Thursday, April 30, 2015

Three Questions Crucial to Understanding the Day Behavior of Stocks

Three questions that are key to understanding the day behavior of stocks are:

1)  Who is in the market?
2)  Are they becoming more active in the market over time?
3)  Are they able to move the market directionally?

Above we see a chart of yesterday's price action in SPY (blue line), plotted against five-minute readings of relative volume (red line).  (Raw data from e-Signal; all calculations in Excel).  The relative volume is expressed in standard deviation terms.  Each five minute period's volume is expressed relative to the median five-minute volume and standard deviation for that same time period over the past two months.  So, for example, a reading of zero at 10:05 AM (all Eastern time) would mean that we traded exactly at the median volume for the 10:05 - 10:10 period.  A reading of 1.0 would mean that we traded at one full standard deviation above the median volume for that period.

What we're looking for relative to the three questions above are:

1)  Do we see significantly above average participation in the market?  If so, we have a good indication that speculative players in the market are active.  If not, we could have a slow market dominated by market makers.

2)  Do we see participation increasing over time?  We want to know if those speculative players are being drawn to the price action or whether the market's auction is shutting down as prices move from value.

3)  Do we see evidence of trending behavior corresponding to the participation in the market?  Are we getting two-sided action--action where both buyers and sellers are aggressive and keeping the market in a range--or do we see a dominance of buyers or sellers over their counterparts facilitating a market move away from value? 

Yesterday was a Fed day and we also had an important GDP number early in the morning.  As a result, we saw above average participation in the market early in the trading session.  Relative volume picked up with morning market weakness and dried up ahead of the Fed announcement at 14:00.  At that point relative volume spiked with the appearance of buyers.  Nothing in the Fed's announcement--and certainly nothing in the weak GDP report--led participants to think that monetary conditions would be altered in a way that would be harmful to stocks.

Yet what do we see for the remainder of the afternoon?  Apropos to points 2) and 3) above, relative volume tailed off steadily and price could not break above its early morning levels.  In other words, on a relative basis buying interest was drying up and there was no reason to move price above where value had been established on the day time frame.

What does that suggest?  Nothing in the Fed action was perceived as a meaningful game changer for stocks.  The interplay of volume, price, and time help us understand the demand and supply behind the market's action.  That provides us with meaningful reference points for the following day, as it will take fresh volume flows to move us out of yesterday's range.

Further Reading:  Relative Volume and Market Opportunity

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Pinball, Poker, and Trading: Perspectives on Going on Tilt

Bella at SMB offers some excellent perspectives regarding trading on tilt.  Tilt is a term that originated in poker and describes a state in which sheer frustration with the game takes over and distorts one's betting.  As I noted in an earlier post, trading on tilt is a function of our outcome expectations.  If we are not emotionally prepared for the possibility of losing, we are more likely to be thrown by losses.  We set ourselves up for the tilt state by needing and expecting to win, rather than letting probabilities play themselves out and accept that there will be winning and losing periods.

I recall becoming an avid pinball machine junkie in college and watching players become frustrated to the point where their own tilt led them to throw their machines into tilt.  My first book describes how I never really succeeded consistently at pinball until I discovered a quirk in the machine I was playing.  If I let the ball hit my left flipper and did absolutely nothing, the ball would bounce to my right flipper.  From the right flipper, I could swing the ball through an area of the table and it would ring up points and send the ball to my left flipper.  Once again I would do nothing, the ball would bounce to my right flipper, and I would swing the ball through the scoring alley.  One time I repeated this so many times that I won 32 free games in a row.

I never went on tilt and I never put my table into tilt.  The game became pretty emotionless, because I was repeating a technical maneuver over and over again.  I got to the point where I almost always won free games.  I never really mastered pinball machines; I just became good at finding and exploiting quirks in machines.  The best quirks came from doing something that no player would normally do, like not use your flipper when the ball came your way.

There's an important lesson there for trading.

Further Reading:  Regaining Self Control

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Equity Put/Call Ratio: Why Sentiment Matters

Lately I've seen a variety of observations about stock market sentiment, ranging from bullish to bearish to neutral.  My favorite measure of sentiment is the put/call ratio for all individual stocks with listed options.  This excludes index option volume.  Above we see a five-day moving average of the equity put/call ratio (red) plotted against the SPX.  (Raw data from e-Signal).

In general, we've tended to see elevations of the ratio at relative market lows.  Over the last few weeks, the ratio has dramatically declined as we've percolated to new highs.  We are currently in a zone where traders are bullish in their options-related behavior.

Since the start of 2014, sentiment has been an important tell for forward market returns.  If we simply conduct a median split of the daily data, we find that when traders have been relative bullish (N = 160), the next 10 days in SPX have averaged a loss of -.28%.  When traders have been relatively bearish (N = 160), the next 10 days in SPX have averaged a gain of 1.18%.  In other words, if you followed the sentiment herd and bought the market when traders were bullish and sold when they were bearish, you lost significant money.  Essentially all the market's returns have come from time periods when traders did not believe we were going to get good returns.

There's an important lesson there.

Further Reading:  The Index Put/Call Ratio

Monday, April 27, 2015

More Good Stuff to Begin the Trading Week

*  Above we see a cumulative running total of the number of NYSE stocks giving buy versus sell signals with respect to their Bollinger Bands.  This is one way of looking at the breadth of strength versus weakness over time.  After notable weakness going into the October, 2014 drop, we have been working our way higher in this measure.  More stocks have been showing strength than weakness, as much because of the relative absence of sell signals as the high presence of buys.  

