said that, if you're not a person with an actual pathological anxiety disorder, your fears point the way toward your growth.  We grow by embracing and pursuing what makes us anxious.  The reason for this is that we always grow by extending our boundaries, by going beyond our natural comfort zones.  Whenever we forge new territory and push our self-defined limits, that's scary, that's the unknown.  

The implication is profound:  we tend to avoid what makes us uncomfortable, and our discomfort tends to occur in those areas where we most need to grow.  If you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding, nervously setting your life's challenges at a comfortable "5", those are the areas to pursue. In mastering those fears, we find the person we're meant to be.

And the ride down life's slide becomes a helluva lot more fun.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Power of Regret in Trading

One of the more fascinating phenomena in trading psychology is that traders will trade poorly, miss opportunities, and lose money--and then they will proceed to do exactly the same things the next day and the next week. Finally, hurting from the losses, they seek psychological assistance.  But is the problem primarily one of psychology?

A close look finds that traders commonly respond to losses in two ways:  

1)  As frustrating events, inevitable but difficult to experience and important to move beyond;
2)  As mistakes, to be noted and learned from.

Not uncommonly, traders will respond in the first way and then transition to the second in order to put losses and missed opportunities behind them.

Then, having placed the experience behind them, the traders repeat the exact same behaviors!

Why?  Haven't they done the right things, psychologically?

Let's imagine a different situation.  Suppose you unwittingly hurt the feelings of someone you love and damage their reputation.  Or suppose you are entrusted with the care of young children and feed them improperly, causing great and painful illness.  How would you respond?  Would you simply deal with it as an annoying, frustrating event?  Of course not. Would you respond by merely keeping a journal and jotting down a lesson to be learned?  I don't think so.

If you truly hurt people you cared for, you would feel deeply guilty.  You would be overcome with regret and you would beg their forgiveness.  You would not deal with the situation as a mere psychological issue.  You would respond to it spiritually: as something profoundly wrong requiring repentance.  You would be unlikely to repeat the hurtful situations, because your sense of regret would sear into your heart and mind a commitment to be more aware and sensitive in the future.

We commonly view guilt as a negative emotion to be overcome.  We view "guilt trips" as things to be avoided.  It is not by coincidence, however, that all major religions incorporate the ideas of sin, guilt, and atonement.  It is also not by coincidence that programs such as AA emphasize moral inventories and making amends for the damage created by addiction.  We don't change because we're frustrated by a behavior, and we don't change because we treat that behavior as an error.  We change because we feel horror, regret, and disgust at what we've done and the damage we've created.  We move on, not by minimizing our behavior, but by fully connecting with the consequences of that behavior and then proceeding, in all sincerity, toward forgiveness.  

Alcoholics who hurt their health, hurt their friends, hurt their career opportunities, and hurt their spouses and children--and who don't view all that with absolute regret and an absolute desire to change--those are alcoholics at risk for relapse.  Traders who lose their money, miss opportunities in life and in markets, who fail to support families that count on them--and who don't look at that with a deep feeling of guilt and responsibility--those are the traders who will continue the error of their ways.

All the psychological techniques in the world can't help someone who doesn't perceive and deeply feel the need for transformation.  Pain alerts us to a situation in our body that needs to be evaluated and treated.  In that context, pain is an important part of health.  Guilt and regret are pain of the spirit. They are telling us we have been on the wrong path. That can be a very constructive element in our development.

Further Reading:


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Monday, August 21, 2017

The Unappreciated Reason Hard Working Traders Underperform

I recall a trader who was struggling with his trading, getting out of winning trades too early and letting losing trades run. His coach worked with him tirelessly to keep daily journals and track his discipline.  Amazingly, the more he worked on his "process", the more erratic his trading became. Eventually he could not sustain his career and went into other work.  It was one of the first times I had seen coaching directly lead to a trader's demise.

The problem was that the trader was placed on a strict risk management regimen.  Essentially he had a mandate to make money, but lose very little.  This tight regime led him to trade increasingly short term to limit his losses.  That short term horizon did not allow him to meaningfully participate in the bigger picture ideas he generated.  On the few occasions in which he did try to faithfully follow his research, he drew down before the position ultimately worked out and had to stop out prematurely. That compounded his frustration. 

Quite simply, the trader's strength was as a big picture thinker and investor.  He was given a mandate to be a trader and that took him out of the zone of his strengths. Journaling and rigidly adhering to a process that did not capture his strengths only served to block and frustrate those strengths. His weakness was a function of strengths that could not find expression.

So it is with many traders.  They work and work and work on their "discipline" and "process", when in reality the problem is that their trading method does not capture their true cognitive and personality strengths.  If you are finding that the usual psychological approaches are not helping your trading, I encourage you to check out the recent article on how our strengths can create weaknesses.  My hope is that the article gets you thinking about your strengths in a new light, so that, instead of working on "problems", you can focus on leveraging the best of your information processing, emotional, and interpersonal assets.

If your trading results aren't what you hoped, even after considerable work, perhaps you are trying to participate in markets in ways that thwart the best of who you are. Working harder at the wrong things can only produce disappointing results.  We are best able to figure out markets if we first have figured out ourselves.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ideas For Jumpstarting the Market Week

*  If you want to know another person's psychology, just listen to their words and observe their actions.  Are they dwelling on the past or creating opportunity for the future?  Do they express anger and frustration or gratitude and fulfillment?  Do they actively create positive experiences for others, or are they largely focused on their own needs?  Do they seek adventure or the sameness of routine? If their words and actions were foods, how nourishing would you find their diet?  Does your trading reflect awareness and acceptance, or does it come from a place of ego?  All the psychology in the world won't help a trader living the wrong values.  Our psychology reflects our values in action.

