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Lessons From A Trading Great Amos Hostetter
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Lessons From A Trading Great: Amos Hostetter

Amos Hostetter cofounded Commodities Corporation (otherwise known as CC) along with Helmut Weymar back in 1969. CC is the trading shop that produced more legendary trading talent than the Yankees have All-Stars. Alumni include: Bruce Kovner, Michael Marcus, Paul Tudor Jones, Ed Seykota and more…

Hostetter was considered the wise sage and mentor of the group. He’s credited with imbuing many of these trading greats with the wisdom and knowledge they used to achieve their grand heights.

Upon his untimely death in a car accident in 1977, the directors of CC commissioned one of their traders, Morris Markovitz, to gather and record Hostetter’s timeless philosophy on markets and trading. The goal was to ensure future CC traders could benefit from his invaluable teachings. The resulting work was an internal booklet titled Amos Hostetter; A Successful Speculator’s Approach to Commodities Trading.

Hostetter’s trading philosophy could be boiled down to the following (in Hostetter’s own words):

  1. Try to acquire every bit of fundamental information available. Read extensively.
  2. Simultaneously, post daily charts on commodities and develop a feel for trends.
  3. Follow the fundamentals in your trading but only if and as long as the charts do not cast a negative vote.

He regarded money management as the first priority for any serious market speculator. From Markovitz (emphasis mine):

Sound money management is crucial to successful trading. The best market analysis won’t get a trader to the bottom line — consistent profits — unless he has a sound money-management policy. This is an area where Mr. Hostetter excelled.

Sometimes it is hard to draw a sharp line between trading principles and money-management principles. If I were to paraphrase a famous saying, I think it would provide an accurate summary of one of Mr. Hostetter’s most important trading and money-management principles: the market, to be commanded, must be obeyed. As a trader, Mr. Hostetter was aware of his own fallibility. He tried to protect himself from errors by the trading rules he used and by trying to anticipate areas of potential surprise. This alone, however, was not enough. If the market moved against him for a reason he did not understand, he would often exit without waiting for a trading rule to take him out: as a money manager, he knew he could not afford the luxury of a prolonged argument with the market.

Perhaps his most important money-management principles was “Take care of your losses and the profits will take care of themselves.” This means that a trader should place strong emphasis on keeping his losses small, because two or three large losses in succession would be a crippling blow.

His risk management principle of “taking care of your losses” is similar to Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital: “if we avoid the losers, the winners will take care of themselves.” This truth is the single most important law of speculation. It sounds glib, but cutting your losses and letting your winners run is the most common thread amongst all great traders. If I could travel back in time 15 years, I’d go back and beat this fact into my thick skull… and I’d be much richer today for it.

Hostetter used a multi-pronged approach to assessing markets and potential trades. It’s from him that Michael Marcus likely developed the “Marcus-Trifecta” to gauge markets — looking at “technicals, fundamentals, and market tone”. Here’s an overview of his approach to fundamentals:

Mr. Hostetter’s fundamental approach was, to use his own phrase, “broad brush.” This means that he would look at the overall balance sheet and the statistics that applied to the commodity in which a trade was contemplated. Then, certain basic questions would be asked:

— Will production exceed consumption this season (a stocks build-up)? If so, then the initial premise would be bearish.

— Will consumption exceed production (a stocks draw-down)? If so, then the initial premise would be bullish.

The initial premise would then be refined by other considerations. For example: weather could destroy the current production estimate for an agricultural commodity; a change in general economic conditions could destroy the demand or consumption estimate; the high price of meat could increase demand for potatoes.; the low price of corn could increase demand for soybean meal; and so forth. The last two items are intended to illustrate the flexibility, or creativity, of Mr. Hostetter’s thinking, and represent the personal style he brought to commodity analysis. He held facts in the highest regard, yet he remained constantly alert to the principle that the facts can and do change.

The key phrase is flexibility of thinking, which is the opposite of stubbornness. Mr. Hostetter knew that, whatever his fundamental analysis might show today, there was a good chance it would show something different by the time the last day of the season had arrived… In brief, Mr. Hostetter would never wed himself to a precise position on the outlook for the future; he had often enough experienced the phenomenon of a significant price change before the reasons behind it became general knowledge. He kept himself prepared for surprises, in both directions, in advance. If one does a little “dreaming” about the possibilities on both sides, then he is in possession of possible explanations for surprises, and will be less hesitant to act if and when they come.

Maintaining an open-mind and staying aware of your biases is critical. Markets serve ample helpings of humble pie to those who arrogantly wed themselves to a “market prediction”.