This is a very important concept for developing traders:  How we are wired socially, emotionally, and cognitively defines where we will find our edge in markets.  We are best positioned to know markets if we first know ourselves.

*  I've been making increasing use of the site.  I like the feature that tracks advancing and declining stocks across international as well as U.S. averages.  I also like the coverage of international markets, FX, and the international commentary.

Of the top posts tracked by Abnormal Returns this past week, I especially like the one that outlines problems that frequently accompany backtests.  Another great link is Meb Faber's post on diversification and protecting against an overvalued stock market.

Great series of posts on mindfulness in trading by SMB Training and Bruce Bower.  The clearest problems with mindfulness occur when we are caught up in emotional reactions to market action.  Less appreciated is that we can lose self-awareness as a function of good trading.  If we're absorbed in markets, we're not focused on our best trading of those.  It's that transition from market awareness to trading awareness that is key.  Many great traders use post-it notes for reminders on their screen precisely because it's when they're most focused on markets that they're least focused on best trading practices.    

*  Are we trending on a day time frame?  Stats provided by Vic Scherer are quite relevant.  I've also been looking at volume as a relevant measure.  It's tough for short-term moves to extend if volume is drying up.  Note that trend on an X time frame is dependent upon momentum at the Y time frame, where Y > X.  If you have a measure that has a momentum edge, you can generally define a winning trend strategy at a lower time frame.

Have a great start to the week!


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sharing Great Ideas Via $STUDY and #tradingpsychology

One of the joys of social media is the opportunity to discover people who are doing good work.  True, you have to wade through quite a few emo and self-promotional posts and tweets to find the nuggets of insight and talent, but all you need is to find one per month and over time you build quite a stimulating and meaningful network.

Are you doing good work?  Are you looking at markets in fresh and rigorous ways to generate better trading ideas?  Are you looking at yourself in fresh and rigorous ways to better improve yourself?  If so, I encourage you to make use of two symbols to facilitate your networking with other creative, productive market pros:  $STUDY and #tradingpsychology.  

$STUDY is the symbol for educational tweets posted to the excellent StockTwits site.  These may consist of insights in themselves or may link to original posts that contain insight into markets and trading.  A great way to see who is doing good work is to punch up $STUDY and find the people who are talking more about ideas than about themselves. 

#tradingpsychology is an underutilized hashtag.  I've been making greater use of it in my tweets in hopes of making it a better archive for original insights posts that deal with the psychology of trading.  Again, there's a bit of wading through the self-promotional stuff, but by and large people who are posting good things on trading psychology topics are not making use of the #tradingpsychology hashtag.

So here's the deal:  I will be making conscious and consistent use of $STUDY and #tradingpsychology when I have ideas and posts to share about markets and the trading of those.  If you're doing good original work, I encourage you to do the same.  I will go out of my way to then favorite, retweet, and link to the best of your work.  Over time, this will be a great way to facilitate networking among likeminded professionals and allow the workhorses to stand out from the show horses.  

I look forward to organizing a greater NYC craft beer event this spring for those of us sharing via $STUDY and #tradingpsychology.  After all, there's a reason it's called social media!

Further Reading:  A Different Kind of Trading Group

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Questioning Strong and Weak Markets

One of the best ways to generate fresh ideas is to question accepted wisdom.  What is often assumed among traders and market writers is just not the case.

Technical indicators are generally regarded as measures of market strength and weakness.  When price action has been strong over a lookback period, the technical indicator is viewed as bullish and vice versa.  At extreme values, the indicator may be regarded as an "overbought" or "oversold" measure.  

Since the middle of last year, I have been tracking the buy and sell signals for all NYSE stocks for several technical indicators.  (Raw data compiled via the Stock Charts site).  Three indicators I've looked at in particular detail are Bollinger Bands, MACD, and Parabolic SAR.  Since June, 2014, the correlations of buy signals across the indicators have been positive, ranging from +.23 (Bollinger:MACD) to +.56 (MACD:Parabolic SAR).  Similarly, the correlations of sell signals have been high, ranging from +.22 (Bollinger:MACD) to +.75 (MACD:Parabolic SAR).  Clearly, different indicators are not measuring completely different things.  Indeed, an argument can be made that indicators are simply implementations of different moving average rules.  When we look at which indicator is best, we're really fitting past market behavior to a particular moving average, which may or may not be predictive on a prospective basis.

On Friday, we had buy signals outnumber sell signals for all three of the above indicators, reflecting the recent market strength.  Going back to June, 2014, when this has occurred (N=62), the next five days in SPY have averaged a gain of only +.01%, compared with an average five-day gain of +.26% for the remainder of the sample.  Clearly, strong readings have not brought near-term strength--though neither have "overbought" readings reliably led to market declines.  The failure of strength to be followed by strength is yet one more reflection of the distinction between trend and momentum outlined in the recent post

Conversely, when we've had all three indicators yielding more sell signals than buys (N=49), the next three days in SPY have averaged a gain of +.33% versus +.04% for the rest of the sample.  Market weakness has tended to reverse in the near term, though much of that relative performance boost tends to fade over subsequent trading sessions.

It is human nature to extrapolate from the recent past to the immediate future when we are trying to anticipate events.  In the case of the stock market, failing to question "strength" and "weakness" has been hazardous to our wealth.

Further Reading:  The Breadth of Strength

Friday, April 24, 2015

Using Relative Volume to Assess Short-Term Market Opportunity

Here is something I watch closely while trading.  The blue line is the SPY ETF; the red line takes the SPY volume for each five-minute period and expresses that relative to the average SPY volume at that same five-minute period (30-day lookback).  The ratio is expressed in standard deviation units.  When the ratio is above 1.0, we're seeing above average flows come into the market for that five-minute segment.  When the ratio is below 1.0, we're seeing below average volume participating in that period.

