The "Not So Simple" Rules of Trading
GO WHERE THE STRENGTH IS
R U L E 5
The objective of what we are after is not to buy low and to sell high, but to buy high and to sell higher, or to sell short low and to buy lower.
We can never know what price is really "low," nor what price is really "high." We can, however, have a modest chance at knowing what the trend is and acting on that trend. We can buy higher and we can sell higher still if the trend is up. Conversely, we can sell short at low prices and we can cover at lower prices if the trend is still down. However, we've no idea how high high is, nor how low low is.
Nortel went from approximately the split-adjusted price of $1 share back in the early 1980s, to just under $90/share in early 2000 and back to near $1 share by 2002 (where it has hovered ever since). On the way up, it looked expensive at $20, at $30, at $70, and at $85, and on the way down it may have looked inexpensive at $70, and $30, and $20--and even at $10 and $5. The lesson here is that we really cannot tell what is high and/or what is low, but when the trend becomes established, it can run far farther than the most optimistic or most pessimistic among us can foresee.
R U L E 6
Sell markets that show the greatest weakness; buy markets that show the greatest strength.
Metaphorically, when bearish we need to throw our rocks into the wettest paper sack for it will break the most readily, while in bull markets we need to ride the strongest wind for it shall carry us farther than others.
Those in the women's apparel business understand this rule better than others, for when they carry an inventory of various dresses and designers they watch which designer's work moves off the shelf most readily and which do not. They instinctively mark down the work of those designers who sell poorly, recovering what capital then can as swiftly as they can, and use that capital to buy more works by the successful designer. To do otherwise is counterintuitive. They instinctively buy the "strongest" designers and sell the "weakest." Investors in stocks all too often and by contrast, watch their portfolio shift over time and sell out the best stocks, often deploying this capital into the shares that have lagged. They are, in essence, selling the best designers while buying more of the worst. A clothing shop owner would never do this; stock investors do it all the time and think they are wise for doing so!
MAKING "LOGICAL" PLAYS IS COSTLY
R U L E 7
Rule 6 addresses what might seem like a logical play: selling out of a long position after a sharp rush higher or covering a short position after a sharp break lower--and then trying to play the market from the other direction, hoping to profit from the supposedly inevitable correction, only to see the market continue on in the original direction that we had gotten ourselves exposed to. At this point, we are not only losing real capital, we are losing mental capital at an explosive rate, and we are bound to make more and more errors of judgment along the way.
Actually, in a bull market we can be neutral, modestly long, or aggressively long--getting into the last position after a protracted bull run into which we've added to our winning position all along the way. Conversely, in a bear market we can be neutral, modestly short, or aggressively short, but never, ever can we--or should we--be the opposite way even so slightly.
Many years ago I was standing on the top step of the CBOT bond-trading pit with an old friend Bradley Rotter, looking down into the tumult below in awe. When asked what he thought, Brad replied, "I'm flat ... and I'm nervous." That, we think, says it all...that the markets are often so terrifying that no position is a position of consequence.
R U L E 8
"Markets can remain illogical far longer than you or I can remain solvent."
I understand that it was Lord Keynes who said this first, but the first time I heard it was one morning many years ago when talking with a very good friend, and mentor, Dr. A. Gary Shilling, as he worried over a position in U.S. debt that was going against him and seemed to go against the most obvious economic fundamentals at the time. Worried about his losing position and obviously dismayed by it, Gary said over the phone, "Dennis, the markets are illogical at times, and they can remain illogical far longer than you or I can remain solvent." The University of Chicago "boys" have argued for decades that the markets are rational, but we in the markets every day know otherwise. We must learn to accept that irrationality, deal with it, and move on. There is not much else one can say. (Dr. Shilling's position shortly thereafter proved to have been wise and profitable, but not before further "mental" capital was expended.)
R U L E 9
Trading runs in cycles; some are good, some are bad, and there is nothing we can do about that other than accept it and act accordingly.
The academics will never understand this, but those of us who trade for a living know that there are times when every trade we make (even the errors) is profitable and there is nothing we can do to change that. Conversely, there are times that no matter what we do--no matter how wise and considered are our insights; no matter how sophisticated our analysis--our trades will surrender nothing other than losses. Thus, when things are going well, trade often, trade large, and try to maximize the good fortune that is being bestowed upon you. However, when trading poorly, trade infrequently, trade very small, and continue to get steadily smaller until the winds have changed and the trading "gods" have chosen to smile upon you once again. The latter usually happens when we begin following the rules of trading again. Funny how that happens!