Sunday, August 30, 2009

Money management and an exit strategy

Investors serious about succeeding on their own need to learn an important lesson about trading first: stock picking is not the most crucial aspect of being a successful trader. Money management and a trading plan will determine investment returns over extended periods. Knowing how much to invest and how to take a loss, more than always picking winning stocks, are the skills that mark most professional traders. Of course, every trader wants to imagine they are going to be right most of the time, that they have a special gift for picking stocks. In truth, that expectation is unrealistic. In fact, novice investors learn quickly that being wrong – and taking losses – comes a lot easier than they imagined. For the unprepared, this awakening is brutal.

If taking losses is such a big part of trading, how does anyone walk away from the market ahead of the game? A surprising revelation to the uninformed is that some of the best traders in the world are making a handsome living by picking losing stocks most of the time. They perform this magic by limiting their losses and maximizing their gains. In other words, their trading plan allows them to manage a string of relatively small losses before irregular big winning trades make up for the pain of an unforgiving market. When a trader’s account takes a dip – called a drawdown – he or she stays committed to their plan, largely because it forces the trader to respond quickly to a trade gone bad. This demands an almost inhuman capacity to set aside one’s emotions – our ego, our fears – and to pull the sell trigger. No insisting that the market is wrong, that it will get things right and see things your way soon. Instead, a good trading plan insists on a prescribed exit strategy before the trade is entered.

Stock Trends provides a good example of how a trading plan can help turn the reality of a miserly market into appreciable investment returns. Recall that Stock Trends is a system of categorizing stocks based on a moving average system of analysis. It is a rigid system, simple in its definitions, but consistent in its comprehensive application to the North American Stock market. For over 16-years the Stock Trends indicators have been published for stocks listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. This has been an interesting testing ground for applying a mechanical trading system – a model portfolio derived from a trading plan with prescribed buying and selling triggers based on Stock Trends indicators and technical triggers. The Stock Trends TSX Portfolio has been filtering the weekly market activity and applying the same trading strategy since 1993 with positive results – a 39% annualized return on average investment.

The trading record for this strategy provides important insight applicable to every investor’s approach to the market. Over the almost 16-years of trading 440 stock positions have been taken. Each position is limited to a fixed investment of $10,000, with the buy criteria specified by Stock Trends’ Bullish Crossover trend indicator as well as minimum price and volume requirements. The important aspect of the buy strategy is the limited exposure – one assumes trading equity of at least $50,000. The second part of this attempt to limit exposure to losses is found in the exit strategy. One of the sell triggers is a stop loss provision (8% trailing stop on the highest closing price). Although the exit strategy is based on weekly trading, and has some implied exposure to abrupt daily stock movements, it has been relatively successful in managing trading losses.

In line with expected results, the Stock Trends TSX Portfolio trading record shows that only 40% of positions taken were winning trades. It turns this middling success rate into positive returns by keeping losing positions relatively contained. The average loss of losing positions is 10% (all results include trade commissions). The average gain of winning trades approaches 30%. Most revealing is the distribution of returns on these trades. The vast majority of returns are clustered between -10% and 10%, with the accompanying graph showing the skewness of the distribution curve. This should be the typical expectation of a trader: relatively few big winners compensate for the more numerous in-field hits.

Obviously, a big factor in every trading system is the order of the trades. Excessively long strings of trading losses challenge every investor, and can wipe out many unprepared investors. Stock Trends Portfolio loss runs have reached a high of 12 consecutive trading losses, however most losing strings end at four. The maximum drawdown on trading equity was 35% (in a period between late 1998 to mid-1999), not particularly great, but still better than the 45% drawdown that the TSX delivered after the 2000 peak – a crushing collapse that buy-and-hold investors did not recover from until five years later. The recent bear market hurt, too – another 49% drawdown!

Investors, big and small, should have a trading plan in place that helps remove some of the self-defeating aspects of our personal profile which handicap success. Dealing with trading losses is difficult, but learning how to act systematically with them will protect an investor from developing costly emotional attachments to individual trades. Keeping a detailed trading record is an important part of understanding how to make your trading plan work for you. As the Stock Trends model  portfolio illustrates, you do not have to be a perfect stock picker to  succeed in the market.





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