Because volume correlates highly with volatility, this ratio gives a nice real-time updating of how much movement we can expect in the stock index.  Note that the couple of times we bounced above zero during the morning, relative volume tailed right back off.  It's when we see persistence of high ratio readings that we generally see range extension and short-term momentum.  In the low volume environment, we're more likely to see moves reverse before possibly continuing in their initial direction.

In the case of this morning's market, the tailing off of volume represented a pulling back of buyers; there was no influx of sellers.  While low volume is not good for momentum trades, it is not necessarily a bad thing for trend trades.

Further Reading:  Momentum and Trend Trades

Why FOMO Fails: Trending Markets Are Not Necessarily Momentum Ones

As I speak with traders, I notice a common mistake that is responsible for quite a few losses:  the confusion between trend trading and momentum trading.  They are not the same thing.  Traders who fear missing out on a trending move and chase strength or weakness frequently get whipsawed and stopped out.

Let's define our terms:

An asset that is trending is making higher highs (lower lows) and higher lows (lower highs) during a given lookback period.  If you imagine a regression line for price as a function of time, the line would be the trendline and there would be a noticeable positive or negative slope over that lookback period.

An asset that is trading with momentum tends to continue in the direction in which it has been trading.  Strength tends to be followed by strength; weakness by weakness.  Think of that regression line that is the best fit for a given trend.  If price oscillates widely around that line (i.e., the fit is not great), this is because the trending asset is not trading with momentum.  When price is strong, it tends to fade and vice versa.  A line that is a very good fit suggests momentum in the direction of the trend.

When traders assert that there is a trend and then buy strength (or sells weakness) to ride the trend, they are assuming that the trend also displays momentum.  That ain't necessarily so.  Buying strength in an uptrend and selling weakness in a downtrend is a great way to underperform in a trend market that is not a momentum one.

Let's go to the excellent Paststat site for a couple of illustrations.  A technical indicator is a useful and familiar measure of price strength and weakness.  If an asset shows momentum effects, it should demonstrate significant strength following high indicator readings and significant weakness following low readings.  Different indicators incorporate different lookback periods, so a look at several is useful if we want to gauge momentum over differing time periods.

To start, let's say we buy SPY when it closes above its upper Bollinger Band and hold for five trading days.  Over the past three years, this has resulted in 40 trades.  Of those, 24 have been winners and 16 losers for an average gain of +.04% and a profit factor of 1.13.  Meh.  No distinctive upside edge to buying strength, but also no significant weakness.  This fits with my research:  when price strength occurs with positive breadth thrust and elevated momentum, there is a greater probability of upside follow through than when the strength occurs with little oomph.  Averaged together, we see no meaningful tendencies.

Now let's buy SPY when it closes below its lower Bollinger Band and hold for five trading days.  Now we have 43 trades:  28 winners and 15 losers for an average gain of +.98% and a profit factor of 3.14.  That's a meaningful bullish tendency.  It suggests anti-momentum following weakness.  When price has dropped significantly, we've tended to bounce.

The trader who bought strength and sold weakness during the last three years lost money on average.  It has been a trending market, but not a momentum one.  Executing based on momentum has turned a normally winning trend strategy into a losing one.  Think about traders who trade with a "fear of missing out", and you can appreciate why that emotional pattern is so costly!

OK, so let's buy SPY when its RSI is above 70 and hold for 5 days.  Now we have 122 trades over a three year period:  60 wins, 62 losses, for an average gain of +.02% and a profit factor of 1.08.  Meh.  If we buy SPY when its RSI has been below 30, we have 24 trades:  18 up, 6 down for an average gain of +1.79% and a profit factor of 7.08%.

It's interesting that traders often emphasize trading with the trend but not chasing trades.  That's an implicit realization that a directional bias doesn't have to be a momentum bias.  Many trends are traded best when they look as though they're ending.

Further Reading:  Price Momentum and Cycles

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Market Profile as a Fresh Perspective on Markets: Useful Resources for Traders

Last year I wrote about Market Profile as a practical theory that helps traders achieve a fresh perspective on markets and trading.  Market Profile stems from the early work of Peter Steidlmayer, which was grounded in an innovative approach to charting.  (See this early manual for an overview).  This approach tracks the market's auction process by identifying where markets set value and gauging whether current trading is accepting or rejecting a given value area.  Markets rotate in and out of balance as they oscillate within value areas and create new ones.  

Since this early work, a variety of new tools for understanding the market's auction process have become available.  Market Delta is a unique charting format that helps identify when buyers and sellers are dominant in markets based upon whether transactions are occurring dominantly at the current bid or offer price.  This can be an effective way of visualizing how volume is behaving as we depart from a value area--a nice tell for whether we are likely to rotate back into a value range or trend and establish fresh value.

WindoTrader is an unusually flexible charting and analytics package that helps traders visualize value relationships at different time frames within a single graphic, as well as value relationships among different instruments.  (See their list of reading resources and trading blog.)  It is not at all uncommon to see a market move out of a shorter-term value range to the value area of a longer timeframe auction.  Visualizing this activity in real time is quite valuable.

