Saturday, 21 July 2018

On the Importance of Sticking to Your System

Below is an excerpt of a story from the classic book Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre. It's an excellent lesson on the importance of sticking to your own system until it requires modification. System trading can lead to extreme boredom, idle hands, and eventually unnecessary tinkering. The stock market is one of the few places where the ends justify means; that is, as long as your system is profitable, it doesn't matter what goes into it, nor does it require a readjustment. The only thing that matters is the outcome. As long as the outcome is satisfactory, plug your ears and stick to the system. 


I remember I met an old gentleman in Palm Beach whose name I did not catch or did not at once identify. I knew he had been in the Street for years, way back in Civil War times, and somebody told me that he was a very wise old codger who had gone through so many booms and panics that he was always saying there was nothing new under the sun and least of all in the stock market.

The old fellow asked me a lot of questions. When I got through telling him about my usual practice in trading he nodded and said, “Yes! Yes! You’re right. The way you’re built, the way your mind runs, makes your system a good system for you. It comes easy for you to practice what you preach, because the money you bet is the least of  your cares. I recollect Pat Hearne. Ever hear of him? Well, he was a very well-known sporting man and he had an account with us. Clever chap and nervy. He made money in stocks, and that made people ask him for advice. He would never give any. If they asked him point-blank for his opinion about the wisdom of their commitments he used a favourite race-track maxim of his: ‘You can’t tell till you bet.’ He traded in our office. He would buy one hundred shares of some active stock and when, or if, it went up 1 per cent he would buy another hundred. On another point’s advance, another hundred shares; and so on. He used to say he wasn’t playing the game to make money for others and therefore he would put in a stop-loss order one point below the price of his last purchase. When the price kept going up he simply moved up his stop with it. On a 1 per cent reaction he was stopped out. He declared he did not see any sense in losing more than one point, whether it came out of his original margin or out of his paper profits.

“You know, a professional gambler is not looking for long shots, but for sure money. Of course long shots are fine when they come in. In the stock market Pat wasn’t after tips or playing to catch twenty-points-a-week advances, but sure money in sufficient quantity to provide him with a good living. Of all the thousands of outsiders that I have run across in Wall Street, Pat Hearne was the only one who saw in stock speculation merely a game of chance like faro or roulette, but, nevertheless, had the sense to stick to a relatively sound betting method.

“After Hearne’s death one of our customers who had always traded with Pat and used his system made over one hundred thousand dollars in Lackawanna. Then he switched over to some other stock and because he had made a big stake he thought he need not stick to Pat’s way. When a reaction came,  instead of cutting short his losses he let them run—as though they were profits. Of course every cent went. When he finally quit he owed us several thousand dollars.

“He hung around for two or three years. He kept the fever long after the cash had gone; but we did not object as long as he behaved himself. I remember that he used to admit freely that he had been ten thousand kinds of an ass not to stick to Pat Hearne’s style of play. Well, one day he came to me greatly excited and asked me to let him sell some stock short in our office. He was a nice enough chap who had been a good customer in his day and I told him I personally would guarantee his account for one hundred shares.

“He sold short one hundred shares of Lake Shore. That was the time Bill Travers hammered the market, in 875.My friend Roberts put out that Lake Shore at exactly the right time and kept selling it on the way down as he had been wont to do in the old successful days before he forsook Pat Hearne’s system and instead listened to hope’s whispers.

“Well, sir, in four days of successful pyramiding, Roberts’ account showed him a profit of fifteen thousand dollars. Observing that he had not put in a stop-loss order I spoke to him about it and he told me that the break hadn’t fairly begun and he wasn’t going to be shaken out by any one-point reaction. This was in August. Before the middle of September he borrowed ten dollars from me for a baby carriage—his fourth. He did not stick to his own proved system. That’s the trouble with most of them,” and the old fellow shook his head at me.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Speculator as Hero 2.0

Once upon a time, a drought comes over the land and the wheat crop fails. Naturally, the price of wheat goes up. Some people cut back and bake less bread while others speculate and buy as much wheat as they can get and hoard it in hopes of higher prices to come.

The king hears about all the speculation and high prices and promptly sends his soldiers from town to town to proclaim that speculation is now a crime against the state—and that severe punishment is to befall speculators.

The new law, like oh so many laws against the free market, only compounds the problem. Soon, some towns have no wheat at all—while rumor has it that others still have ample, even excess, supplies.

The king keeps raising the penalty for speculation, while the price of wheat, if you can find any, keeps going higher and higher.

One day, the court jester approaches the king and, in an entertaining sort of way, tells the king of a plan to end the famine—and to emerge as a wise and gracious ruler.

The next day, the soldiers again ride from town to town, this time to proclaim the end of all laws against speculation—and to suggest that each town prominently post the local price for wheat at its central marketplace.

The towns take the suggestion and post the prices. At first, the prices are surprisingly high in some towns and surprisingly low in others. During the next few days, the roads between the towns become virtual rivers of wheat as speculators rush to discount the spreads. By the end of the week, the price of wheat is mostly the same everywhere and everyone has enough to eat.

The court jester, having a keen sense for his own survival, makes sure all the credit goes directly to the king.

I like this story.

The loose end, of course, is how the court jester happens to know so much about how markets work—and how he happens to know how to express what he knows in an effective way.

While we may never know the answer for sure, my personal hunch is that the court jester makes frequent visits to the royal library and reads Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre, The Crowd by Gustav LeBon, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, and the entire Market Wizards series by Jack Schwager.

Trading, it turns out, is the solution to most economic problems; free markets, sanctity of trading, and healthy economy are all ways to say the same thing. In this sense, our traders are champions and the men and women in Jack Schwager's books are our heroes.

Schwager's books define trading by vividly portraying traders. He finds the best examples, he makes them human and accessible, and he allows them to express, in their own ways, what they do and how they do it. He gives us a gut feel for the struggles, challenges, joys, and sorrows all of them face over their entire careers. We wind up knowing each of his subjects intimately—and also as a uniquely complete expression of repeating themes, such as: be humble; go with the flow; manage risk; do it your own way.

Schwager's books are essential reading for anyone who trades, wants to trade, or wants to pick a trader.

I go back a ways with Jack. I recall meeting him while we were both starting out as traders, long on enthusiasm and short on experience. Over the years, I watched him grow, mature, and develop his talent, evolving to become our Chronicler-General.

Schwager's contribution to the industry is enormous. His original Market Wizards inspired a whole new generation of traders, many of whom subsequently appeared in The New Market Wizards, and then, in turn, in Stock Market Wizards. Jack's Wizards series becomes the torch that traders pass from one generation to the next. Now Hedge Fund Market Wizards extends, enhances, and perfects the tradition. Traders regularly use passages and chapters from Schwager's books as a reference for their own methods and to guide their own trading. His work is an inseparable part of the consciousness and language of trading itself.

Some 30 years ago, Jack reads Reminiscences of a Stock Operator and notices its meaningfulness and relevance, even 60 years after its publication. He adopts that standard for his own writing.

I notice that books that actually meet that standard tend to wind up in the libraries of traders and court jesters alike, on the same shelf with Reminiscences, The Crowd, and Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

That's exactly where you find Jack's books in my library.

Ed Seykota

Bastrop, Texas

February 25, 2012

This foreword was originally published in Market Wizards by Jack Schwager