How I Stopped Stockpreacher’s Alanco (ALAN) Bull Raid

This is a classic trading post from 5/16/2009 originally published on my investment blog GoodeValue.com. This is the last such post I will re-post here on Reaper Trades.

A lot can be said about short sellers.  One undeniable fact is that short sellers are the sellers of last resort. When everyone else wants to buy, the only ones who wish to sell are often short sellers. In fact, while many fear the depredations of short sellers manipulating the market with bear raids (of which there is little evidence), short sellers are the ones who protect the market from pump & dump schemes and bull raids (a bull raid being a concerted promotion of a stock when the promoter is not being compensated; certain stock pumpers will engage in these from time to time to enhance their credibility). It is worth noting that pump & dump schemes are common in OTC and Pinksheets stocks that usually trade for less than a dime per share, but there are almost none in higher-priced listed stocks. The reason for this is that margin rules and difficulties borrowing shares to short prevent short sellers from being the sellers of last resort for penny stocks. For listed securities they are more easily able to sell. It is the fear of short sellers that causes most stock pumpers to avoid stocks trading for over $1 per share on exchanges like the NYSE and Nasdaq.

Sometimes pumpers get a little cocky or a short seller gets lucky and a pump & dump runs headlong into the brick wall that is a motivated and well-funded short seller. Whatever the reason, this short seller was able to find plenty of shares to borrow of last Thursday’s pump of Alanco Technologies (ALAN). This pump (or in this case a bull raid, as the pumper reported having received no money to promote the company) came from stock tout Stockpreacher (about which I have written previously). Stockpreacher released its ‘report’ on the company just as the market opened and ALAN jumped 100% from an opening price of $0.49 to over $1.00 in less than a minute (this was no doubt caused by Stockpreacher’s idiot subscribers buying with market orders). The stock touched a high of $1.30 but very few shares traded hands above $1.05.

ALAN Daily Stock Chart (pump and dump day highlighted; click to enlarge)

Seeing that the stock was up an insane amount for no reason other than a bull raid and that there were shares available to short, I quickly started selling large blocks of shares. I knew that the only reason the stock was up was a bull raid and I knew from past experience that previous Stockpreacher bull raids dropped quickly from their highs. I quickly exhausted all 12,550 shares of ALAN available to short at my main brokerage, Interactive Brokers (see a screen shot of my trades there). I then moved on to another brokerage account that had shares available and sold short another 34,500 shares. I had an average short price of $1.01. My fusillade of short sales (I sold over 2% of that day’s volume in the span of a couple minutes) helped to keep the stock from hitting more outrageous highs than the already outrageous $1.30 it briefly hit. How do I know? Stockpreacher’s bull raid on BOSC from the previous week (for which no shares were available to short at any of my four brokerages) had driven the stock price from $0.60 to an intra-day high of $5.80.

ALAN Intraday Stock Chart (click image to enlarge)

About an hour and fifteen minutes after I first sold short, I covered my short position at prices between $0.60 and $0.65. I netted $17,322 for a few minutes’ work and I got the satisfaction of helping to counter the manipulation of a notorious stock tout. It was indeed a good day.

How You Can Profit from Pump & Dumps

Some fellow stock traders were impressed with my courage in short selling a stock that was up 100% on manipulation without even waiting for the buying pressure to ease up. My response  was simple: manipulation has its limits. I am now nearly an expert on manipulation and hype, having learned from Tim Sykes how to short sell manipulated stocks.  I knew from observing the previous Stockpreacher bull raids that the stocks always dropped quickly from their intraday highs. There are no easier trades than short selling a stock that has been manipulated 100% higher when you know the manipulation is going to cease (Stockpreacher does not keep pumping the stocks it selects for bull raids after the initial day). That being said, it is scary to quickly take a large short position in a volatile stock. To do so requires both understanding hype and manipulation and confidence in being right. Unfortunately, until the last couple weeks (during which I have made several great trades), my confidence has been poor (like my trading) this year.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in my articles on becoming a stock trader (Part 1, Part 2) and in my Introduction to Evidence-Based Investing, the bane of any trader (or investor) is emotion. Fear and greed are both anathema to successful trading; a trader should be confident but not overconfident. Trading involves implementation of a specific plan; emotion will distract from the plan and lead to poor decisions. I have struggled with my trading this year, suffering from a large draw-down in my secret super-awesome trading strategy, suffering from meager profits in my pennystocking trading strategy (Tim Sykes’ strategy), and even messing up my arbitrage trades.

As a result of the above troubles, my account dipped into negative territory and I was feeling horrible. While I gained 5.13% in January and gained 5.32% in February, I lost 3.81% in March and lost 9.90% in April. I resolved to dial down my risk a bit and focus on fixing my trading errors. I revised my super-secret trading strategy (which had been responsible for 80% of my profits and losses) in a way that only slightly reduces returns while greatly reducing risk. For my pennystocking trades, I focused on getting my confidence back. The best way to do that is to focus on the easiest trades. So, knowing how easy it would be to profit from short selling a Stockpreacher pump, I followed each one and did not let my fears keep me from taking a huge short position in ALAN. It helped that I follow Tim Sykes and he kept reiterating the ease of profiting from stocks up on hype alone. That strategy seems to be working as I am now up 12.14% so far this month (and May is only half-over!).

Now I have my confidence back and will look to improve my performance in more difficult trades. Of course, there is no reason for me to abandon the easiest trades! If possible, I will gladly sell short 100,000 shares of the next Stockpreacher pump!

Chart of my cumulative profit trading Tim Sykes’ strategy
Cumulative Profits from Tim Sykes Trading Strategy

Disclosure: No Positions. I am an affilliate of Tim Sykes as well as a customer, having purchased multiple of his DVDs (I recommend Pennystocking Part Deux; it is by far the best) and being a Lifetime TimAlerts member. I have a disclosure policy.

Watchlist for July 30 and Today's Recap

ELRN on watch for long, had some good drug news (though not huge). ELRN might be a good buy on early morning strength, particularly on the cross of $7. It was nice today when it hit $7 and popped above $8. On second thought, ELRN probably will not be a buy, considering that it faded gradually all day today after its morning spike.

INO is on watch, I am not bullish or bearish, but considering its huge move today and strong close, it will likely move a lot tomorrow.

OHB remains on short watch. Today I shorted OHB following a certain famous trader’s alert service. I had been watching it all day but missed the entry at $3; my average price ended up being $2.86 on 3,000 shares. I covered at the end of the day for a $390 loss when the stock popped back green. As Yngvai noted on the Tim Alerts blog, I should not have been so concerned about that little spike because small spikes into the close are not necessarily meaningful with illiquid stocks.

I made a couple mistakes: I got in a little too large (a habit I seem to have*) and then my mental stop was too tight. With an illiquid stock like OHB it is smarter to have a looser stop, especially considering how much downside remains.

*I remember I took a multi-thousand-dollar loss last September when shorting WRSP. I had had a huge winning streak and got cocky; my position was something like 5% of the daily volume; I drove the stock up 10% by myself while trying to cover during a short squeeze. I took little comfort from the fact that one month later the company was bankrupt and the stock worthless.

Disclosure: No positions. I am a customer of Tim Sykes and an affiliate of his. I have a disclosure policy that gives details on those relationships.

Followup on Cannabis Science (CBIS)

Trading penny stocks is easy. My call on CBIS was dead on: on green/red action yesterday it fell straight from 1.13 to .83. Take a look at its chart:

cbis

My call on CERS was good too:

cers

Unfortunately CERS gapped down at the open yesterday and there were no shares of CBIS to short that I could find.

How did I predict what would happen to CERS and CBIS? I have carefully studied similar stocks and chart patterns and I must say I learned from the best trader of these stocks, Tim Sykes. If you want to learn I suggest buying his disclosure policy that gives details on those relationships.

Watchlist for July 29

Not too much here. In this market it has been a lot easier to buy than to short, and I am a specialist in short selling.

ohb

OHB is a prime short as a Supernova with no news. I know this company from a fundamental perspective and they will be bankrupt within a year. Volume is very low and shares are not easy to borrow. IB had none today, SogoTrade had some.

china

I am short 3,000 shares of CHINA overnight, following a certain trader who shall remain nameless (although I would have thought of shorting anyway as it was a great afternoon fade and there is still plenty of room for this to fall tomorrow). This is a classic play to short, up only on hype-filled press releases since $1.50. Unfortunately the price action has been choppy. I will look to cover right after the open tomorrow and I will hope for a morning panic.

Disclosure: Short CHINA and I will likely cover the position early on 7/29/09. I have a disclosure policy.

StockPreacher.com puts the pizzazz back in pump & dumps

This is a classic trading post from my investment blog GoodeValue.com.

I would congratulate Stockpreacher.com on the skill with which they have in consecutive weeks sent Candela Corp (CLZR) up 100% and on April 20, NetSol Technologies (NTWK) up 60% (from $0.45 to a high of $0.72). However, their pump of NetSol attracted so much interest that it crashed their website. On the day it was pumped over 5 million shares were traded versus an average of 400,000 shares per day in the prior week. I can only guess that 1 million more shares would have been traded if StockPreacher’s website had not crashed.

NTWK 4-20-09 stockpreacher pump-dump

Of course, like most pumped stocks, NetSol and Candela both fell after the pump and I profited from short selling both of them (I also profited from buying NetSol into the pump). Tim Sykes also has a post on this pump and how he (and I) profited from trading it. Do you want to learn how I have made $2577.30 in 2009 and $50,801.90 since last June by following Tim Sykes’ trading system? Buy some of Tim’s stuff (like his Pennystocking Part 2 DVD set … but skip Part 1) and find out.

