This is the story about how I became a stock trader. It is a long read but it gives you an idea about how the learning curve could look like for someone in his late twenties without any prior background in finance.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
I was born, raised and currently live in a country with a solid retirement system where nobody invests in anything except their homes, let alone the “evil” stock market. Over here in risk-averse Germany we don’t even talk about stocks, I have met two maybe three guys in my entire life with whom I was able to chat a little about my late-discovered passion. Most have a strong belief that you must find a good bank which provides you with a nice diversified fund run by one of those magicians hiding on the top floor of their ivory towers in New York, London or Frankfurt. But that misconception is part of another story. My dad once dropped out of a multiday monopoly match within the first two hours because he refused to loan any play money from the bank, go figure!
I didn’t had any background in finance or any interest in it either. As an US american this might sound far-fetched but over here in germany the 2009 collapse wasn’t a thing. I was in my mid twenties at that time and didn’t even fully
realized that there was a crisis until 2010 when I somehow got in touch with the markets. Even home owners over here couldn’t have cared less about lehmans and bear sterns going belly up. However we did notice the 2011 EU debt crisis
but it didn‘t hurt our bank accounts as much as money in the closet and under your pillow isn‘t really susceptile to stock market volatility and as long as inflation is kept in check everything is fine over here! German
enginee financial conservatism in the house!
I am not talking about german banks because they obviously know how to play and lose the game just as well as their US counterparts.
THE RIGHT TRADING BOOK
Back to how I came in touch with the markets. It was in 2009 and I was sitting in my office at the university doing some research late in the evening. I can’t remember how exactly it happend but I must have clicked some clickbait ad or news and suddenly found my self reading an article about stock trading where they mentioned the book ‘How to make money trading stocks‘ from William O’Neil’ (Yes, of course it was that one). I recall searching for a pdf without success and instead downloaded another book ( ‘The Battle For Investment Survival’ by Gerald M. Loeb) onto my cluttered windows desktop. Don’t worry as I regularly bought it later on. I briefly browsed through and forgot about it after going back to my original task at hand. My research back then demanded my full attention.
Fast forward a year when I finally had to clean up my desktop. I rediscovered the book that day, decided to print it and read the whole thing that night in my bed. I never looked back and in the ensuing months and years I spend roughly 4000€ on trading book on amazon. I was hooked by the idea that you can make money by ‚buying into‘ companies like AMZN, GOOGL, MSFT or IBM.
TRADING AS A SCIENCE, A FALLACY!
I am a visual guy, I was drawing a lot as a kid and always excelled at visual puzzles and riddles and somehow I ended up with an engineering degree. So I was lucky that I found a book which focused on visuals, (read: stock charts) to begin with. It all made sense and sounded simple and straight forward to me. Pick a growth stocks according to some given metrics and with some luck (read: probability) it will turn into a monster stock. Rinse and repeat and you’ll make a fortune in no time.
The rational me figured that all I had to do was writing down every little piece of information in a notebook. You have to see it to believe it and that insanity was only topped by my excel spreadsheet where I manually filled over 60 columns every morning from 6 to 7 AM with data from eIBD, MarketSmith screens and other online sources. I even tried to reverse engineer Dr. K’s market timing model at that time because I truly believed that this must be the holy grail right there. In hinsight all this stuff was a colossal waste of time and certainly prolonged my learning curve for at least two more years.
When it comes to trading every minute which you don’t spend browsing charts trying to grasp how the markets really operates is a wasted minute. It just strikes me that the 80/20 rule might be suitable here. Spend 80% of the time watching the market and stocks move on a computer screen (doesn’t have to be intraday) and 20% of the time doing other ‚super important scientifically backed research in the depths of the internet in order to find or at least recreate the holy grail of trading‘. You guys got the irony right?
STOP LOSSES SAVED MY LIFE
After saving up my first stake and studying the markets for almost two years I finally opened my frist broker account in august 2011. It didn’t start well and my account balance slowly but steadily sloped downward from day one. The fact that the EU crisis hit at the exact same time didn’t help either.
In hinsight that was the single best thing that could have happended to me early on. I was forced to adhere to my stops from day one just to survive and that safety net is deeply ingrained ever since. I recall having over 10 stop loss hits in a row during my first months in the market. What a nice and warm welcome by Mr. Market. I was humbled but learned my lesson and as a result, never ever let a stock trade through my stops without excecuting them in 8 years of trading real money.