I don't know of anyone who has done more to popularize Market Profile and educate traders in its application and interpretation than Jim Dalton.  He has archived a great number of articles and videos for his students and has developed training programs both by DVD and live.  I notice that he is conducting a summer intensive, in which he presents fresh developments in Market Profile application, including "signature trades" that result from an understanding of the auction process.  His current work builds on the excellent foundation of his Mind Over Markets book

Jim makes an important point:  when you look through the lens of the profile, you begin to think in terms of market structure and value, not price.  When we focus on price alone, we lose the context of that price movement.  Markets make sense as auction processes, providing us with a unique perspective on how markets move.  Many trading problems occur when we spend so much time and effort trying to predict the next market move, when it would be far more helpful to truly understand the market's movement to that point.

Further Reading:  Market Profile as a Best Practice

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

You Can't Win If You're Not Playing The Right Game

Mark Minervini makes an interesting point: the market is like poker in that the most important element of success is knowing which game to sit in on.  All too often, I find that traders in a slump focus on the hold 'em versus fold 'em choices of trading when, in fact, they're sitting at the wrong table.

How can we sit at the wrong trading table?  Several variations of this challenge immediately come to mind:

*  You're a momentum trader and you're trading a slow, low volatility market;
*  You're a trend trader and you're trading a choppy, range market;
*  You're a research-oriented big picture trader and you're getting caught up in short-term price action;
*  You're a skilled short-term trader and you're locked in a longer-term directional market view;
*  You're a contrarian fader and you're getting run over in high volume directional flows;
*  You're an independent thinker, but you're distracted and influenced by the views of others;
*  You're a trader who reads others well at the table, but you're isolated from other traders;

I've seen people make money in markets two ways:  by investing and by trading.  Investing means generating a big picture view and riding out short term noise en route to seeing that view materialize.  Investors are top-down thinkers:  they're analytical and their skill lies in putting pieces of research together to form a picture that others haven't yet seen.  Traders are bottom-up thinkers:  they recognize patterns as they form and act on them quickly.  Where the investor thinks deeply about opportunity over time, the trader thinks broadly about what's happening in markets at a given time.

A great way to lose money is to not understand yourself and how you're wired cognitively.  If you're a deep thinker, you'll lose money sitting at the trading table.  If you're a fast thinker, you'll lose money dabbling with investment theses.  The route to success is to be who you are when you're functioning at your best.  Working on improving your discipline, controlling your emotions, and following your process is not helpful if you're sitting at the wrong table to begin with.

Further Reading:  Patterns of Reasoning in Markets

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Good Way to Beat a Bad Attitude

Everyone knows what it's like to be in an attitude funk.  Perhaps it's been a long, slow drawdown; problems in your personal life; an overload of work; a lingering illness; or some combination thereof.  Nothing seems to be going right and nothing is making you particularly happy.  Thoughts and feelings shade to the negative, you're feeling grumpy, and you don't exactly feel like being around other people--especially if they're killing it in markets!

Research tells us that we perform best when we're drawing on strengths and are most vulnerable to burnout when the intensity of our work efforts crowd out the sources of our rejuvenation.  When our willpower is sapped and things aren't going well, it is difficult to access the positivity needed to emerge from an attitude funk.  An absence of positives, not just a surplus of negatives, can weigh on our mood and energy level.

One key to emerging from a bad attitude is making the transition from noun-thinking to verb-thinking.  In the noun-thinking mode, a negative attitude is something we have; we own it.  In verb mode, a negative attitude is something we're doing--we can control it.  More specifically, any attitude reflects our conversations with ourselves:  it is the direct result of our self-talk.  If we tell ourselves we're not doing well and nothing works, we will feel defeated and frustrated.  If we talk to ourselves in ways we'd never want to hear from others, we'll experience attitudes that we'd never want to be around.  

Once we switch lenses to the verb mode, we can see that our attitude is nothing more than the tone of our internal conversation.  Perfectionistic self-talk that emphasizes where we fell short leaves us feeling like we're falling short.  Worry talk about the future leaves us less than energized about pursuing the future.  Our attitude is our relationship to ourselves, made visible.  If we have a caring, supportive relationship to ourselves, we're more likely to face life with gratitude than attitude.

So, in the spirit of verb-thinking, here's a specific activity that can turn negative attitudes around:

Every time you catch yourself criticizing yourself or thinking negatively about your trading performance, write in a thought diary one or two constructive steps that you will take that day and week to make an improvement.  A great way to generate those constructive steps is to reflect on past positive experience and performance and identify what you did well at those times.  Those steps become your near-term goals and your subsequent focus.  It is important that what you write becomes what you do:  goals must turn into action plans. 

In other words, a good thought diary turns negative thinking into constructive thinking:  every self-criticism is answered with a positive change focus.  Negative thinking says, "I'm not doing good enough."  Constructive thinking says, "I'm making myself better."  

That's how we make positive experience a verb rather than a noun:  we can't always defeat a negative attitude with a positive one--sometimes things just aren't positive.  But we can always overcome a focus on what's bad with a focus on what we can improve.  Having a good attitude doesn't hinge on doing well; it is the result of appreciating the ways in which we're getting ever better.

Further Reading:  The Power of Opposites

Monday, April 20, 2015

Resources for Traders and More to Kick Off the Market Week

*  Above is my intermediate-term measure of market strength (red) charted against the cash SPX going back to the beginning of 2014.  The strength measure takes the sum of 5, 20, and 100-day highs and subtracts the sum of 5, 20, and 100-day lows specific to the SPX stocks.  It then smooths this number with a 10-day moving average.  (Raw data via the excellent Index Indicators site.)  Note that the strength measure has been waning since late 2014 and has recently turned downward from a relatively low peak.  When strength has been above zero going back to 2012, the next 20 days in SPX have averaged a gain of +.86%.  When strength has been below zero, the next 20 days in SPX have averaged a gain of +2.34%. 

*  Here's a very important Forbes article on performance co-written by Ted Hayes, Ph.D.  It explains why the single most important thing you can do to improve trading is develop and implement a strengths-based performance framework.  Some excellent links to strengths-based tests and resources. 

*  What to look for in market bubbles and other great reads for the week from Abnormal Returns.

*  Here are some great resources for you quant types out there:  

-- A very impressive collection of market stats from Vic Scherer.

-- Great breadth data and an impressive query engine from Kora Reddy.

-- My long time source for breadth data, Index Indicators also has a query engine.

-- A new primer on quant analysis from Adam Grimes.

Have a great start to the week!


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bayesian and Static Reasoning in Markets: Trading With an Open Mind

In a recent post, I highlighted the range trade in the ES futures over the past several months.  My point was that the market has been showing diminishing breadth at successive highs and also less weakness at successive lows during that range.  Generally, lengthier ranges lead to lengthier directional moves, as they are part of longer-term market cycles.  So the breakout from the current range should ultimately be a significant one.  Will the market break out of its range imminently, or will the range continue for another month or more?  Will the ultimate breakout be to the upside or downside?  Will we see a fakeout, false breakout prior to an eventual move to new highs or lows? 

My worst trading--and the worst trading I've observed of many traders--has been the result of what could be called static reasoning.  Static reasoning takes a variety of evidence, assembles the evidence into a conclusion, and then places trades based on that conclusion.  Risk taking is often a function of one's degree of belief in that conclusion.

Static reasoning is problematic for two reasons:  1) it is subject to overconfidence bias, as we take a firm stance on a view that we own; and 2) it is subject to confirmation bias, as we tend to process new, incoming information in the light of our convictions.  When I've seen traders take larger than desired losses, it's generally not been because they've held onto marginal views.  Rather, they have sized up their preferred views, stuck with those views in the face of contrary market information, and ultimately lost the position when drawdowns became uncomfortable.

I have found my best trading to result from what could be called Bayesian reasoning:  a thought process that reflects a Bayesian, probabilistic way of thinking.  Bayesian reasoning begins with a hypothesis, but it is a flexible hypothesis that updates with new, incoming information.  One's confidence in the hypothesis waxes and wanes with new information, and one's hypothesis can quickly change with new information.

With static reasoning, a market view is something you have and trade with.  With Bayesian reasoning, a market view is fluid and continually evolving.  

Trading leading up to and including this past Friday was a good case in point.  We traded firm for most of the week, with relative strength in small cap shares.  Volume had been coming down in recent sessions and, by April 15th, we saw new highs in the broad NYSE Composite Index not accompanied by an expansion in the number of stocks registering fresh highs.  With each observation of low volume and diminished new highs, my confidence in an upside breakout diminished.

Friday saw new information come into the market regarding China and Greece.  There was a strong selloff in pre-market hours.  Volume expanded, as did volatility.  New market participants were joining the fray, and they were joining with a downside bias.  That led me to sell an early, pre-opening bounce in the ES futures.  At that point, the evidence tilted toward continuation of the range and a short-term handoff from bullish to bearish control of the market.  I reasoned at the time that investors would not want to risk bad headlines over the weekend and so would be likely sellers in early New York trade.

That indeed materialized, but then something interesting happened in mid-to-late afternoon.  We had seen steady selling in stocks, as measured by the NYSE TICK.  When I ran a study of lopsided selling days such as the one in progress, I noticed a tendency for the market to bounce higher the next day or two.  At the same time, I noticed continued selling pressure in stocks (negative TICK values), but now the ES futures were holding above their lows for the day.  Selling was no longer able to get price higher.  I still liked the range-based view but the trade no longer looked great from a risk/reward perspective and I took profits.

Am I a bull?  Am I a bear?  Not really either, and the question presumes a degree of static reasoning.  What made Friday a good day in the market was the fluid transitioning from waning bullishness to waxing bearishness to waning bearishness.  We could indeed gap lower in the near term and take out Friday's low, but that's not where the odds were at the time.  Let's let the bulls take their turn and see what they can bring to the market.  Should we get a feeble rally and a lower high, there will be plenty of opportunity to resume a downside trade targeting the lower end of the recent range.  Should we get a more substantial rally, then we can update evidence for continued topping in the range or even upside breakout.

Bayesian reasoning means trading with an open mind and staying flexible in the face of new information.  Think of it this way:  we're in an ongoing conversation with markets.  In any conversation, if you stay locked in what you want to say, you become less sensitive to the other person.  A good conversationalist is a good listener, picking up on subtle cues and adjusting one's own tone and response accordingly.  In markets as in conversations, closed minds and strong views lead to tone-deaf interactions.

Further Reading:  The Importance of Emotional Creativity

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Breakout in the Making?

Here are the ES futures over the past several months.  Somewhat volatile and in a range.

A few interesting stats:

Stocks across all indexes making fresh 3-month highs and lows:

2/13/2015 - 510, 86
3/2/2015 - 513, 158
3/20/2015 - 708, 113
4/15/2015 - 570, 89

1/29/15 - 172, 449
3/10/15 - 137, 440
3/26/15 - 82, 213
4/17/15 - 131, 167

Fewer new highs, fewer new lows from March to April.  

Not strengthening.  Not weakening.

So far.

What I Learned By Studying My Exits

An interesting question posed on the Tradeciety site asks the one thing you wish you had known when you started your trading career--and gives the responses of a number of experienced traders.  Most of those responses focus on sound trading practices and ways of learning trading--sound universal lessons.

