How to Win at the Futures Trading Game
As a new trader, you are probably impatient to get to 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 unlikely 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 struck 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 distressed 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 cannot 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 certainties. 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 outcome of a fair coin toss is going to be. You are unlikely to spend time trying to develop better strategies for selecting heads or tails, because you can see that whatever you do you 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 induce 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 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 favourable odds is unattractive if it does not provide enough opportunities to profit.
You can work out that your Expectancy, 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 Expectancy is positive. You can increase expectancy 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 nevertheless have bad runs where you lose money for a while.
So what does all this tell us about how to trade? Consider the following points: