Day trading is defined as the buying and selling of a security within a single trading day. This can occur in any marketplace but is most common in the foreign-exchange (forex) market and stock market. Typically, day traders are well educated and well funded. They utilize high amounts of leverage and short-term trading strategies to capitalize on small price movements in highly liquid stocks or currencies. Day traders serve two critical functions in the marketplace - they keep the markets running efficiently via arbitrage and they provide much of the markets' liquidity (especially in the stock market). This article will take an objective look at day trading, who does it and how it is done.
Search "day trading" on Google and you will see why there is controversy! The profit potential of day trading is perhaps one of the most debated (and misunderstood) topics on Wall Street. Countless internet scams have capitalized on this confusion by promising enormous returns in a short period. Meanwhile, the media continues to promote this type of trading as a get-rich-quick scheme that always works. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. There are those who engage in this type of trading without sufficient knowledge (or some even admittedly for a gambler's high!); however, there are day traders who are able to make a successful living.
Many professional money managers and financial advisors shy away from day trading, arguing that in most cases the reward does not justify the risk. They often cite that no day trader is world renown, whereas icons like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch (see The Greatest Investors) are a testament to the success that can be attained by more traditional forms of investing. Conversely, those who do day trade insist there is profit to be made. They say the success rate is inherently lower as a result of the higher complexity and necessary risk of day trading, combined with all the related scams.
Overall, the street remains divided on the issue. At the very least they agree that day trading is not for everyone and involves significant risks. Moreover, it demands an in-depth understanding of how the markets work and various strategies for profiting in the short term. Now we'll take a look at the various aspects of day trading.
Characteristics of a Day Trader
This article will focus on professional day traders - that is, those that trade for a living, not simply as a hobby or for a “gambling high”. These traders are typically well-established in the field and have in-depth knowledge of the marketplace. Here are some of the prerequisites to day trading:
Knowledge and Experience in the Marketplace
Individuals who attempt to day trade without an understanding of market fundamentals often end up losing money.
One cannot expect to make money day trading. Day traders use only risk capital, which they can afford to lose. Not only does this protect them from financial ruin, but it also helps eliminate emotion from their trading. A large amount of capital is often necessary to capitalize effectively on intra-day price movements.
A trader needs an edge over the rest of the market. There are several different strategies that day traders utilize, including: swing trading, arbitrage as well as trading news, among others. These strategies are refined until they produce consistent profits and effectively limit losses.
A profitable strategy is useless without discipline. Many day traders end up losing a lot of money because they fail to make trades that meet their own criteria. As they say, “Plan the trade and trade the plan.” Success is impossible without discipline.
Day Trading for a Living
There are two primary divisions of professional day traders: those who work alone and/or those who work for a larger institution. Most day traders who trade for a living work for a large institution. The fact is these people have access to things individual traders could only dream of: a direct line to a dealing desk, large amounts of capital and leverage, expensive analytical software and much more. These traders are typically the ones looking for easy profits that can be made from arbitrage opportunities and news events. The resources to which they have access allow them to capitalize on these less risky day trades before individual traders can react. Individual traders often manage other people's money or simply trade with their own. Few of them have access to a dealing desk; however, they often have strong ties to a brokerage (due to the large amounts of commission spending) and access to other resources. However, the limited scope of these resources prevents them from competing directly with institutional day traders; instead, they are forced to take more risks. Individual traders typically day trade using technical analysis and swing trades- combined with some leverage - to generate adequate profits on such small price movements in highly liquid stocks.
Day trading demands access to some of the most complex financial services and instruments in the marketplace. Day traders require:
Access to the Trading Desk
This is usually reserved for traders working for larger institutions or those who manage large amounts of money. The dealing desk provides these traders with instantaneous order executions, which can become important, especially when sharp price movements occur. For example, when an acquisition is announced, day traders looking at merger arbitrage can get their orders in before the rest of the market, taking advantage of the price differential.
Multiple News Sources
In the move "Wall Street" Gordon Gekko says that 'information is the most important commodity when trading’. News provides the majority of opportunities day traders capitalize on, so it is imperative to be the first to know when something big happens. The typical trading room contains access to the Dow Jones Newswire, televisions showing CNBC and other news agencies, as well as software that constantly analyzes various other news sources for important stories.
Trading software is an expensive necessity for most day traders. Those who rely on technical indicators or swing trades rely more on software than news. This software typically contains many features, including:
Automatic pattern recognition - This means that the trading program identifies technical indicators like flags, channels and even more complex indicators like Elliott Wave patterns.
Genetic and neural applications - These are programs that utilize neural networks and genetic algorithms to perfect trading systems to make more accurate predictions of future price movements. (see Neural Trading: Biological Keys to Profit.)
Broker integration - Some of these applications even interface directly with the brokerage, which allows for instantaneous and even automatic execution of trades. This is helpful for eliminating emotion from trading and improving execution times.
Back testing - This allows traders to look at how a certain strategy would have performed in the past in order to predict more accurately how it will perform in the future (although past performance is not always indicative of future results).
Combined these tools provide traders with an edge over the rest of the marketplace. It is easy to see why, without them, so many inexperienced traders lose money.