A worthwhile variant of that question is:  what's the one thing you wish you had known at the start of the year?  In other words, what have you been missing in the last few months of trading?

I recently conducted my own trading inventory and examined in detail what has worked and not worked.  The results were illuminating.

My exits have been bad.  In some cases, they've been really bad.  What I mean by that is that:  a) they've been less rigorously thought through than the entries; b) they've been reactive to the pain of drawdown and not the risk/reward at that moment; and c) they've been at poor locations.  A surprising proportion of my trades would have been profitable had I held the position with a wider stop.  The seemingly good risk management significantly hurt profitability.

The problem--and I see it with traders I work with--is the misalignment of goals for the upside and risk management on the downside.  At a given, reasonable, but positive Sharpe ratio, a trader seeking X% returns is going to draw down a meaningful percentage of X% at some time.  Traders--including myself--feel the desire for the X% upside, but cannot psychologically or practically tolerate the accompanying drawdown.  It is not coincidence that my hit rate on trades placed with smaller size (less risk) has been quite good.

Ultimately this is a problem of lack of diversification.  A well constructed portfolio consists of many relatively independent bets, each with positive expected return.  This smooths the equity curve while allowing the trader to place a higher proportion of capital at work.  Diversification requires ongoing research and development--and the ability to see multiple edges in the market.  It is much easier to allow trades to breathe and hit relatively wide stops when there are multiple trades working for you.  A great deal of the challenge of dealing with emotions in trading is a function of poor money management.  It's tough to trade dispassionately when all your eggs are in one basket.

Further Reading:  Diversifying Your Emotional Portfolio

Friday, April 17, 2015

Quick Insights With Deep Meanings

J.C. Parets on the value of homework.

Mark Yusko on the power of our social environment.

Derek Hernquist on backtesting.

Brian Shannon on investing's key lesson.

Urban Carmel on the market's sentiment.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard on deflation.

Steve Burns on the greatest challenge in trading.

*  Think about the meaning of this:  Since 2014, when SPY daily volume has been in its lowest quartile, the next 20 days in SPY have averaged a loss of -.06%.  When SPY daily volume has been in its highest quartile, the next 20 days in SPY have averaged a gain of +2.71%.  

Further Reading:  Evaluating Your Trading

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sleep and Performance: The Quality of Our Nights Affects the Quality of Our Days

I find that a surprising proportion of what sets traders up for success during the day is what has happened the previous night.  We know from research that the proper quantity and quality of sleep aids concentration and learning and that disordered sleep can impair our cardiovascular health.  Sleep also has a beneficial impact on our mood and is associated with improved thought and memory.

It is fascinating that sleep disturbances are present in over half of patients with psychiatric problems--a far greater percentage than in the general public.  This has led to the observation that sleep disruptions are not only symptoms of problems such as anxiety, but active contributors to those.  One in five patients with depressive disorders are suffering from sleep apnea--disrupted sleep often associated with snoring. 

One study found that financial decision making was meaningfully impaired when subjects were sleepy due to poorer judgment about the task being undertaken.  It is when tasks are complex and challenging that we're most likely to be impaired by poor sleep.

Here is an excellent article from Maria Konnikova on how our performance is impacted by how we wake up in the morning.  Sleep inertia, she reports, significantly affects our cognitive functioning.  It appears that being process-driven in how we sleep is as important to our functioning as being process-driven in our work during the day--and indeed may set us up for either success or failure in our ability to work in disciplined and productive ways.

Further Reading:  Three Things to Improve Your Life Now

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Historic Market Strength or the Start of a Bear Market?

Jesse Felder looks at the stock market from the vantage point of historical valuation and finds us in rarefied territory.  Using other measures, Jesse Colombo arrives at a similar conclusion.  This strikes me as tremendously relevant for investors.  From a timing vantage point vis a vis shorter-term traders, I have more questions.  Prior to the large drops we saw in 1998, 2000, and 2007, for example, we saw a ramping up of volatility (VIX) and stocks making fresh new lows.  In other words, rises in volatility and weakness in leading sectors preceded those bear markets.  I'm not seeing those things at present, but the possibility that we're operating on borrowed time strikes me as a valuable one to entertain.  I'm just not sure we can expect historically normal market cycles when we have extraordinary global monetary policies. 

An extraordinary wealth of economic information and perspective is offered by Jeff Miller at Dash of Insight.  Measures he tracks suggest a healthy degree of strength in the economy.  He also raises the issue that bear markets tend to occur late in hiking cycles, not early.  Again, it may be difficult to extrapolate from past cycles to this present, extraordinary one, but Miller also notes that overvalued markets can become quite further overvalued before they run into trouble, citing data from Capital Speculator.

What we see is that intelligent market observers see the market quite differently.  My synthesis of all this is that we are historically overvalued *and* we're not yet seeing worrisome economic or market weakness.  Perhaps the best synthesis of all, however, is to go to websites such as the above and track down the original sources of data and the links from recent posts.  You are guaranteed to find intelligent perspectives that will broaden your own.  

Further Reading:  Creativity and Trading

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Simple Strategy for Developing Yourself as a Trader

Here is a simple formula for developing yourself as a trader:

Find the people who most consistently come up with the most original and useful observations and ideas, study their thought processes (how they're generating those ideas), replicate those ways of thinking for yourself, and take the time to begin thinking like them.  Imagine doing that across many virtual mentors over time so that you begin to integrate the best thinking of the best people.  That is how imitation turns into innovation.  

Take a look at who you're following in social media.  If you're spending much time reading material from those you don't want to internalize, you'll wind up with little cumulative development.  A great exercise would be to curate the $STUDY stream of StockTwits and immerse yourself in the educational offerings of only those you'd like to emulate.  

