What’s your edge?

The best part about financial markets is the mythos that the amateur can compete or even outcompete the professional.

How many other ultra-competitive activities does that hold true? Would you step onto the field against an NFL team? Would you wager millions of dollars playing against a chess or golf pro?

Arrayed against you is an army of PhD-wielding mathematicians, economists, and artificial intelligence researchers, backed by another army of programmers that turn the first group’s insights and data into algorithms that get the best executions and take advantage of fleeting market opportunities in fractions of a second.

So why do you think you can outcompete a finance professional? And I mean a real one – a buy-side hedge fund like AQR or Renaissance Technologies or institutional asset managers like Blackrock or Goldman Sachs, not your typical “financial advisor” who is scrabbling for a ten or fifty thousand dollar 401k rollover.

How do you compete?

As an individual trader you have 3 edges:

  1. Smaller pools of capital: you can have tens of millions of dollars and still be a very small fish that with a little care doesn’t have to worry about moving most markets with your order flow. You can get in and out of investments faster than any institutional investor. While they may be faster than you on the execution of any single trade, you’ll almost always be faster when it comes to large-scale portfolio repositioning.
  2. Patient capital: if you trail your index by five years it’s not like you’ll have the capital you’re trading with yanked away from you; however, if an institutional investor trails their index by five years, whoever owns that capital might transfer it to another financial institution to manage. This allows you to be patient and let your investment or trading thesis play out without worrying about career suicide. Most portfolio managers can’t afford to do this.
  3. You don’t have to do something that appears complex or fancy to justify your fees to your clients. You can invest in simple index funds and beat 80%+ of active portfolio managers.

How does Signalee apply these edges?

  1. Signalee doesn’t have the infrastructure or knowledge to compete with high-frequency traders so we only play in areas where speed of execution doesn’t much matter.
  2. We ignore the traditional concept of risk that substitutes volatility for the permanent loss of capital.
  3. We use a trading strategy that accomplishes our goals – not someone else’s.

For the average investor, focusing on things they can control like investment expenses (including taxes), diversification, and their savings rate, if they’re still in the accumulation phase, is a much better use of their time than trying to find an edge in the market when the playing field is crowded with more capable competitors.


It’s always fun to speculate as to what is driving markets. Trump pulled us out of the Iran deal and the European Union is scrambling to keep it in place. Do they think the deal is effective or do they want to maintain the lucrative market access that lifting the sanctions gave them? Does Trump think he can get a better deal or is he just playing to his base of supporters and can give a rats about actually following through at the negotiation table?

Who knows.

The reality is that the global economy is still chugging along. While the rest of the world may be slowing down a little, the US is showing few signs of taking a breather. There is some rumblings that China has shut down port offices and are not issuing new certificates cargo ships to import various products into China. I’m assuming it’s targeted at US farmers although a lot of other industries are finding themselves caught up as collateral damage.

There are so many storylines out there to try to guess where the market is going to go. Or if you prefer: to guess where other people will guess where the market is going to go.

Instead, stick with a repeatable process: look for uptrends, wait for the pullback, buy once it looks like it is stabilizing, sell when it mean-reverts.

Which brings us to ECH.

2018.05.09 ECH

ECH has been in a strong uptrend for the past couple of years but has spent most of 2018 in a trading range. Trading ranges work for us too. Regardless, price pulled back to the bottom of the range, looked like it caught a bid around $51 and moved up again today. The fun thing to note on today’s price range: it looks like someone forgot to use a limit order and got taken advantage of.

Entered at $51.67. Stop loss is at $48.75 while I’ll hopefully get to take a profit when it tags the 20-day simple moving average.

Fiduciary Standard & Radical Transparency

The best part about only managing your own money is that you’re incentivized to always do the right thing because it’s your own money. My goal is to maximize wealth within the context of a risk management framework. I don’t have a boss that’s constantly pushing me to gather new assets or maximize revenue. So the debate on the fiduciary standard doesn’t really affect me.

But it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion.

Fifth Circuit v Fiduciary Rule

The Fifth Circuit recently ruled against the DOL. It is now widely assumed that the SEC’s proposed rules will replace the DOL’s fiduciary rule. The SEC rules require brokers to look out for clients’ best interest but it stops short of imposing a fiduciary standard on brokers. The end result is that brokers can keep their kickbacks as long as they disclose them to clients.

