Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Trading: Art or Science?

I usually hate junk mail, but one popular broker recently sent me a card describing all the success I could have as a trader if I would just implement a more scientific approach. It got me thinking…..does the average trader just need to backtest and automate a strategy to find that golden road to the land of profits? I doubt it, but there’s something there for the new trader to consider.

I’ve encountered many traders with all different approaches. Some are rules-based traders who want to see conditions A, B, and C in place before they act with orders 1, 2, and 3. Other traders seem to have no written trading rules, but they do very well consistently with their instincts. Take my good friend Wes across town, for example. He’s day traded for over a decade, spending countless hours watching tickers and order flow. He’s a high-volume scalper who frequently will trade 200,000 to 300,000 shares daily. He watches only a few of stocks, trades each of them many times a day and does quite well. That’s trading that can’t be taught. That kind of trading is an art.

So where should one begin?

While I am not a proponent of backtesting trading strategies and retro-fitting the past to the future, I do think that trading by way of specific rules early in a trading career is a good idea. When a trader is first getting into the markets, there’s so much to see and learn and do. You have no instincts. Everything you read seems like a great idea and should quickly become your new approach. Having a bad day at the office must mean you need to make a drastic change, right? Surely there’s something out there that works ALL the time! No. Not even close.

The reason I like the idea of following a game plan, especially early on, is that only by being consistent can you truly measure your results accurately. Suppress those urges to fade a rally or buy a selloff, and stick to your rules. Only when you are taking the same kinds of trades consistently can you truly know over time if they are working or what needs to be adjusted vs. thrown out the window entirely. One day does not a trend make! Therefore, one day does not make or break a trading approach. In the beginning, it’s important to go slow and learn which approaches can prove valuable and which approaches will prove useless for you. In short, the beginning trader ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and those gut feelings he thinks he has are nothing but indigestion.

As time goes by, your trading style will evolve. Gut feel gradually becomes a part of your approach. You learn when to follow your rules and when to break them. It’s a matter of patience and experience, and learning to let your intuition play a role. No longer does that rally ahead of the economic release mean you should get long. Something just seems to tell you to watch for a sell-the-news reaction. That’s gut feel. It doesn’t mean that once you have it, it’s always right. Quite the contrary. Learning to trust your instincts means letting them play a legitimate role in your decision-making process, while not letting them take over and dominate.

So, take inventory of where you are. Have you done well during all kinds of markets? Have you been around long enough to know when to break your rules? If not, hang in there and follow your trading checklist for now. Start with making it a science, and you'll develop the feel that makes it an art. You’ll get there eventually, but trying to take shortcuts will be costly. Just remember, capital preservation is the key from day one, so starting with an approach that is quantifiable is a good idea.

Jeff White
President, The Stock Bandit, Inc.


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