Hostetter took a nuanced approach to using technicals, similar to how we utilize price action in our trade analysis at Macro Ops. Markovitz writes:

Mr. Hostetter definitely did not accept the clear-cut dichotomy between fundamental and technical trading. Both methods can be used successfully, but he blended the two. It is my impression that Mr. Hostetter would have agreed with the following statement:

The pure fundamentalist concerns himself with production, consumption, stocks, and other basic economic data, viewing these as the causes and price as the effect, while the pure technician regards price as its own cause. In fact, to draw a sharp line of choice between these two approaches is not the best policy. Price itself should also be regarded as a fundamental. It can play the role of cause or effect or both under different circumstances.

The market’s own behavior can, in a real sense, be classified as a fundamental variable. The method of analysis, however, is completely different. The technical aspect of Mr. Hostetter’s trading consists primarily of:

1. Trend following
2. Support and resistance areas
3. Pattern recognition

These are listed in order of their importance, although any one of them may be the dominant influence at a  given time.

Within this technical framework Hostetter employed a number of useful heuristics to help him read the tape:

Many of the techniques Mr. Hostetter used depended on a time factor. In general, as with congestion areas, most patterns accrue more significance if they take more time to form, and a trader should be aware of time as well as price when considering any technical pattern. For example, a bear market that has persisted for a year is unlikely to form its bottom in a week, nor is a two-month bull market likely to take a year to form a top. A trader should keep in mind the duration of recent major moves and expect commensurate time periods for the formation of the current pattern. (Patience is an important virtue — hastiness rarely pays).

I find Hostetter’s thoughts on the “time factor” useful in analyzing where price may be headed. Markets tend to follow a certain symmetry over long periods of time. Some technical heuristics Hostetter used are:

  • He would become seriously concerned if a bull market was unable to make a new high for thirty days (the same is true for a bear market that hadn’t made new lows for thirty days).
  • A poor price response to bullish news is itself an ill omen for long positions, especially if other cautionary signs are present (e.g., the bull market is old, the vigor has shown some signs of waning, prices are near a fundamental objective, etc.)
  • The most important timing issue is patience. One should wait for his opportunity, wait until everything lines up according to his expectations. It is far better to miss an opportunity here or there than to jump in too early without a clear plan. Too much patience is rarely the problem for any trader.
  • A trader should do his fundamental homework, keep his eye on the charts, and patiently observe. Once he is able to form a definite fundamental opinion, he should wait for confirming market action before proceeding.

Practicing the necessary patience to win is one of the hardest aspects of speculation. Fear is man’s strongest emotion and is behind one of a trader’s most common foibles — the fear of missing out (FOMO). Success comes to those who realize that Pareto’s Law dominates the distribution of returns. Only a handful of trades a year will account for the majority of profits. It pays to sit and wait patiently for those fat pitches to come along.

Lastly, here’s a list of maxims and trading do’s and don’ts as recorded by Hostetter in his own words.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES AND MARKET MAXIMS

  • A very general and important rule is: take care of your losses and your profits will take care of themselves. This is both a trading maxim and a money-management tool. A trader needs big winners to pay for his losses and he won’t capture these big wins unless he stays with the trend all the way.
  • There is never any objection to taking a loss. There must always be a good reason before you can permit yourself to close out a profit.
  • When in doubt, get out. Don’t gamble. Be sure, however, that your doubt is based on something real (fundamentals, market action, etc.), and not simply on your own nervousness about the price level. If it is only the price level that is making you nervous, then either stick with the winner or at worst use a more sensitive stop-loss point. Give the major trend all the chance you can to increase your profits.
  • All major trends take a long time to work themselves out. There are times when the best approach is just to sit and do nothing, letting the power of the underlying trend work for you while others argue about the day-to-day news. Be patient.
  • Surprising price response to news is one of the most reliable price forecasters. Bullish response to bear news, or vice-versa, means that the price had already discounted the news and the next move will probably go the other way. Actually, this is only one example of a wider principle: When a market doesn’t do what it “should”, then it will probably do what it “shouldn’t”, and fairly soon. (Note that false breakouts, up or down, are also subsumed under this more general principle. When new lows are achieved in a long-term bear market, for example, the market ‘ ‘should” follow through with weakness—after all, it is a bear market. If, instead, it rallies quickly, this provides some evidence against the bear market premise).

THE DANGERS IN TRADING CAUSED BY HUMAN NATURE

  1. Fear — fearful of profit and one acts too soon.
  2. Hope — hope for a change [in the] forces against one.
  3. Lack of confidence in one’s own judgment.
  4. Never cease to do your own thinking.
  5. A man must not swear eternal allegiance to either the bear or bull side. His concern lies in being right.
  6. Laziness prevents a trader from keeping posted to the minute.
  7. The individual fails to stick to facts.
  8. People believe what it pleases them to believe.