Ask yourself how small the print will be when the brokers “disclose” those kickbacks to their clients.

A More Perfect World

In a perfect world, every financial advisor would already be providing each and every one of their clients the lowest cost, most effective financial products that align perfectly with their goals.

This doesn’t happen in the real world.

The easiest way to improve outcomes in the real world is to ask your financial advisor how he gets paid for each product he has you invested in. If you have an honest advisor he’ll show you the percentage you’re paying for the ongoing management fee of the mutual fund, the fee you paid to get into the mutual fund in the first place (although it’s crazy to pay an upfront fee to buy a mutual fund in this day and age – if you’re paying upfront mutual fund fees you probably have an advisor who isn’t looking out for your best interests), and whatever account wrapper fee he charges on top of all of this for his “advice”. You’ll likely get this number in percentage form. Do yourself a favor and convert it to dollars. Ask him who else is paying him so you can figure out if you’re actually the client or the product being sold.

Then think hard as to whether the advice you’re getting is worth that sum. You might decide your advisor is worth it, but it’s easier to understand the true cost when it’s in dollar form because you can more easily compare that number to a list of alternatives. Like a vacation, a bass boat, or a wine cellar.

A less than honest or incompetent advisor will give you incomplete numbers, or even worse, not be able to give you the numbers because he has you in a bunch of annuity products whose fees are opaque as a pint of Guinness.

If you don’t have a family office looking out for you, show your financial statements to a financial advisor from Vanguard, Fidelity, or an honest-to-God fiduciary RIA like RWM. They’ll be able to quickly tell you how much you’re paying in fees, mostly becuase they use it as a selling point to win new business.

Don’t get me wrong – the lowest cost option isn’t necessarily the best choice. The true value of financial advisors for most people is to keep them from doing dumb stuff when they’re panicking in a bear market. But there are a lot of good financial advisors that combine good advice with reasonably low costs.

Radical Transparency

My solution for financial advisors to meet the fiduciary standard is to make every financial management firm present you a quarterly or monthly invoice for every fee they charge. This invoice must be paid by a check you write to them. Don’t allow them to automatically deduct a tiny percentage from your account every day, which is their current practice, and is so small that you don’t notice it but whose effect over decades totals hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

You know how much your mortgage costs you every month. Why shouldn’t it be just as easy to know the total cost of asset management every month? And if you’re wondering why Vanguard, Fidelity, and Blackrock dominate the asset management business: they’re not screwing their customers with high fees.

Where to put new money?

When I first started putting money to work 2 months ago the markets were stretched and bubbly. Based on where the market was trading when I wrote Bitcoin, the Stock Market, and Other Asset Bubbles there weren’t any terribly attractive mainstream asset classes. So I put money to work in some contrarian positions that included EWY and FREL. Since then the market has been a bit more volatile and is off its 2018 peak. We’ve made a little money just because of dollar cost averaging combined with a sideways market, but we’re not exactly crushing it right now.

Volatility! Trade Wars! Trump!

The headlines are creating noise to try to explain what’s going in the market these days. The good news is that none of it matters because in Signalee’s fun little experiment to take a $1,000 to $1 million, we don’t have enough money on the line right now to really care. Now that the markets have consolidated a bit we can ignore the noise and focus on is implementing a strategy that is robust, stupidly simple, and dirt cheap. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is to go back to the ol’ standby of momentum trading to put new $100 bi-weekly deposits to work.

Momentum Trading Asset Selection

The first step in implementing Momentum for Dummies is to select commission-free ETFs (we’re using ones from Fidelity) to mimic as many as the asset classes as possible:

  • SHY: T-Bills
  • IVV: US Large Cap
  • IJR: US Small Cap
  • IEF: US 10-year
  • LQD: US Corporate Debt
  • FMAT: Commodities/Gold

There isn’t a good commission-free option for commodities or gold so I’m substituting FMAT, which is Fidelity’s Materials Sector ETF.

Bridesmaid Momentum

The crux of the Momentum for Dummies strategy is to take a look at the past twelve months performance and buy the second-best performing asset. That asset is then held for 12 months and the process is repeated. We’re going to get a little fancier, purely by accident, because we’re going to run the numbers every 2 weeks every time another $100 gets deposited into the brokerage account.