You can't elevate your game unless you surround yourself with the best out there to challenge you, inspire you, and inform you.  You win by studying winners.

The same is true for stock picking.  How many people truly study the best performers during any given period and reverse engineer that performance?  There are common features of best and worst performers among stocks and markets, just as there are common features of best and worst traders.  You learn to select the best trades and investments by studying the best trades and investments.

Kudos to @ivanhoff and @howardlindzon for their recent offering on identifying the next Apple among market performers.  The greatest investments don't start as the most optically appealing choices in many cases.  Similarly, great trades to the long side often start as scarily weak markets--October, 2014 being a recent case in point.  If you study one winning idea after another, however, you begin to see common threads.  You immerse yourself in winning trades and, after a while, you recognize patterns as they emerge.

It's great to focus on our mistakes and correct our errors.  Reducing the negatives of performance, however, will never in itself generate elite positives.  If you want to perform at high levels, you have to study--and internalize--high level performance.

Further Reading:  The Success Pyramid

Monday, April 13, 2015

Opening the Week With New Ideas

*  Here are three charts that I use to track demand and supply in the broad stock market.  I decompose the time series for the NYSE TICK (number of stocks upticking vs. downticking at each moment of the trading day) into a measure of Buying Pressure (top chart; a measure of upticks); Selling Pressure (middle chart; a measure of downticks); and Balance (bottom chart; the daily net of upticks vs. downticks).  In recent sessions, we've seen relatively restrained buying interest and also relatively restrained selling.  This is typical of low volume, low volatility markets.  On a net basis, we've generally seen more buying than selling pressure and stocks have drifted toward their highs over this period.  This is as much due to a relative absence of sellers as the positive presence of buyers.  Institutional players--those that drive volume as buyers or sellers of baskets of stocks--have been quiet of late, creating few surges of either buying or selling activity.

*  When academic reviewers took a look at the profitability of traders, they were shocked by how poor the results looked.  Here's my psychological look at what separates the winners from the losers.

*  More evidence that active fund managers as a group fail to outperform their benchmark indexes.  In fact, managers in every category fail to outperform.  You would think that half would outperform by sheer chance.  As the article emphasizes, however, the odds of such across-the-board underperformance occurring by chance are ridiculously small.  It's not that managers lack a positive edge.  They actually seem to have a significantly negative one.

*  It's very difficult to not find good posts on the Quantocracy site.   

*  It's also very difficult to not find something good in the weekly top clicks at Abnormal Returns, including an unusually good study of moving average rules--what works and doesn't work.

The $STUDY stream from Stock Twits invariably contains some gems.

*  Here are some coming resources from Adam Grimes, including a primer on how to study markets with quant tools.

 *  Great post from SMB on what golf teaches us about trading.

Have a great start to the week!


Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Three Paths to Success in Financial Markets

I propose that there are, at root, three basic paths to success in financial markets that correspond to three kinds of market participants.  These are very different approaches to markets and require quite different skills, knowledge, and talents.

The first path to success in markets is the path of the statistician.  The statistician is one who identifies the probabilities of outcomes as a function of current and past conditions.  A statistician, for example, might notice that two currencies are trading out of line with each other because of temporary flows attributable to mergers and acquisitions and place a bet that these will return to their historical relationship.  The idea for the statistician is to construct a portfolio that consists of many distributed bets, each of which has a favorable probability of paying off.  

The second path to market success is the path of the theorist.  The theorist is a big picture thinker who identifies an antecedent set of conditions that, over time, should drive the price movements of financial assets.  Macro money managers, those who look at geopolitical events and macroeconomic developments such as central bank policy shifts, are classic examples of theorists.  Their approach to markets is top down:  understand the big picture and then define a diversified set of bets from that understanding.  For instance, the theorist will notice that central bank policies are notably more dovish--providing more liquidity--in some countries than others and will buy stocks in those countries and sell stocks in the more hawkish regions.

The third path to success in financial markets is the path of the trader.  The trader is a pattern recognizer who exploits quick-developing shifts in sentiment, supply/demand, and relative movement.  A trader, for example, might notice that episodes of selling pressure in a a few, visible large capitalization stocks are not accompanied by significant selling pressure across the broad market.  When the selling slows down in the large caps and the broad market begins to catch a bid, the trader quickly joins that reversal for a move higher in the broad index.  Diversification is achieved, not necessarily by making many independent, simultaneous bets, but by making many independent short-term bets over time.

These three paths are extremely different.  Whereas the theorist is deductive in thinking, moving from big picture understanding to individual trades, the trader is inductive, noticing relatively minute patterns in order flow or price movement and generating trade ideas from those.  The statistician is highly analytical in a quantitative way, emphasizing prediction.  The theorist is more interested in a synthesis of information to achieve understanding.  The trader is more likely to be adept at intuitive pattern recognition--in Kahneman's terms relying on fast, rather than slow thinking.

These differences call on very different skill sets, knowledge bases, and personality strengths.  The action orientation of the trader is quite different from the analytical, cerebral orientation of the statistician.  The theorist needs confidence in his or her big picture understanding of the world.  The statistician relies on objective odds to take subjective appraisal entirely out of the trading process.  Statisticians gain expertise from intensive quantitative research; theorists gain expertise from the qualitative assembly of many different facts and trends; traders gain expertise from immersion in market patterns.