Although day trading has become somewhat of a controversial phenomenon, its prevalence is undeniable. Day traders, both institutional and individual, play an important role in the marketplace by keeping the markets efficient and liquid. Some argue that individuals should stay away from day trading, while others argue that it is a viable means to profit. And although it is becoming increasingly popular among inexperienced traders, it should be left primarily to those with the skills and resources needed to succeed.
Day Trading Strategies For Beginners
When people use the term "day trading", they mean the act of buying and selling a stock within the same day. Day traders seek to make profits by leveraging large amounts of capital to take advantage of small price movements in highly liquid stocks or indexes. Here we look at some common day trading strategies that can be used by retail traders.
Certain stocks are ideal candidates for day trading. A typical day trader looks for two things in a stock: liquidity and volatility. Liquidity allows you to enter and exit a stock at a good price (i.e. tight spreads and low slippage). Volatility is simply a measure of the expected daily price range - the range in which a day trader operates. More volatility means greater profit or loss.
One day trader favorite is Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW). The stock is cheap ($4.38 at the time of writing), liquid (almost 50 million shares traded daily) and very volatile (as can be seen by looking at its chart). This type of stock is ideal for the retail day trader.
Once you know what kind of stocks you are looking for, you need to learn how to identify possible entry points. There are three tools you can use to do this:
Intraday Candlestick Charts - Candles provide a raw analysis of price action.
Level II Quotes/ECN - Level II and ECN provide a look at orders as they happen.
Real-Time News Service - News moves stocks. This tells you when news comes out.
We will look at the intraday candlestick charts and focus on the following three factors:
Typically, we will look for a pattern like this with several confirmations:
1. First, we look for a volume spike, which will show us whether traders are supporting the price at this level.Note that this can be either on the doji candle, or on the candles immediately following it.
2. First, we look for a volume , which will show us whether traders are supporting the price at this level. Second, we look for prior support at this price level. For example, the prior low of day (LOD) or high of day (HOD).
3. We look at the Level II situation, which will show us all the open orders and order sizes.
If we follow these three steps, we can determine whether the doji is likely to produce an actual turnaround, and we can take a position if the conditions are favorable. Typically, entry points are found using a combination of these three tools.
Finding a Target
Identifying a price target will depend largely on your trading style. Here is a brief overview of some common day trading strategies:
Scalping is one of the most popular strategies, and it involves selling almost immediately after a trade becomes profitable. Here the price target is obviously just after profitability is attained.
Fading involves shorting stocks after rapid moves upwards. This is based on the assumption that (1) they are overbought, (2) early buyers are ready to begin taking profits and (3) existing buyers may be scared out. Although risky, this strategy can be extremely rewarding. Here the price target is when buyers begin stepping in again.
This strategy involves profiting from a stock's daily volatility. This is done by attempting to buy at the low of the day (LOD) and sell at the high of the day (HOD). Here the price target is simply at the next sign of a reversal, using the same patterns as above.
This strategy usually involves trading on news releases or finding strong trending moves supported by high volume. One type of momentum trader will buy on news releases and ride a trend until it exhibits signs of reversal. The other type will fade the price surge. Here the price target is when volume begins to decrease and bearish candles start appearing.
You can see that, although the entries in day trading strategies typically rely on the same tools used in normal trading, the exits are where the differences occur. In most cases, however, you will be looking to exit when there is decreased interest in the stock (indicated by the Level II/ECN and volume).
Determining a Stop-Loss
When you trade on margin, you are far more vulnerable to sharp price movements than regular traders. Therefore, using stop-losses is crucial when day trading. One strategy is to set two stop losses:
1. A physical stop-loss order placed at a certain price level that suits your risk tolerance. Essentially, this is the most you want to lose.
2. A mental stop-loss set at the point where your entry criteria are violated. This means that if the trade makes an unexpected turn, you'll immediately exit your position.
Retail day traders usually also have another rule: set a maximum loss per day that you can afford (both financially and mentally) to withstand. Whenever you hit this point, take the rest of the day off. Inexperienced traders often feel the need to make up losses before the day is over and end up taking unnecessary risks as a result. (To learn more, see The Stop-Loss Order - Make Sure You Use It.)
Evaluating and Tweaking Performance
Many people get into day trading expecting to make triple digit returns every year with minimal effort. In reality, around 80% of day traders lose money. A recent (January 2005) behavioral finance study of the Taiwanese stock market conducted by professors at the University of Taipei and the University of California suggests that "less than 20% of day traders earn profits net of transaction costs". Most of these people would be better off putting their money on the roulette table than using it for day trading! However, by using a well-defined strategy that you are comfortable trading, you can improve your chances of beating the odds.
How do you evaluate performance? Most day traders evaluate performance not so much by a percentage of gain or loss, but rather by how closely they adhere to their individual strategies. In fact, it is far more important to follow your strategy closely than to try to chase profits. By keeping this mindset, you make it easier to identify where problems exist and how to solve them.
Day trading is a difficult skill to master - well over 50% of those who try it fail. But the techniques described above can help you create a profitable strategy and, with enough practice and consistent performance evaluation, you can greatly improve your chances of beating the statistics.