DON’TS

  1. Don’t sacrifice your position for fluctuations.
  2. Don’t expect the market to end in a blaze of glory. Look out for warnings.
  3. Don’t expect the tape to be a lecturer. It’s enough to see that something is wrong.
  4. Never try to sell at the top. It isn’t wise. Sell after a reaction if there is no rally.
  5. Don’t imagine that a [market] that has once sold at 150 must be cheap at 130.
  6. Don’t buck the market trend.
  7. Don’t look for breaks. Look out for warnings.
  8. Don’t try to make an average from a losing game.
  9. Never keep goods that show a loss and sell those that show a profit. Get out with the least loss and sit tight for greater profits.

SUGGESTIONS

  1. Experience must teach. Follow it invariably.
  2. Observation gives the best tips of all. Observe [market] behavior and experience shows how to profit.
  3. Buying on a rising market is the comfortable way. The point is not so much to buy as cheap as possible or go short at top prices, but to buy and sell at the right time.
  4. Remember [a market is] never too high for you to begin buying or too low to begin selling. Let your tape reading show you when to begin. After the initial transaction don’t make a second unless the first shows a profit.
  5. There is a great deal in starting right in every enterprise.
  6. When something happens on which you did not count when your plans were made, it behooves you to utilize the opportunity.
  7. In a bear market it is always wise to cover if complete demoralization develops suddenly.
  8. Stick to facts only and govern your actions accordingly.
  9. What is abnormal is seldom a desirable factor in a trader’s calculations. If a [market] doesn’t act right, don’t touch it.

To get more wisdom from trading greats like Hostetter, click here.

 

 

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Lessons From A Trading Great: Jim Leitner

Jim Leitner is the greatest macro trader you’ve never heard of. He was once a currency expert on Wall Street, pulling billions from the markets, but now he plays the game through his own family office.

Leitner understands the Macro Ops “go anywhere” mentality better than any other trader:

Global macro is the willingness to opportunistically look at every idea that comes along, from micro situations to country-specific situations, across every asset category and every country in the world. It’s the combination of a broad top-down country analysis with a bottom-up micro analysis of companies. In many cases, after we make our country decisions, we then drill down and analyze the companies in the sectors that should do well in light of our macro view.

I never lock myself down to investing in one style or in one country because the greatest trade in the world could be happening somewhere else. My advice is to make sure that you do not become too much of an expert in one area. Even if you see an area that is inefficient today, it’s likely that it won’t be inefficient tomorrow. Expertise is overrated.

He’ll jump into any asset or market, no matter how esoteric. Some of his craziest investments include inflation-linked housing bonds in Iceland and a primary equity partnership in a Ghanaian brewer. He even had the balls to jump into Turkish equities and currency forwards with 100% interest rates and 60% inflation during the late 90’s… the man is a macro beast.

FX Trading

Leitner was one of the first traders to understand and implement FX carry trades. A carry trade involves borrowing a lower interest rate currency to buy a higher interest rate currency. The trader earns the spread between the two rates. Here’s his own words from Drobny’s Inside The House Of Money:

The most profitable trade wasn’t a trade but an approach to markets and a realization that, over time, positive carry works. Applying this concept to higher yielding currencies versus lower yielding currencies was my most profitable trade ever. I got to the point in this trade where I was running portfolios of about $6 billion and I remember central banks being shocked at the size of currency positions I was willing to buy and hold over the course of years.

FX carry trades can be extremely lucrative. But if you get caught holding a currency during a surprise devaluation, it can instantly erase all your profits and them some. Leitner was able to protect himself by keeping a close eye on central bank action:

I was always able to sidestep currency devaluations because there were always clear signals by central banks that they were pending and then I just didn’t get involved. Devaluations are such a digital process that it doesn’t make sense to stand in front of the truck and try to pick up that last nickel before getting run down.You might as well wait, let the truck go by, then get back on the street and continue picking up nickels.

Leitner understands that currencies mean revert in the short-term and trend in the long-term. He’s explored the use of both daily and weekly mean reversion strategies:

The other thing that is pretty obvious in foreign exchange is that daily volatilities are much higher than the information received. Think of it like this:

The euro bottomed out in July 2001 at around 0.83 to the dollar and by January 2004 it was trading at 1.28. That’s a 45 big figure move divided by 900 days, giving an average daily move of 5 pips, assuming straight line depreciation. Say one month option volatility averaged around 10 percent over that period, implying a daily expected range of 75 pips.That’s a signal-to-noise ratio of 1 to 15. In other words, there was 15 times as much noise as there was information in prices!

Noise is just noise, and it’s clearly mean reverting. Knowing that, we should be trading mean reverting strategies. In the short term, it’s a no brainer to be running daily and weekly mean reverting strategies. When things move up by whatever definition you use, you should sell and when they move back down, you should buy. On average, over time you’re going to make money or earn risk premia.

