The Importance of Risk Management in Trading

Copyright (c) 2009 Scott Cole

I’ve participated in a variety of trading and investing newsgroups and forums on the internet over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me how little attention is paid to risk management. Whether they trade stocks, Forex, commodities, futures, or other instruments, most amateur traders continue to focus only on trading entries.

In my experience, most questions posed by inexperienced investors focus on finding the next hot stock or the best trading system for trading stocks, forex or commodities. They are all hoping to catch a few big winners just by scouring the internet for some hot tips. Or, they think there may be a hot trading system out there that will make them a millionaire in no time. Or, if they are focused on short-term trading, they are hoping to learn that one trading system that will give them 90% winners, and profits month after month.

Therefore, the financial industry continues to prey on these attitudes with countless books and trading systems. The brokerage houses want you to open an account so they can sell you the latest and greatest ideas in the stock market, while padding their accounts with your commissions. The discount brokers will sell you on the idea that you can make big profits just by using their trading platforms and using a couple technical indicators.

And, of course, the biggest fraud is put on by professional money managers, who promise consistent profits to unaware investors. We have just realized the biggest fraud of all, with a potential $50 billion Ponzi scheme run by formerly reputable money manager Bernie Madoff.

Because he was so well known on Wall Street, Madoff was able to convince hundreds of investors that he could be profitable every month. All the while, he was simply soliciting new money to pay off the original and oldest investors. There have been plenty of examples like this, but the Madoff scam is clearly the biggest fraud of all time.

The bottom line is, there is no such thing as the Holy Grail of trading! There is no one trading method or system that will generate huge returns for anyone, year after year. History is wrought with hundreds of examples of trading legends who made it big, then crashed and burned.

The best traders go through periods of underperformance, and they accept this, because they know, that in the long run, their trading methods will provide strong returns. However, they don’t expect to make 100% on their money every year, and they don’t expect to make money every day, every week, or even every month. Very few are capable of such returns, and those that are, will not share their strategies with the public!

Professional traders are also not worried about having a trading system that is right 100% of the time. They know that this is impossible. All they are concerned with is finding an EDGE that, over time, will be profitable. On the other hand, most amateur traders are worried about being RIGHT all the time, rather than being profitable. They can’t stand the thought of having a losing trade. Professional traders know that losing trades are part of the game.

One thing all of the best traders DO have in common, however, is that they know how to manage risk! Because they know that the markets can turn on them at any time, they are more focused on managing the risk in their portfolios, rather than on specific entries and exits in their trading models.

Most amateur traders can not seem to get past the idea that the initial trade entry, or stock selection, is the NOT the most important part of any trading model. It is what you do AFTER you enter a trade that is more important. And even more important than knowing when to exit a position is learning how to manage your risk.

One popular concept in the trading world is the idea of minimizing your risk to 1% or 2% of the equity in your account on any given trade. For example, if you have $100,000 in your account, then you would only risk $1,000 or $2,000 on any particular trade. If you want to buy XYZ stock at $20, and you have determined that you will exit the trade if it goes down to $19, then you will trade no more than 2,000 shares.

This is a good start, but is not the end of managing your risk. You can limit your risk to 1% if you like, but if you do not have the discipline to stick to your trading rules, and you take trades that you should not, you will still lose, and lose quickly! That is just one example of not controlling your risk. The following is a list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to managing risk.

1. Do not over trade. This can mean risking too much on any one position, or trading too much, simply for the thrill. With that in mind, once you have developed the entry and exit rules for your system, STICK to them! Don’t take trades that are not signaled just because you feel the need to trade!

2. Don’t trade markets that are highly correlated at the same time, unless you are doing some sort of spread trade by buying one market and shorting the other. Also beware of markets that are inversely correlated. For instance, if the Japanese Yen is going up while the Nikkei index is going down, don’t buy the Yen and short the Nikkei! You are simply doubling your bet!

3. Don’t add to positions when the markets become more volatile! Some trading systems look to capitalize on long term trends and will pyramid positions to achieve greater profits. Only the skilled trader should attempt this, because normally when trends are in place for a while, the volatility tends to increase.

4. If the volatility in your trading position increases dramatically, consider exiting some of your position.

5. Don’t begin hoping that one position will turn into a big winner. You must check your emotions at the door when you enter your trading room. Never marry yourself to a position. If you have a profitable strategy, it is many trades over time that will bring those profits, not one big winner.

6. Absolutely, positively know where you will exit a position BEFORE you enter a new trade!

7. Absolutely, positively know how you will trail your stops on your positions!

8. If you are having a bad trading day, trading week, or trading month, TAKE A BREAK! When have not taken a break for a long time, our trading judgment can become clouded, and we begin to break Rule #1. Once you find yourself breaking that rule, it is time to step away from the trading desk for a while.

9. If you are on a losing streak, and your equity has declined, reduce your risk!

10. Finally, when you do take some profits, take them out of your trading account and diversify your investments! Even though you may have a diversified portfolio traded by your trading system, you still should invest in completely different markets, such as real estate, bonds, art, commodities, or even another business.

Once you learn the importance of risk management, you will be one big step closer to becoming a profitable trader.

Scott Cole
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