Where’s the Exit?

I typically preach that a trader needs to have a well-defined risk management strategy that takes into account the macro environment and some sort of stop loss. Right now it’s too expensive to have a stop loss given how small the account is and we’re likely to be a net beneficiary of any short-term market swoons given the relative size of the $100 deposits versus the current account size. However, even though the headlines might lead you to believe that the end (of this bull market) is nigh, recessions typically don’t happen when there is full employment and inflation is below 2.5 percent.

Instead of using a typical risk management strategy based on price we’re going to use a time stop. Once the value of Signalee’s account gets to $2,000, which will give us access to margin, we’ll close out all the positions.

Unless something crazy happens, this should happen in May or June this year.

Taking a $1,000 portfolio to $1,000,000

Back on February 22 I put up a post that looked at Savings vs Returns vs Trades. It pointed out that your savings rate has one of the biggest impacts on the final value of your account. However, it also made me think: why don’t I rewind the clock 20 years and actually follow the simple idea of starting with $1,000 in an account, add $100 every two weeks, and show how the trading evolves as the account works its way to $1,000,000?

So I did.

Why? Because it’s an opportunity to build a small account to a large account using everything I’ve learned trading over the past 20+ years. I want to see how quickly it can be built when your tuition to the school of hard knocks is significantly lower than the first time around. I never want to say tuition is completely free because a trader should always assume they’ll find new ways to make mistakes, but the cost of ignorance and emotional stupidity should be much lower.

6 Weeks Later…

When your account is really small, trading costs matter. You can’t trade strategies that involve frequent small wins and losses. It also helps if you stick with commission-free ETFs. So where does that leave the portfolio? Well, I bought an initial slug of EWY (not commission-free), some FREL (commission-free), and since then I’ve been dollar-cost averaging into FREL.

The account is up to ~$1,300 in spite of the two ETFs each going absolutely nowhere. How did it get up to $1,300? Remember: $100 is deposited every two weeks.

So in 6 weeks I’ve knocked out 4% of the 142 trades I need to get the account to $1,000,000 with a sideways market and zero trading acumen.

Where do we go from here?

This is what the roadmap looks like:

  • With every $100 deposit buy commission-free ETFs that have the best momentum. Do this for the next 14 weeks until the account gets to $2,000. Average cost of a trade is $0. Risk management doesn’t really matter at this point given how small the account is. Note: this is the only time you’ll ever see me write this.
  • Once the account gets to $2,000 then we’ll have access to margin, which means we control $4,000. If the average win is 5% then we’ll pay $10 in commissions for every $80 in trade profits. That’s higher than I prefer but it’s the cost of trading with a small account. As the account grows in value the commissions will eventually become a rounding error.

By the time the account gets to $3,750 the $100 deposits will still be meaningful for a while longer but we’ll have effectively knocked out 27 trades, or 19 percent of the total trades we need to get to $1,000,000. I realize this simple analysis doesn’t include taxes or the inevitable losing trades, but it’s a simple heuristic that gets the point across.

The Voodoo of Margin

Some of you might have done a double-take when you read the part in the roadmap about maxing out margin. In general you want to avoid margin or leverage or at least only use enough to reach your goals (think about buying a house or a business). On retirement accounts and my main investment account I don’t use any leverage because it’s not necessary to generate the generally low return I’m looking for. Plus those accounts run diversified strategies that include buying, holding, and rebalancing super-broad and super-cheap index funds. Only a quarter of it is devoted to an active trading strategy with all the bells and whistles of position sizing, risk management, risk to reward analysis combined with probability of a successful trade, and sequence of returns risk.

What I’m saying is that buy & hold and leverage generally don’t work together in an investment portfolio because you’re subject to mark-to-market risk. But when you manage mark-to-market risk and have a strategy with positive expected value and a reasonable sequence of return risk profile then leverage will get you wherever you’re going faster. And for this fun $1,000,000 experiment, I want to see how fast I can get there without doing something dumb or relying on lottery tickets.

What’s your benchmark?

Trend Trading vs Buy & Hold

An interesting argument was recently raised where it was posited that a trend trading strategy should be the default benchmark instead of a buy and hold strategy. If this benchmark was adopted it would represent a fairly large shift in thinking in the financial advisory and asset management industry.