Options

No one has mastered global macro options better than Leitner. He knows when they’re overpriced and when they make a great bet:

Short-dated volatility is too high because of an insurance premium component in short-dated options. People buy short-dated options because they hope that there’s going to be a big move and they’ll make a lot of money. They spend a little bit to make a lot and, on average, it’s been a little bit too much. When they do make money they make a lot of money, but if they do it consistently they lose money. Meanwhile, someone who consistently sells short-dated volatility, on average, would make a little bit of money. It’s a good business to be in and not too dissimilar to running a casino. So there is a risk premia there that can be extracted. (Side note: this is the risk premia we harvest in Vol Ops, one of our portfolios in the Macro Ops Hub).

Longer-dated options are priced expensively versus future daily volatility, but cheaply versus the drift in the future spot price. We need to make a distinction between volatility and the future drift of the currency. Since the option’s seller (the investment bank) hedges its position daily, it makes money selling options. Since some buyers do not delta hedge but instead allow the spot to drift away from the strike, they make money on the underlying trend move in the currency. So both the seller of the option and the buyer make money. The profit for the seller comes from extracting the risk premia in the daily volatility, and for the buyer it comes from the fact that currency markets tend to exhibit trending behavior.

We had a study done on the foreign exchange options market going back to 1992, where one-year straddle options were bought every day across a wide variety of currency pairs.We found that even though implied volatility was always higher than realized volatility over annual periods, buying the straddles made money. It’s possible because the buyer of the one-year straddles is not delta hedging but betting on trend to take the price far enough away from the strike that it will cover the premium for the call and the put. Over time, there’s been enough trend in the market to carry price far enough away from the strike of the one-year outright straddle to more than cover the premium paid.

If the option maturity is long enough, trend can take us far enough away from the strike that it’s okay to overpay.

This is a key concept that very few option traders understand. High vol doesn’t mean huge trends. And low vol doesn’t mean no trends. It’s possible to have low vol trends and high vol ranges.

Leitner exploits this kink in option theory by “overpaying” for optionality from a volatility perspective, but still winning from trending markets.

These overpriced long-dated options become essential in choppy markets. They allow you to “outsource” risk management. You can play for a long-term trend without the risk of getting stopped out by a head fake:

Options take away that whole aspect of having to worry about precise risk management. It’s like paying for someone else to be your risk manager. Meanwhile, I know I am long XYZ for the next six months. Even if the option goes down a lot in the beginning to the point that the option is worth nothing, I will still own it and you never know what can happen.

Psychology, Emotions, And Fallibility

Like every other star trader, Leitner has strong emotional control. He views all trades within a probabilistic framework and fully accepts his losses:

At Bankers, I came to realize that I was absolutely unemotional about numbers. Losses did not have an effect on me because I viewed them as purely probability-driven, which meant sometimes you came up with a loss. Bad days, bad weeks, bad months never impacted the way I approached markets the next day.To this day, my wife never knows if I’ve had a bad day or a good day in the markets.

Along with reigning in his emotions, he also acknowledges his own fallibility:

Another thing that I realize about myself that I don’t see in other traders is that I’m really humble about my ignorance. I truly feel that I’m ignorant despite having made enormous amounts of money.

Many traders I’ve met over the years approach the market as if they’re smarter than other people until somebody or something proves them wrong. I have found this approach eventually leads to disaster when the market proves them wrong.

It’s not possible to “crack” the market. You’re guaranteed to eventually be proven wrong no matter how smart you are. And when that time comes, you have to stop the bleeding before death occurs. The trading graveyard is littered with “smart guys” who thought they solved the market puzzle… don’t be one of them.

Investment Narratives

A compelling narrative is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, understanding the dominant market narrative will keep you on the right side of a powerful trend. But it can also lure you into some dumb trades. Not all narratives are rooted in fundamental reality. Oftentimes a false trend will form and lead to a boom/bust process. Here’s Leitner’s take:

We need to quantify things and understand why things are cheap or expensive by using some hard measure of what cheap or expensive means. Then there has to be a combination of story and value. A story is still required because a story will appeal to other people and appeal is what drives markets. If there’s no story and something’s cheap, it might just stay cheap forever. But if there’s a story involved, make sure that you first look at the numbers before you get involved to be sure there is some quantitative backing to the idea.

Leitner’s team always starts with quantitative scans when hunting for equities. If the quant data doesn’t check out, there’s a higher risk of falling prey to an overhyped narrative.

In equities, we start by looking at various valuation measurements like price to book, price to earnings, and price to cash flow. It’s very important to not be too story-driven. A way to avoid that is by using quantitative screens to determine what is cheap. Once you find things that are cheap, then look for stories that argue why it shouldn’t be cheap. Maybe a stock is cheap but it’ll stay cheap forever because there’s no good story attached to the cheapness.

Longs Vs Shorts

It’s no surprise that being long financial assets has a positive expected value over time. Stocks and bonds pay a premium to incentivize investors to move out of cash and take risk.

This is why you need twice your normal conviction to go short. The system is designed to move higher over time, so you better have a damn good reason to fight that drift.

