Former multi-billion dollar money manager and (mostly) okay guy Greg Morris met the gang at Traders Expo in New York for food and drinks, celebrating his 80th birthday.* After the obligatory raunchy jokes are out the way, the conversation often turns toward the markets or aviation and in this case, both. To those of you who don’t know Greg, in addition to running billions, here are a few highlights: he was previously the “Morris” part of MurphyMorris.com (John Murphy was the “Murphy” part, the site is now Stockcharts.com), a fighter pilot (Top Gun btw), and a commercial airline pilot. Sounds like someone who can’t hold a job to me! (his joke).
Anyway, I asked Greg if the items that made the flight checklist were put there by someone forgetting that item. And yes, he confirmed, for instance, that the reason putting the landing gear down is on the list when landing is because someone forgot to do that. This got me thinking about a checklist for traders. Let’s explore this further.
You’re much more likely to make an emotionally charged decision during the heat of battle. That’s because stress is at its highest when information is changing or uncertain.1 Now, the only time that information is static is after the close. Therefore, you must plan while you’re in this relaxed state. I like to grab a big cup of coffee and go on my treasure hunt of sifting through thousands of charts looking for my next big winner.
The only reason to ever trade is to make money—and never for action. Not putting capital into harm’s way should always be considered. Many times I’ll spend hours doing research that produces absolute nothing actionable. That’s okay. As an ex-sailboat racer I’ve been caught in many nasty storms including a low pressure system for 36 hours--and we were the smallest boat in the fleet! And, once around 400 miles of the coast of Bermuda we nearly sank as the biggest boat in the fleet-size didn’t matter in this case, especially since there was not room for all of us in the life raft. So, I can attest to the fact that “it’s better to be on the dock drinking beer wishing that you were out to sea than to be out to sea wishing you were on the dock.” As a pilot who has lost engines, I’m sure Greg can attest the same thing towards flying.
Now, it took me 14 hours to cover everything you need to know about stock selection, but if you just check off the above I can assure you that you’re well on your way. Come to a few chart shows and ask about your candidates (or to accelerate your learning curve, see below for a screaming deal!).
At dinner, Greg asked me about my plans for the following day. I told him that I was speaking for 4-hours. He then made the uptrend and downtrend motions with his arms and said “how are you going to speak about that for 4 hours?” My reply was-motioning my arm horizontally--“well, there’s also sideways!” I went on to say that in addition to trends I was going to cover setups and money management. Further, I was going to cover trading psychology—for instance, things like how sometimes, all it takes is a few second pause from a physiological standpoint to bypass the emotional part of your brain (the amygdala keep reading). He replied “wind the clock”-a reference from his excellent book/doorstop “Investing With The Trend.”
Due to the potential to make emotionally charged decisions, we have to keep calm and follow the plan. In the aforementioned book Greg said that “The absolute worst time to create or change a rule is when you are emotionally concerned about something that just seems to not be working correctly.” He gave the example of F-4 Phantom jet simulations back in the 70s. When faced with an emergency situation such as loss of oil pressure or an engine failure, many pilots, including himself, would flip the wrong switch or pull the wrong lever “during the emotional surge that comes with bright flashing lights and loud horns.” His solution for not repeating these mistakes became simple: Wind the clock (back then there were analog instruments). The few seconds it took to wind the clock helped to “rid yourself of the adrenaline rush” and lead to clearer thinking. Like all seasoned pilots, Greg has had a few “wind the clock” moments. Fortunately-for Greg and those flying along with him-“he’s never put a scratch in an airplane.”
You have a little “Panic Monster” (aka the amygdala) inside your head. As I often say, the best way to avoid making emotionally charged decisions is to “tiptoe past the Panic Monster”2, to avoid waking him. Here’s a little exercise for you. The next time you want to make an instant quip back at your spouse or significant other (who am I to judge but you probably shouldn’t have both, btw) just breathe! (or "wind your watch") You’d be surprised at how often that will keep you out of trouble. You’re welcome! Now, applied to trading, just breathe.