While it is popular to speak of "hybrid" traders that combine elements of these different paths, my experience is that a successful combination of approaches is much less common than is typically recognized.  Indeed, it is much more common for trading problems to emerge:  a) when market participants don't clearly identify their path to success and hence meander among different approaches; and b) when they attempt to blend paths and ultimately don't play to their strengths.

A classic example of this is when big picture macro traders become overly concerned with limiting their risk and end up behaving like short-term traders.  Similarly, statistical, quantitative traders can allow their priors to bias their research processes, skewing their results over time.  Traders with a good feel for markets can suddenly trade in tone deaf ways when they become locked into big picture views.  What generates success for one path can undermine success in the others.

Many market participants fail over time because they lack a consistent path to success and because they lack the self-understanding to chart the path that is right for them.  In markets as in relationships, success often requires a commitment to one path and a willingness to leave other ones behind.

Further Reading:  Three Winning Trading Practices

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Market Is Not Getting Stronger, But Is It Getting Weaker?

The recent post tracked the diminished strength of the stock market, with fewer stocks making new highs over time.  But is a market with reduced strength necessarily one with increasing weakness?  This is a very important question, as it gets at the heart of when breadth is and isn't a problem for the market.

Above we see a chart of SPY from the start of 2014 to the present.  In red, we see the number of stocks across all exchanges that registered fresh one-month lows each day.  (Raw data from the Barchart site.)  Notice that we're only looking at new lows--a measure of weakness.  We are not combining the new highs and lows, which can muddle the views of strength vs. weakness.

What we see are sharp elevations of new lows around important cyclical bottoms.  What we also see is that new lows begin creeping higher before markets top out during these cycles.  This was dramatically the case during the second half of 2014 but also occurred leading up to the March top of this year.  While new highs have been waning per the recent posts, notice that we are seeing *very* few new lows most recently.  The market has not been getting stronger in terms of breadth, but neither has it been weakening.

On Friday, we saw 168 shares post new monthly lows across all exchanges.  That is well below the median value of 350.  When we have had fewer than 200 stocks post new monthly lows since the start of 2014 (N=58), the next five days in SPY have averaged a gain of +.34% vs. an average gain of +.13 for the remainder of the sample.  While a market without weakness might appear "overbought", in fact it is healthy in the short run.  In order for the broad stock market to roll over, we have to see some leading stocks and sectors display weakness.  At the moment, we are indeed "overbought", but not weak.

Further Reading:  Breadth and Market Cycles

Friday, April 10, 2015

Three Views of the Breadth of Stock Market Strength

Here are updated charts for what we might call the breadth of market strength and weakness.  (Raw data from the excellent Stock Charts site.)  Any individual stock can give a buy or sell signal according to rules from a technical trading system.  The top chart reflects Wilder's Parabolic Stop-and-Reverse (SAR) system; the middle chart tracks a system based on Bollinger Bands; and the bottom chart follows a system derived from Lambert's Commodity Channel Index.  The charts reflect the balance between buy signals and sell signals for all NYSE stocks on a daily basis.  They thus capture the breadth of strength and weakness for the general market.

As a whole, the signals tend to top out ahead of price during intermediate-term market cycles and bottom shortly ahead of price.  Of the three systems, the SAR tends to be the fastest moving (greatest lead times); the CCI the slowest.  When all are in sync, turning lower or turning higher, we generally find ourselves in the relatively early phase of a trending move.  I find the interplay among the signals to be helpful in identifying where we're at in those intermediate-term cycles. 

Note that SAR has recently turned negative, despite the recent price strength.  The Bollinger Band measure is coming off a high reading but remains positive.  The CCI system recently gave a high reading, which has preceded the most recent market strength.  It has fallen off that high but remains neutral.  As a whole, the signals are showing reduced breadth of market strength, but not net weakness--consistent with the waning breadth readings noted in yesterday's post.    

Further Reading:  Tracking the Breadth of Market Strength

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Weakening Breadth and Rising Volatility in the Stock Market

Here are the reasons I am cautious about the stock market at this juncture:

1)  We are seeing good buying activity in stocks, as gauged by the NYSE TICK which has been making new highs on a cumulative basis.  Among the large caps (top chart), that buying activity is no longer able to give us fresh price highs.  (Credit for the top three charts to Index Indicators).  Note that breadth in the large caps has continued to dwindle throughout 2015, with fewer 100-day new highs vs. lows.

2)  We have seen greater recent price strength among mid-caps (second chart from top) and small caps (second chart from bottom), as we're hovering near price highs.  Despite this, the breadth specific to mid-caps and small-caps has also been waning, with fewer shares making new highs vs. lows in April than March.

3)  If you look at the cash VIX, it seems as though volatility remains crushed, as VIX is sub-15.  Actual volatility, however, as measured by average true range over a rolling 100-day period, has been higher during 2015 than during the vast majority of the prior two trading years.  Rising volatility in stocks historically has been associated with weakening markets, not strengthening ones.  Indeed, volatility picked up at market highs in 2000 and 2007 well before the subsequent bear markets.  While I don't expect that kind of bear market activity currently, any downside break from here would likely see greater volatility than recent corrections.

I also note that the volatility of realized volatility (vol of vol) has been higher recently than at any time since 2013.  The recent rise in realized volatility and vol of vol helps to explain why short-term traders have had difficulty trading U.S. stocks:  We've had movement, but not trend.  It's been a choppy, volatile range trade.  Buying strength or selling weakness--trading with a fear of missing out--has been a consistent way to lose money.  Viewed on a longer time scale, however, this market appears to be one of narrowing breadth--even among those smaller cap sectors that have been strongest.  That keeps me cautious.

Further Reading:  Macro Themes Impacting Stocks