Owning assets, or being long, is easier and also more correct in the long term in that you get paid a premium for taking risk.You should only give your money to somebody if you expect to get more back. Net/net it is easier to go long because over portfolios and long periods of time, you’re assured of getting more money back. Owning risk premia pays you a return if you wait long enough, so it’s a lot easier to be right when you’re going with the flow, which means being long. To fight risk premia, you have to be doubly right.

Leverage

Mention the word “leverage” around rookie traders and they’ll run for the hills. Most think it’s a quick way to blow up a trading account. But the pros view leverage as a tool that can completely transform and enhance risk-adjusted returns. Ray Dalio is traditionally the one credited with using this concept to make billions.

Let’s say you have a 30-yr bond that returns 6% a year above the cash rate. It has a max drawdown of 20%.

You then compare it to a stock index that returns 9% a year above the cash rate. It has a max drawdown of 50%.

By applying leverage, you can transform the bond into the higher performing asset. Using 2x leverage on the long bond will give you 12% returns with 40% drawdowns. This is a much better deal than the stock index on a risk-adjusted basis. This technique is known as “risk parity.”

Leitner applies it to his fixed income investments:

When using leverage, you want the highest Sharpe ratio because you’re borrowing money against your investment, and the best Sharpe ratios are found in the two years and under the sector of fixed income. On an absolute return basis, two years and under bonds are not going to pay as much as a 10-year bond because the yields are usually lower. But the risk-to-return ratio is also very different.You could be five times levered in the two-year and get a higher payout with the same risk as a 10-year bond because of duration.

Going levered long 2-year notes is a better risk-adjusted trade than going long a 10-year note. You get the same return in the levered 2-year, but with less volatility.

Most investors can’t exploit this because they can’t use leverage. But a macro trader using futures can perform all sorts of financial wizardry and vastly outperform a typical cash-only fund.

Portfolio Construction

Over time Leitner has adapted his strategy away from traditional global macro. Instead of using market timing, trend following, and gut feel — the pillars of old school macro — he’s shifted to a multi-strategy approach.

He combines various system-based strategies across five main asset classes: Equities, Fixed Income, Currencies, Commodities, and Real Estate. His goal is to earn the risk premia present in each category. He then reserves a certain amount of his cash for special situation big bets that only come around a few times a year.

We start off by acknowledging that we are ignorant, so we need to be systematic, clip some coupons, and earn some risk premia. It doesn’t matter if it is in currencies, bonds, commodities, real estate, or equities. Of course we have to be smart about it by reading a lot, talking to smart people, and being on top of it all, while acknowledging that we’re not that much smarter than the rest of the world.Then, every once in awhile, we’re going to stumble upon an exciting idea that’s going to give us some extra alpha and the ability to outperform.

After these five main asset categories, we have a last category which we call absolute return.This is where we stick those great, out-of-the-box ideas we come across about twice a year. Sometimes we’re lucky and find major mispricings once or twice a year, and sometimes we’re unlucky and it takes 18 months before the next one comes along. When we find these fantastic ideas, we’re willing to bet up to 10 percent of our fund on one idea. One that we think will double or triple, earning an extra 10 or 20 percent return for the entire portfolio.

The absolute return category is there in order to leave us open to making unsystematic money.

The multi-strat approach is the most robust way to allocate capital. Most of the macro legends of the 70s, 80s, and 90s have moved to a family office format and implemented something similar to what Leitner describes. At Macro Ops we too use a combination of discretionary and systematic strategies to make sure the cash register keeps ringing year after year.

For more details on how Jim Leitner analyzes, sizes, and manages his trades, check out our Ops Notes by entering your email below:

 

 

Ray Dalio
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Lessons From a Trading Great: Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater. Two years ago, Bridgewater surpassed Soros’ Quantum fund for the title of most profitable hedge fund of all time; returning over $46 billion since inception. Read more

Paul Tudor Jones
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Lessons from a Trading Great: Paul Tudor Jones (PTJ)

From Jack Schwager’s Market Wizards:

October 1987 was a devastating month for most investors as the world stock markets witnessed a collapse that rivaled 1929. That same month, the Tudor Futures Fund, managed by Paul Tudor Jones, registered an incredible 62 percent return. Jones has always been a maverick trader. His trading style is unique and his performance is uncorrelated with other money managers. Perhaps most important, he has done what many thought impossible: combine five consecutive, triple-digit return years with very low equity retracements. (I am fudging slightly; in 1986, Paul’s fund realized only a 99.2 percent gain!) Read more

Stanley Druckenmiller
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Lessons From A Trading Great: Stanley Druckenmiller

The “greatest money making machine in history”, a man with “Jim Roger’s analytical ability, George Soros’ trading ability, and the stomach of a riverboat gambler” is how fund manager Scott Bessent describes Stanley Druckenmiller. That’s high praise, but if you look at Druckenmiller’s track record, you’ll find it’s well deserved. Read more

Lessons From A Trading Great George Soros.jpg
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Lessons From A Trading Great: George Soros

Remember the scene from the 90’s classic, The Sandlot, where “Smalls” loses his father’s Babe Ruth autographed baseball to “The Beast” and the other kids question him in disbelief, saying: Read more

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Lessons from a Trading Great: Jesse Livermore

“Boy Wonder”, “Boy Plunger” and the “Great Bear of Wall St.” are a few of the monikers Jesse Livermore was known by.