I got once caught in a nasty overnight gap down in $LITB and closed the trade within the first minute of the next trading day without a second guess.
A major lesson in risk management early on. $LITB gapped down 40% overnight after reporting weak earnings. I entered late and ignored three red flags. I cut my huge loss quickly and learned for good that you never ever hold a stock through earnings with a full position size.
It was already like a reflex or an instinct by that time and in hinsight I am surprised that I didn’t hold it a little longer intraday to get out at a better price. This incident really shows how I approached my stops and losses from day one and it is probably the number one reason why I am here today without an account crash under my belt (It got close only once). It goes without saying that this was also the last time that I gambled on earnings.
Today I rarely hold a position through an earning announcement at all. And if I do, I make sure to scale out beforhand so that even a 30% gap down wouldn’t make me blink. Besides my strict adherence to stop losses and the avoidance of earnings, another big part of my story is surely the fact that I never ever switched trading systems. Today I am looking at the same type of charts and similar entries compared to 10 years ago. I have a small universe of stocks including recent IPOs, more mature growth stocks and a couple disruptive names. I never touched a penny stock or futures in my life and only dabbled in options for half a year before abondoning it again. I like to keep things simple and believe that the stock market is all about specialization. I have yet to find an all-rounder who manages to juggle all the different markets and trading approaches with any noteworthy success.
THE CHEESY GOLDEN RULES OF TRADING
In my opinion the discipline to stick to one system and the ability to cut your losses quickly is the perfect combination of traits you want to aquire as a trader early on. And it shouldn‘t surprise anyone that those two rules are commonly referred to as the golden rules of trading.
If you don’t cut your losses you won’t survive long enough to make it through the learning curve. And if you hop systems all the time your learning curve will be prolonged into eternity.
As you can see both rules are extremely synergetic on a very basic level and together they build the foundation on which you can raise just any imaginable trading endeavour. If you already read a couple books about trading you probably didn’t pay much attention to the last couple sentences because you are so fed up with the so called “golden rules”. But if I would sit next to you right now I wouldn’t allow you to continue reading until you at least reread this paragraph at least five more times.
So just imagine me sitting right there next to you and politely asking you to reread it again at least one more time. Could you deny me that request? Without adhering to the golden rules you will not stand any chance, period!
As a novice starting from scratch you might argue that you need to find a working system in the first place to begin with. As a matter of fact there is no such thing as a working trading system in the beginning and there are certainly no secrets which you could possibly discover beforehand. Do some research to get a good overview of the different trading approaches and then decide wether you want to focus on charts or on fundamentals or something else depending on what you enjoy most. The next step is to simply pick an entry method. That could be a simple moving average crossover, a known candlestick pattern, break of resistance or even an earnings announcement, It doesn’t really matter.
The magic ingredient which will turn almost any system into a working one is your skill and you won’t have much of it in the beginning. You might have talent but you better not confuse talent with skill at this point. Please be aware that my story is about trading charts and I only use fundamentals to filter for ‚quality‘ by whatever means.
AN UNEXPECTED WINGMAN
In late 2011 I came back in touch with a close friend of mine. We lost contact for a couple years and as we have met again we quickly realized that we both suddenly had a common interest in the financial markets. And we never ever talked about that kind of stuff since we first met in 5th grade.
With quantuum mechanic’s entangling, black holes, and stuff like the holographic theory of our universe you really have to wonder from a science point of view if everything is somehow connected and if a thing like ‚coincidence‘ even exists.
Anyway, we had an awesome conversation that night and I recall citing plain market widsom like a fool. But we both enjoyed it. Little did I know that I was still in the first quater of the learning curve. I felt like a market wizard already and now there was suddenly someone with whom I could talk about the stuff I am so passionate about, it felt just great. My friend is into forex and with his background in coding he was naturally leaning torwards the automated side of the trading game. He is rather risk-averse and he will be the first one to tell you that he can’t take too much heat. So keeping a certain distance to the action, as it is the case with automated trading, was a smart thing to do for him. He simply has a very good flair for finance in general.
Meanwhile I continued to focus solely on stocks and it just happened by chance that I read a book with an article about automated trading and martingale systems. I already knew that maringale, or any other average-down approach, is deeply flawed but after a couple months we both somehow ended up developing a sophisticated portfolio based martingale system. We convinced ourselves that the risk can be kept in check when you just mix enough carefully backtested and non correlated systems together, apply sound risk management and allow for a couple of the systems to fail in the process. Well it turned out that was not the case and it imploded in the end when the markets changed character in october 2012 just a couple month after we launched our system.