*  Seriously, if you haven't delved into Weighing the Week Ahead and all its links, you're missing some solid market prep.  Check out winners of Jeff's Silver Bullet Awards:  perhaps a gold bullet should go to winner David Bailey and colleagues for consistently provocative, thoughtful research.

*  Nice to see Merritt Black teaching new traders with a framework of auction theory and Market Profile.  Recognizing value areas in markets and how volume behaves as we move away from value is key to understanding short-term price action.  Jim Dalton's work remains a tremendous resource in making sense of seemingly random market behavior.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Awareness and Acceptance in Trading

Two of the most powerful psychological assets in trading are awareness and acceptance. Let's look into those.

Awareness means that we consciously direct attention to something.  We become a keen observer; we focus our attention.  Self-awareness means that we direct our attention inward and observe ourselves. Market awareness means that we step back from moment to moment price action and observe something about the market.  We most effectively act on something if we sustain awareness of it.


As Branden's quote suggests, however, awareness means little if it is not accompanied by acceptance. In a state of acceptance, we are open minded; we readily process what we observe.  When we lack acceptance, our awareness cannot become insight.  We shut off our awareness when we fight against it.  Acceptance means that, sometimes, we have to process information that is uncomfortable.


The trader who lacks awareness is clueless.  The trader who is aware but who lacks acceptance is defensive.  This is a very important principle.  When we find ourselves becoming tense or frustrated in trading, it is often because we are aware of something we have difficulty accepting.  Whatever that something is, is usually important.


Yesterday I was trading long in the market early in the day and doing well.  I then did my usual thing, waited for a qualified pullback and bought.  The market ticked higher, stalled, and then went to a lower low on increased selling pressure and volume.  My awareness said, "This shouldn't be happening."  My acceptance said, "This is the wrong trade."  I exited for a small loss.


Then, however, a second level of acceptance kicked in.  I said to myself, "A good trade that fails can be a signal in the opposite direction."  In other words, if flows truly had shifted in the market, we should not look back and surpass the highs that preceded my qualified pullback.  That acceptance of a change in market flows/direction allowed me to sell the next bounce and, indeed, continue to trade the short side in the afternoon.  That made for a good day of trading, but it was only because I could truly accept the information the market was providing.


Earlier in the week, I was locked into a view that we would move higher in the market and failed to accept the same exact information.  That not only led to losing trades, but the failure to capitalize on potential winning ones.  Interestingly, my lack of acceptance interfered with even my awareness.  A closed mind cannot accept, but it also is hampered in processing what is in front of us.


It is not enough to try to eliminate negative emotions in trading.  Many of those emotions, from uneasiness and nervousness to frustration and discouragement, reflect an awareness that we are having trouble accepting.  Losses and missed opportunities are less threatening when we view them as tools for expanding our awareness and gaining new perspectives.  As in my case, the losing trade was the catalyst for winning--but only because of awareness and acceptance.


Further Reading:  The Power of Self-Awareness in Trading

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Capturing Value and Momentum in the Stock Market

In mid-2014 I hit upon an idea for analyzing the strength and weakness of the overall stock market. Suppose we took every stock in the New York Stock Exchange and assessed whether it gave a buy signal, a neutral signal, or a sell signal for a standard technical indicator, such as Bollinger Bands. Such a measure would capture the breadth of strength and weakness for stocks as a whole, not just for the index itself.  Would this be a useful measure?  It turns out that the measure was indeed useful and I began collecting the data daily from the Stock Charts website.

Then I hit upon another idea.  The signals from cumulated stock performance on one indicator (such as Bollinger Bands) were different from the signals from other indicators (such as RSI and Parabolic SAR).  Might it be useful to create an indicator of indicators? This would show occasions when we have strength and weakness across all stocks *and* all indicators.  

The resulting cumulative indicator measure is charted above from 2016 forward (indicator in red; SPY in blue).  Even within the considerable uptrend we've had over that period in SPY, we've seen relative periods of overbought and oversold in the measure.  Note that we currently stand at a significantly oversold level.

Going back to June of 2014, when I first began accumulating these data, next ten day returns in SPY have averaged +.01% when we have been in the top half of the distribution for the cumulative measure.  When we have been in the bottom half of the measure, next ten day returns in SPY have averaged +.63%.  This is a significant value effect.  Returns have been significantly better over a swing period when we've been oversold than when we've been overbought.  If we break down returns by quartiles, the upside returns are even more striking in the weakest (most oversold) quartile, which is where we stand now. Interestingly, when the indicators have been simultaneously strong, we've seen superior upside returns over the same ten day horizon.  

In other words, the cumulative measure is capturing both a value effect (buy when things have gotten weak) and a momentum effect (buy when there is a broad thrust higher). Returns have been subnormal if we are not broadly weak or broadly strong.

This is a nice illustration of the value of "big data" and especially the value of well-conceived unique data sets.  As a discretionary trader, I find it crucial to be quantitatively informed.  I observe that integration of discretionary and quantitative among the great majority of the successful traders and portfolio managers I work with.  Even for longer time frame active investors, timing market entries and exits with shorter-term measures that capture value and momentum can meaningfully enhance returns.

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