Livermore was immortalized in the trading classic Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre — a book your author has read countless times over the years and still pulls new wisdom from with each revisit.

Reminiscences has stood the test of time because it, more than any other book, explains the fundamental truths that lie at the heart of successful speculation. It’s no doubt a reflection of Livermore’s deep and intimate understanding of this great game.

One of the ironies I’ve learned through years of dissecting the habits and practices of top traders like Livermore is that there is nothing special to what they do. I’m not implying that what they’re able to do isn’t impressive; of course it is. I simply mean that they have no special or secret knowledge or ability that’s unique to them.

Most people start out in this game looking for that “thing”; whether it be a special insight or indicator or strategy or whatever, that will show them how to win. They think if they can just find the secrets to what make the greats great, then they’ll be set. But in reality… if there’s any secret at all, it’s that there is no secret.

All of the important truths that a speculator needs to understand were plainly communicated by Livermore over 75 years ago.

Does that mean you can read Reminiscencesand instantly become a great trader? Well, let me ask you this: can you read the classic Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons on golf and go out and play scratch golf? Of course not! And that’s because both books have all the foundational knowledge you need to succeed but they don’t supply the practice that ingrains the lessons and transforms that knowledge into wisdom.

Here’s how Livermore put it, “The training of a stock trader is like a medical education. The physician has to spend long years learning anatomy, physiology, materia medica and collateral subjects by the dozen. He learns the theory and then proceeds to devote his life to the practice.”

The practice is the hard part. It takes time and a Herculean effort. Blisters and portfolio losses. There are no short-cuts. But practice without knowledge is wasted effort. It’s like trying to run on your hands because nobody ever told you to use your feet.

So with that, here’s the knowledge (with some commentary by me), as given by Livermore many years ago. What you do with it is up to you but I suggest you try running with your feet.

Learn How to Lose

An old broker once said to me: ‘If I am walking along a railroad track and I see a train coming toward me at sixty miles an hour, do I keep on walking on the ties? Friend, I sidestep. And I do not even pat myself on the back for being so wise and prudent.’

To be a great trader you have to be a great loser. Sounds like a contradiction right? Well it isn’t. The fact is, great traders will typically have more losing trades than profitable ones. They’ll spend more time in an equity drawdown than at new highs. Some of this is due to the natural 90/10 distributions of markets (Pareto’s Law), but much of it is actually by design.

Mark Spitznagel wrote in The Dao of Capital that the most valuable lesson he learned from his Chicago trading pit mentor, Everett Klipp, was that “you’ve got to love to lose money.” If you love to take small losses then you’ll never take a large one. That’s important because it’s the large ones that’ll kill ya’.

Humans are naturally averse to losing (obvious statement). Our psychological programming attaches a lot of nonsensical meaning to taking losses in the market. We are evolutionarily wired to be bad emotional traders. The key is to invert this instinctual response and learn to “love to lose”. Livermore talks about this inversion:

Losing money is the least of my troubles. A loss never bothers me after I take it. I forget it overnight. But being wrong — not taking the loss — that is what does damage to the pocketbook and to the soul.

And here’s a simple and yet KEY… KEY fundamental truth to good trading: never add to your losers, sell what shows you a loss, and let run what shows you a profit.

Of all speculative blunders there are few worse than trying to average a losing game. My cotton deal proved it to the hilt a little later. Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit. That was so obviously the wise thing to do and was so well known to me that even now I marvel at myself for doing the reverse.

This lesson was important enough that Paul Tudor Jones had it plastered on the wall right above his desk.

ptj_losers_average_losers

Livermore’s occasional failure to follow this rule is what led to the multiple blowups he experienced throughout his career. He lost when he failed to follow his advice that it’s “foolhardy to make a second trade, if your first trade shows you a loss. Never average losses. Let this thought be written indelibly upon your mind.”

Livermore learned the hard way that our natural instincts must be flipped.

Instead of hoping he must fear and instead of fearing he must hope. He must fear that his loss may develop into a much bigger loss, and hope that his profit may become a big profit.

The Importance of Understanding General Conditions

I still had much to learn but I knew what to do. No more floundering, no more half-right methods. Tape reading was an important part of the game; so was beginning at the right time; so was sticking to your position. But my greatest discovery was that a man must study general conditions, to size them so as to be able to anticipate probabilities.