NZDAUD set out on a one year lasting steady rally without any noteworthy pullbacks. A martingale grid based system needs retracements otherwise it will just continue to average down until the inevitable margin call spoils the party. So we were guilty of overfitting our system to backtested data despite our efforts to avoid exactly that. Once the currency pair decided that the pricing was all wrong it just exploded to a new price level without looking back and killed our ‚sophisticated‘ system in the process. The full story of this endavour will probably be part of another article in the future.
Our computers, armed with an backup power supply system, ran 24/7 backtesting more than 10 strategies in parallel with high quality tick data, in hinsight spending all that computing power on mining bitcoins would have been more profitable I suppose. So while this initial adventure into forex prologned my learning curve to some degree I don’t consider it a waste of time. From time to time it can be very refreshing to leave your regular field as this allows you to see things from a different angle and it can also be a great source of inspiration and motivation. While it was certainly a failure from the profit perspective it nevertheless was a great experience which taught us a ton about risk and especially about portoflio management and we both ended up with a great trading partner who happened to be an old friend. From a business perspective it is also irreplaceable to have someone on your side you can trust and relate to.
Call it bad luck as we launched our system right into the only year within a 16 year period which had the ability to crush it. Markets change all the time and a rigid system which lacks the ability to adapt isn’t of any value.
A QUANTUM LEAP
Through our initial forex endavour I gained some fresh motivation to lift my discrete (read: non-automated) stock trading to the next level. In the following years I gave up my proud but useless excel spreadsheet and started to follow one guy only, Gil Morales. At that point I was already a member of his service for 2 years and his meta approach to trading and his boldness was the big part that I was missing in my own more scientific trading approach. I also experienced in real time how Gil adapted his trading method according to how the market changed.
I was deeply impressed with the way he came up with fresh tweaks and techniques on the fly to preserve his edge in the era of quantitative easing aka money printing. In the end he held what his prospectus promised and taught me how to fish. It was tough at times because I couldn’t always relate to his ideas and thoughts or even himself as a person as he has a rich background in finance where he used to be an institutional level fund manager. During that time I slowly backed away from trying to make trading an exact science and started to shift my focus onto myself. That was the time when I cut off all the noise except what Gil had to say. I soaked up his words and it slowly dawned on me that trading has nothing to do with intelligence (not because of Gil, he is damn smart) but rather with emotional discipline and the ability to adapt to changes. During the first years the weak link of any trading system is the guy sitting in front of the computer!
I started a personal trading journal in excel but I didn’t had the diclipline to truly write down my real time thoughts and ideas and it wasn’t of any value to me after a while. I figured that I need some sort of extrinsic motivation which forces me to write down my ideas and thoughts with care and conscientiousness. That’s when I started posting on Twitter under the tag @ThweisSXFX in 2013. My feed was self-centered until I added a little educational twist in 2017.
What you read there is truly my own trading journal of ideas and thoughts and I browse it everyday and go back to old post in order to learn from my mistakes and recall my thinking. My feed is quite often my own best trading indicator as well. Sometimes I can quickly sense that my ego crawled back into my trading while going over recent posts. I don’t actually seek interaction with others on twitter and don’t run ads or other bs because I try to eliminate external noise as much as I can. However I can’t lie and enjoy the interaction from time to time and recently added an educational twist to my feed.
And by the way, if you already forgot what this paragraph was about because you constantly felt the urge to scream at me that a quantum leap is actually only a tiny hop you have your focus messed up. If you focus on every meanigless detail in trading or life in general you hinder your ability to soak up and remember the important information. It took me many years to develop the ability to truly listen to others focussing on the important stuff they said without only cherry-picking out the details which I was able to relate to and where I could add my two cents. This has to do with one’s ego!
I CAN CATCH FISH!
Back in 2014 I realized that I was doing much better with my own stock ideas compared to what Gil was putting up. It took me two attempts to cut myself loose because you get so used to being fed with other peoples opinions and ideas that it is a strange sensation when you suddenly have to rely on your very own thinking. I remember that I made it a sport to do my own stock picking beforehand and then compare my ideas with what Gil came up with in his weekend reports.
I never really came in touch with him personally but he once acknowledged my stock picking skills ojn his feed. I nailed the textbook cup and handle in WB in march 2016 as it reminded me a lot about VIPS’s pattern in 2012. I boldly posted on Gils feed that WB could turn into VIPS 2.0. In hinsight this is so cheesy and meaningless but by praising me back then he actually handed me the scissors to cut myself loose for good.
