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