Not many people realize this, but Livermore was the original “global macro” guy. His “greatest discovery” was the importance of macro — or what he called “general conditions”.

He had the same realization that hedge fund manager Steve Cohen had decades later, which is “that 40 percent of a stock’s price movement is due to the market, 30 percent to the sector, and only 30 percent to the stock itself.”

After Livermore made this discovery he said “I began to think of basic conditions instead of individual stocks. I promoted myself to a higher grade in the hard school of speculation. It was a long and difficult step to take.”

This revelation completely changed the way he approached markets and trading. While everybody was piking around, losing money playing the “stock picking” game, Livermore was studying general conditions. He now understood the simple fundamental truth that you want to be long in a bull market and short in a bear market.

I think it was a long step forward in my trading education when I realized at last that when old Mr. Partridge kept on telling the other customers, ‘Well, you know this is a bull market!’ he really meant to tell them that the big money was not in the individual fluctuations but in the main movements — that is, not in reading the tape but in sizing up the entire market and its trend.

Disregarding the big swing and trying to jump in and out was fatal to me. Nobody can catch all the fluctuations. In a bull market your game is to buy and hold until you believe that the bull market is near its end. To do this you must study general conditions and not tips or special factors affecting individual stocks.

It’s when Livermore started playing the macro game that he really started making the big money.

I cleared about three million dollars in 1916 by being bullish as long as the bull market lasted and then by being bearish when the bear market started. As I said before, a man does not have to marry one side of the market till death do them part.

But I can tell you after the market began to go my way I felt for the first time in my life that I had allies — the strongest and truest in the world: underlying conditions. They were helping me with all their might. Perhaps they were a trifle slow at times in bringing up the reserves, but they were dependable, provided I did not get too impatient.

General conditions (macro) continue to be — BY FAR — the biggest potential source for alpha in trading. That’s because most market participants are still focused on the stock picking game and remain completely ignorant of the most significant driver of their stock’s price action. Learning to read the underlying conditions is like swinging the trading equivalent of Thor’s Hammer… it makes that much of a difference.

Patience, Psychology and the Dangers of Overtrading

It sounds very easy to say that all you have to do is to watch the tape, establish your resistance points and be ready to trade along the line of least resistance as soon as you have determined it. But in actual practice a man has to guard against many things, and most of all against himself — that is, against human nature.

Livermore understood man’s foibles perhaps better than most. He made and lost multiple fortunes, the size of which, most could hardly fathom. He knew well the fundamental truth that becoming a great trader is as much about self-mastery as it is about market mastery.

Market Wizard Ed Seykota said “I think that if people look deeply enough into their trading patterns, they find that, on balance, including all their goals, they are really getting what they want, even though they may not understand it or want to admit it.”

True professional speculation is often a tedious and boring affair, where one can go months without putting on a trade because the general conditions are not right.

There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class.

Most traders that I see are not really in the game to make money by strictly following a sound trading process. They want quick profits; the thrill of gambling; high adrenaline entertainment. Basically the same lizard brain “wants” that drive the large profits for Vegas casinos.

This is why most people overtrade. And they overtrade a lot. Here’s Livermore’s thoughts on why that’s bad.

There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily–or sufficient knowledge to make his play an intelligent play.

The overtrading by others brings us to another fundamental truth: that other’s impatience can be our profits if we’re willing to practice infinite patience.

The desire for constant action irrespective of underlying conditions is responsible for many losses on Wall Street even among the professionals, who feel that they must take home some money every day, as though they were working for regular wages. Remember this: When you are doing nothing, those speculators who feel they must trade day in and day out, are laying the foundation for your next venture. You will reap benefits from their mistakes.

When putting on a trade it’s better to be a little late than a little early. As Livermore put it, “don’t take action with a trade until the market, itself, confirms your opinion. Being a little late in a trade is insurance that your opinion is correct. In other words, don’t be an impatient trader.”

Self-mastery leads to market mastery. Livermore said “the human side of every person is the greatest enemy of the average investor or speculator. Fear keeps you from making as much money as you ought to. Wishful thinking must be banished.”

Price Action and Path of Least Resistance

There is what I call the behavior of a stock, actions that enable you to judge whether or not it is going to proceed in accordance with the precedents that your observation has noted. If a stock doesn’t act right don’t touch it; because, being unable to tell precisely what is wrong, you cannot tell which way it is going. No diagnosis, no prognosis. No prognosis, no profit.

Livermore was one of the best at reading the tape. His years of studying price action gave him a sort of “sixth sense” for knowing what the market was doing and where it was headed. This is one of those “practice” elements where only so much instruction can be given… the rest needs to be learned and experienced.

But one of the important lessons that Livermore talked about is studying price action in order to determine the “path of least resistance”, saying:

For purposes of easy explanation we will say that prices, like everything else, move along the line of least resistance. They will do whatever comes easiest, therefore they will go up if there is less resistance to an advance than to a decline; and vice versa.