Always remember that the intention behind what someone does or says doesn’t have to match with how you perceive or feel about it.
For Gil it was just some regular chat but for me it changed a lot. WB turned out to only make 600% compared to the 5000% move in VIPS so I was obviously wrong with my call. But when being wrong means you still make the trade of your career up to this point you can’t complain, or can you? By the way WB VIPS or LCI gave me the insight that you can still trade the classic patterns but with one constraint, they must be under the radar and not obvious to everyone. There is a very easy and reliable way to figure out quickly if a name is under the radar or not. Go to ST and check the activity for your specific stock and if every other post is loaded with emotions you know for sure that the stock you are looking at is way too obvious and that a lot of weak hands are on board.
I am always on the hunt for under the radar cup and handle, double bottom and flat bases. I actually bought MBLY (Mobileye) in the handle two days before it was bought by MSFT a couple years ago. MBLY at that time surely wasn’t obvious and there wasn’t much hype or attention surrounding the stock. Those under the radar classic patterns are rare these days hence you will have a hard time building a whole system based just on them. But don’t be fooled, they still posses the power to predict some monster stock moves for sure due to being based on perfectly sound mass psychological patterns.
I want to give a shout out to Gil who was my mentor without knowing it. Thank you Gil ‚400% balls to the wall‘ Morales.
Weekly charts of rare under the radar, textbook cup and handle patterns. Walmart is the originator from 1980. If you find one of these in todays market you better trade it. Problem is that most traders are way to sloppy with their definition of such patterns. A cup and handle is all about the little price and volume clues and not just the general shape.
ENTERING CASTLE SOLITUDE
So there I was without a mentor all on my own. I continued to do well with my trading but I was still missing some sort of stability in my routine. After slowly getting rid of all the unencessary tools over the years I was left armed with only one monitor on my desk, a screener ( Finviz), a charting tool ( Tradingview), Twitter and my trading workstation.
I traded a lot and posted my real time ideas and thoughts on twitter. However I was not taking enough care of my portfolio. I had a couple fixed position sizes I typically used depending on the setup, utilized some easy scale-in and scale-out techniques and quite often enganged in trades which I would label impulsive nowadays. If you’d have asked me which one of my setups works best I could have only given you an educated guess because I had no reliable data at hand. I believed that I can easily go through all my trades with the statements I get from my broker at a later time. As a result I reviewed my old trades halfhearted and typicially focused only on the losers ignoring the fact that optimizing the winning trades would be equally beneficial.
During that time a strange kind of overtrading sneaked into my trading as I was unable to sit infront of my screen without engaging with the market. It is not that I wasn’t disciplined enough, it was because I was searching for setups all the time. And when you just search long enough you will find one which fits your rules eventually. You will deceive yourself by convincing yourself that the mediocre setup you found is a good one and as a result you will likely trade it. I did this regardless of the fact that I was fully aware of it all the time. I believe many traders can relate to this. Quite often you know exactly what you should do but somehow it is hard to pull off.
Every single aspiring trader knows after a while that you must adhere to your stop losses. It is repeated over and over again up to a point that you become numb and take it for granted and start to look for further ‚golden trading tips‘ without even getting this first one right. It is the same with many phrases and quotes, they are repeated so often that most people are unable to see the true widsom they posses.
WORKING ON MY PUZZLE
So what I did next was filling in a major piece of my puzzle. I created a neat little excel portfolio which allows me to track my open and more importanly recent closed trades. It shows me when I overtrade and it helps me to keep a cool head when I am doing exceptionally well. There is a lot of statistics involved so I preserved some of the science in trading after all.
I am actively monitoring my trade outcomes for flaws which I need to adress. My portfolio allows me to figure out if the trading results for a setup are just by chance or robuts (read: statistically significant). I trade only the best setups and I drop those which lack performance. It surely is a big part of my edge because few private traders do this as most guys simply trade in a way so that their bad setups dilute the porfit potential.
The big funds are forced to make portfolio managament an art because they lack the inherent ability to just get out of the way quickly due to size. Small private traders typically don’t take great care of that because they know the can just switch to cash quickly. It is a smart idea however to combine the best of both worlds and thats exactly what I am doing. As a trader you want to act as if you are the casino and not the gambler. In order to do that you have to employ statistics to maximize the probability of coming out ahead in the end.