The buy and hold benchmark that has been almost universally adopted in the current asset management industry suffers from hindsight bias and cherry picking the data. It’s even worse when the benchmark is set to the S&P 500. As an industry we have collectively decided to pick one of the best performing assets of the past century and say that this is the benchmark to beat. There’s a significant amount of appeal to using it: the S&P 500 was easily investable by institutions and later retail investors. There were no decisions or trading that had to be done as the rules-based market cap index methodology made all the changes for you.

But America, and the S&P 500, is truly exceptional. The question is whether it will continue to be exceptional. It’s possibly unpatriotic to ask this question or build a portfolio that doubts that bedrock principle, but managing true risk, which is the permanent loss of capital, is the only way to stay in this game for the long run.

Global Real Returns

The US is an outlier – out of all the investable markets it had the best real return at 4.3 percent. If you look at the chart below from “Everyone is Wrong on the Internet, stock market returns edition” published by the Financial Times, it shows that 21 markets had positive annualized real returns while 17 had negative annualized real returns.

Global Returns

Now, it’s pretty obvious that you could improve your odds by avoiding the countries where the rule of law is fairly absent and corruption abounds, but there are five developed country markets on the chart that not a lot of investors would have avoided.

Just think if you were a Greek, Argentinian, or Peruvian and had all your money in your home country. You’d be broke. Investing in a global portfolio and avoiding home country bias is one way to avoid negative real returns. Diversifying into other types of assets is another.

But even then, stop to think about what conditions would cause global equity markets to collapse 80 percent and stay there for a prolonged period of time. If you had all of your money in a core position trading strategy like Signalee uses you’d be a lot poorer. And even though I think core position trading is a great way to make money, it’s possible that it can fail. Sure, you’ll continue to collect dividends, but you’d be significantly poorer.

An Alternative to Buy & Hold

Trend trading can avoid the giant drawdowns. In a trendless market where swing trading does well a trend trader will get chopped up, but it does a decent job of wealth preservation. Since wealth preservation is towards the top of the list of important things an investor should focus on, it makes more sense to set trend trading as the default benchmark than looking at something like the S&P 500’s performance over a most extraordinary century.

How to Fail as a Trader

The two biggest causes of failure among new traders are bad trading systems and unfettered emotions.

Bad Trading Systems

Trading is a game of probabilities and sequence of returns. Systems run the gamut from trend following and breakout systems on one end that have low win rates but (hopefully!) big winners to short-term mean reversion systems that have lots of small wins with losses that aren’t too large. Stanley Druckenmiller said he only targets trades that will return 5x his money so he only has to be right slightly more than 20 percent of the time to make money. But the only way a system like this works is if he has a bunch of small trades going at the same time so he doesn’t get wiped out with losses while waiting for that 5x trade to happen. Too many traders accept small wins and big losses. They trade positions that can permanently go to zero and they compound the issue by using stop losses purely based on price. Even if 90 percent of your trades are profitable, the remaining 10 percent of trades that are losses can more than wipe out your gains.


The second most common cause of failure for new traders is decisions made because of panic or euphoria. If a trader’s position goes against him, oftentimes a new trader will sell out at a loss just to see the trade bounce back. To be a successful, a trader has to have a plan to manage the position no matter if it goes up or down, and be able to stick with the plan no matter what.

Euphoria is just as bad as panic. Occasionally a trader will find himself in a situation where seemingly everything he touches turns to gold. Profits are easy and account balances grow. Instead of taking the good fortune in stride, knowing that the hot hand will eventually end, he increases his position sizes, uses leverage, or goes outside his area of expertise. The end result is easily anticipated as the new trader circles back to panic.

Emotions can be tamed in two ways:

  • Trade small until you can handle the losses that will inevitably happen on any single trade. Slowly increase the size of the trade and the size of the losses that you incur. If you panic sell, lose sleep, or want to check prices every 30 minutes then your position size is too big.
  • Instead of trying to come up with your own system or edge when you’re first starting out use the free core position trading system from Signalee. Buy and sell signals are posted when they happen so you can have the confidence that you won’t blow up your account.

Position Trading

There are a million ways to make money in the stock market and a million more ways to lose it all. Signalee uses position trading to grind out profits over the long-term. We just stick to the boring basics: buying low, selling high, repeating ad nauseum.