The path of least resistance is all about understanding accumulation/distribution or consolidation/expansion zones. A chart is simply a two dimensional representation of supply/demand. The path of least resistance is the price level that supply/demand is likely to move towards based off past and current accumulation/distribution levels.

Learn to read supply and demand action with practice and your trading will become more fluid. Livermore stated, “It would not be so difficult to make money if a trader always stuck to his speculative guns — that is, waited for the line of least resistance to define itself and began buying only when the tape said up or selling only when it said down.”

A critical part to what he’s saying is to wait for the path of least resistance to present itself. Attempting to anticipate trend changes is a costly and foolish endeavor.

One of the most helpful things that anybody can learn is to give up trying to catch the last eighth — or the first. These two are the most expensive eighths in the world. They have cost stock traders, in the aggregate, enough millions of dollars to build a concrete highway across the continent.

Trend reversals are a process, not an event. Livermore notes “that a market does not culminate in one grand blaze of glory. Neither does it end with a sudden reversal of form. A market can and does often cease to be a bull market long before prices generally begin to break.”

The trend is your friend and there are separate trends on different time intervals. The more trends that line up on each interval, the lesser resistance on the trade’s path.

Big Bets and Sitting Tight

And right here let me say one thing: After spending many years in Wall Street and after making and losing millions of dollars I want to tell you this: It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It was always my sitting. Got that? My sitting tight!

Men who can both be right and sit tight are uncommon. I found it one of the hardest things to learn. But it is only after a stock operator has firmly grasped this that he can make big money.

The average trader is quick to take a profit and slow to book a loss. Going back to the importance of inverting our trading nature, it’s as important to let profits run as it is to cut losses short. Remember, we’ll lose more than we’ll be right. So we need those winners to be significantly larger to pay for our losers. Livermore said, “they say you never grow poor taking profits. No, you don’t. But neither do you grow rich taking a four point profit in a bull market.”

Livermore explained successful trading plainly, “I study because my business is to trade. The moment the tape told me that I was on the right track my business duty was to increase my line. I did. That is all there is to it.”

The fundamental truths of speculation, as laid out by Livermore three quarters of a century ago, can be summarized as follows:

  • Cut your losses: Never average down and never hope losses reverse. Just cut.
  • Infinite patience: Good trades are few and far between. Trade for profits, not for action.
  • Learn macro: Understanding general conditions is essential to being a market master and not a piker.
  • Price action is king: Learn to read the tape and don’t argue with markets — they know more than you.
  • Big bet/sit tight: Ride your winners for all their worth. This conviction comes with practice.
  • Self-mastery: You are your greatest impediment to your own success. “Know thyself”.

These lessons are as true today as they were then. As Livermore put it, “there is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market today has happened before and will happen again.”

One just needs to look to Stanley Druckenmiller — perhaps the closest modern day equivalent to Jesse Livermore — to see that these truths still hold true. Here’s Druck:

The first thing I heard when I got in the business, not from my mentor, was bulls make money, bears make money, and pigs get slaughtered. I’m here to tell you I was a pig. And I strongly believe the only way to make long-term returns in our business that are superior is by being a pig. I think diversification and all the stuff they’re teaching at business school today is probably the most misguided concept everywhere. And if you look at all the great investors that are as different as Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn, Ken Langone, they tend to be very, very concentrated bets. They see something, they bet it, and they bet the ranch on it. And that’s kind of the way my philosophy evolved, which was if you see – only maybe one or two times a year do you see something that really, really excites you… The mistake I’d say 98% of money managers and individuals make is they feel like they got to be playing in a bunch of stuff. And if you really see it, put all your eggs in one basket and then watch the basket very carefully.

Livermore said that “A man can have great mathematical ability and an unusual power of accurate observation

and yet fail in speculation unless he also possesses the experience and the memory. And then, like the physician who keeps up with the advances of science, the wise trader never ceases to study general conditions, to keep track of developments everywhere that are likely to affect or influence the course of the various markets.”

If you’re craving more lessons from the trading greats, then check out our in-depth special report by clicking here.

 

 

Michael Marcus
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Lessons From a Trading Great: Michael Marcus

Michael Marcus turned $30,000 into $80 million over a 20 year period — not too shabby.

He was profiled in Schwager’s original classic Market Wizards, giving one of the more impressive interviews in a book filled with many. Read more

Bruce Kovner
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Lessons from a Trading Great: Bruce Kovner

Bruce Kovner retired in 2011 from Caxton Associates, the hedge fund he founded and ran for 28 years.

Over that time the fund returned an average of 21 percent a year since its inception. In comparison, the SPX averaged just 11%. Kovner had only one losing year (in 94’). Before Caxton, while trading at the famous Commodities Corp, he averaged close to 90% over 10 years. Impressive numbers by any measure. Read more