Overtrading is a thing of the past for me now for some years. I also slowly realized that I was doing much better with my stock picks when I don’t spend too much time searching for them. Today I schedule 30 min two times a week to find new setups by browsing through roughly 500 charts. If I can’t find any good ones within that time frame so be it.
Being aware of my past trades and getting rid of stuff which doesn‘t work well was the boring part that I was completely missing in my approach up to this point. Every aspect of your trading should be monitored and analysed in order to hone your edge. And this is not nearly as complicated as it may sound. Generally speaking I separate trading into two regimes. I treat stock picking and chart reading like an art and portfolio management like an exact science which involves heavy use of statistics.
Most traders turn this upside down as they try to make chart reading an exact science with a myriad of indicators and absolute values and at the same time they are lazy and sloppy with their portfolio management. I can guarantee you that the latter is a false approach leading nowhere in the long run. You simply can’t predict the markets and the market couldn’t care less about your chart overlays.
A good example is the fibonacci retracement where traders only see the cases when it works and ignore the majority of cases when it doesn‘t. Fibonacci retracements are not real and have zero statistical significance as the distribution of retracements most certainly follows a mirrored ‚log-normal‘ curve with a median value around 25%. Retracements at the 23.6%, 38.2%, 61.8% and 76.4% marks are explained by statistical chance alone unfortuanetely. Same with the 10, 20 or 50 day simple moving averages, they bear no deeper meaning but traders utililize them for over a century now and they simply turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Better take the time to learn to identify the little supply and demand clues hidden in the price and volume action of a chart and trade a selected little universe of stocks based on those clues only a few can interpret correctly. In the end why do traders expect that creating an edge over other traders is as simple as adding a chart overlay in the first place?
STOCK MARKET TIMING, WHY SO EFFORTLESS?
Trading became somewhat effortless over the last years and my ‘living portfolio’ helped me discover another major flaw in my trading. That flaw was my inability to only trade heavy when there is an open window of opportunity and to sit on my hands when said window is shut. Right know all I do is monitor my trading and I intervene whenever I see some sort of deviation.
I also make little thought experiments all the time, e.g., I ask myself what could the market do now to make sure to leave most traders behind or if the late comers are in a position such that a nasty reversal today will break their spirit or if they can easily digest it. It is usually pretty easy to get to a solid conclusion regarding such questions. When I started reading all those books from O’Neil, Morales and so on I was stunned by one statement which you barely find in other books and that is that timing the markets is doable and actually rather easy.
Well after accumulating 10 years of experience as a growth stock swing & position trader I can assure you that you will always be able to get out of your stocks before a major correction. Your own stocks and other leading stocks will give you the signals way ahead of time. As a swing / position trader it should be a large part of your edge to step aside when the dogs start to bark and not just when the walls start to shake and the earthquake is about to hit you in the face with full force. As a matter of fact you are naturally pushed to cash by your stocks as they begin to flash red flags.
That works best when you are engaged and watch the the first wave of leaders during any opportunity cycle as they are the ones who set the rythm. That’s what I typically refer to as leaders and laggards. The laggards can also make you money but they are not good at timing the markets because quite often they lift their head right before an intermediate market correction. However that kind of stuff is beyond the scope of this article.
I couldn’t care less about the so called classic stock market cycle but I do know from experience that there are typically 2 to 4 brief windows of opportunity every year. The trick is not to overtrade in between so that you are in a strong position to fully exploit an open window once it arrives.
I typically seek entries when the window is open and try to just sit tight and let the market do the magic in between when things are less clear and decisive. From experience I can tell you that pulling this of is impossible early on and will become effortless later on as you gain a feel for how the market operates. I am afraid that there isn’t much in between.
You can compare this to a team sport if you want. When you enter your first practice game with a grown and mature team you often just rush around as you are always one step behind. It is the same thing for a trader when he enters the real markets for the first time. You are initially behind and slowly but steadily gain traction due to the accumulation of practice hours until you catched up and find yourself in sync with the game. After many years you suddenly realize that you are actually a step ahead now as the game appears to be in slow motion to you. It will feel effortless eventually because you get all the little clues automatically as your subconcious mind is now running the show.
There are certainly no shortcuts to this and there is strong scientifically backed evidence that you truly need to put in the hours first. But if you get the other parts of the trading game right you might turn a net profitable trader much earlier and what I wrote here will just be the icing on the cake.