If you’re following my swing-to-intermediate-term (and hopefully much longer!) approach, there are only 5 things that you should be doing:
Tom Petty got it right. The waiting is the hardest part. You're a person of action--and seriously, if you weren't you wouldn't be working to better yourself by reading this prose. And, as a person of action waiting can be tough. You're either waiting for setups or waiting for positions to do something. Waiting is tough but patience is key. If you are getting ready to take unnecessary action just breathe or “wind the clock.”
I’m a big fan of symbolism. I have a "Sardine" Drive street sign proudly displayed over the door of my office. It serves as a constant reminder that I must believe in what I see and not in what I believe. See the most recent Week In Charts and my last Random Thoughts for more on "trading sardines." Anyway, I just took a break from composing this prose to score me a sweet vintage aircraft clock. I'm going to mount it just below the monitor I use to place my trades. I’m going to literally wind the clock before clicking “confirm order” from now on. I'm willing to bet that my trading just got better. Case and point: I "fat fingered" an order on Tuesday. I'm sure if I would have taken a few seconds to confirm I would have realized my mistake.
Now, if your more disciplined, there might be occasions—NOT EVERY DAY-where exercising a little discretion (e.g. surviving a stop nick by giving the position a SMALL amount of wiggle room) in the above can improve performance.
After the dust settles is a good time for reflection. Do an honest post-mortem and ask yourself:
You’ll find that sometimes you’ll think “what the hell was I thinking?” That’s okay. That’s part of the positive feedback cycle. With time, you’ll find yourself asking that question less and less-one of the few things that I can guarantee.
Remember, "outcomes are noisy." Bad trades can make money and great trades can lose money. "Think like world-class professional bridge player Richard Zeckhauser who scores himself based not so much on whether he won the hand, but rather how well he played it."3 Good traders are no different. They recognize proper procedure regardless of the outcome. You might want to write that down.
Again, as a person of action it's hard not to do something when there's nothing to do. Micromanagement is one of the biggest sins I see. And trust me, I'm not immune to the Siren call. We're wired to avoid pain at all costs. It's tough to watch a position head toward the stop and just watch it. On the flip side, it's tough not to be tempted to mentally monetize gains and lock them in before they evaporate, especially if you're coming off a string of losses. I think Mr. Lambert got it half right-doing nothing is MUCH harder than it looks.
In summary, we’re human and prone to make emotionally charged mistakes. Therefore, take a breath, wind the clock, and check your checklist. That might be all you need to keep you from winging it.
May the trend be with you!
Some More Random Thoughts
As I edit this column I began to think the best way to not put yourself into an emotionally charged situation is to avoid it in the first place. The more observations you make the more likely that you’ll put yourself into a state of regret. “Be as close to the market as you need to be but no closer.” In other words, unless you need to be watching a screen, don’t! As Ed Sekoyta once said,“Having a quote machine is like having a slot machine at your desk – you end up feeding it all day long." Let the market make decisions for you. You can use a stop order to trigger you into a position and then a hard stop (reset daily after the open for those using discretion) to keep you in or take you out of the position. Also, I’m not a huge fan of limit orders but they can be set at the initial profit target as a “pay me” type of order. Sometimes, a quick spike might pay you while you’re off saving lives, building buildings, or doing other great things.
*Seriously, Happy 69th Greg! Love ya man!
*And if you didn't: Go have no fun somewhere else! (I'm half kidding!)
References and Footnotes:
1. Montier, The Little Book of Behavioral Investing based on research from Gary Klien .
2. Concept borrowed from The Kazien Way by Dr. Robert Maurer.
3. Poor Charlie's Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom Of Charles T. Munger
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Dave Landry has been actively trading the markets since the early 90s. He is managing member of Sentive Trading, LLC (est 1995) and author of 3 books of trading including The Layman’s Guide to Trading Stocks. He has made several television appearances, written articles for numerous magazines, He has spoken at trading conferences throughout the world (including Russia, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, Italy, and others). He has been publishing daily web based commentary on technical trading since 1997. He has a B.S. in Computer Science and an MBA. He was registered Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) from 1995 to 2009. He is a board member of the American Association of Professional Technical Analysts. Dave can be reached at www.davelandry.com