For those who must know, I bought NTWK at $0.47 (because their website was down and my email was slow I found out which stock they were pumping from a post in the InvestorsUnderground Chatroom, which is a great place for day-traders), sold at $0.61, went short at $0.65, covered at $0.58, went short again at $0.64 (all on 4/20) and covered at $0.57 on 4/21. I made over $1500 in under 24 hours with no more than $4300 at risk at any time. Not bad, eh?

Disclosure: No positions in any stock mentioned. I am an affiliate of  InvestorsUnderground and Tim Sykes and will make a commission if you buy junk using my links. I am a subscriber to InvestorsUnderground and a customer of Tim Sykes. I have a disclosure policy that gives details on those relationships.

So you want to be a stock trader? Finding a trading system & dealing with emotion (Part two of many)

This article will address the emotional requirements, discipline, and risk controls necessary to be successful at trading. I will then address how to find a trading strategy that works. This is the second article in a series. I suggest reading the first article (on the extreme difficulty of trading profitably).

Types of Trading

There are a few different types of trading (as opposed to investing) that distinguish traders. My definitions are not going to be the same as others’ definitions, and I will make some broad generalizations that are not always true–keep that in mind. There is daytrading (rapid trading intra-day, usually not holding positions overnight), swing trading (buying stocks based on longer-term charts and news), and fundamental speculation. Day-trading can be subdivided into scalping (going for small 10 cent stock moves), trend following, and dip buying (counter-trend trading). Day traders typically do not trade on news (although they may adjust stop losses or profit targets if there is particularly good / bad news). Day traders do not care about fundamentals; all they care about is a stock’s price movement. I do a decent amount of day-trading. Swing trading, on the other hand, is a longer-term trading style. The classic example is Bill O’Neil’s CANSLIM system. Most swing traders I know like to hold stocks for a few weeks or months at the longest. They often use a combination of fundamental and technical analysis. I have never swing-traded. The last kind of trading I will address is fundamental speculation. This involves taking a directional bet on some security for some fundamental reason. My profitable short sale of Silver State Bancorp from $2.00 to $0.09 (in bankruptcy) was a fundamental speculation.

There are other types of trading but they are not particularly relevant or they fall within one of the above classifications. Most fake arbitrage (merger arbitrage, pairs trading, statistical arbitrage, and anything else called arbitrage that involves risk) is simply a type of fundamental speculation.

Disclipline is the Key

No matter what kind of trading you are trying to do, you need to be disciplined. Ego, greed, fear, and any other emotions only get in the way. When a trader is undisciplined or trades based on emotion, he will make costly errors and lose money. In the book of Chuang-tzu there is a story about a discussion the philosopher had with a student. Master Chuang stated that a man who could not swim would make a poor fisherman, a man who could swim would make a decent fisherman, and a man who is as much at home in the water as on land would be an excellent fisherman.  That last man would be free to concentrate on fishing because he would have neither fear nor excitement at the prospect of being out on the lake.  So it is with trading: the best traders are emotionally detached from trading and the prospect of winning or losing large sums of money.  This emotional detachment allows them to focus solely on carrying out their trading plan. It may sound odd, but I have gotten very excited about a small $100 gain (because I had made a perfect trade albeit using little capital) and I have become despondent after a $6000 gain (because I had failed to implement my trading strategy correctly, missing out on far larger profits on what was a perfect trade setup).

Anything that will prevent a trader from being detached, calm, and focused will lead almost certainly to losses.  Stress in other aspects of a trader’s life will distract a trader and likely cause losses.  Outside stressors that cause a trader to focus on money are the worst.  Whether it is a need to make money to impress a girlfriend, sustain a lavish lifestyle, or provide for the family, the need for money will cause the trader to lose focus and will almost certainly lead to losses.

Discipline Requires A Plan

Dictionary.com defines discipline in the following ways:

1.     training to act in accordance with rules; drill: military discipline.
2.     activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.

The first definition perfectly captures what discipline should mean for a neophyte.  Discipline means sticking to rules.  That is why chess students study famous games and strategies and first learn to implement classic strategies whole cloth before trying to mix and match bits of different strategies.  Likewise young doctors learn to follow a clear diagnostic protocol when diagnosing a disease.  Only with much practice will a doctor, chess player, or trader reach a level of knowledge and skill that they do not have to consciously implement a set of rules.

How Not to Trade

In my previous article I discussed several trading strategies that I believe to be very poor.  Simply put, any trading strategy that relies upon the trader implementing that strategy being smarter, better, or faster than other traders is a poor strategy.  When analyzing potential trading strategies, the key is to identify niches that besides offering opportunity for profit, exist for some reason, will likely continue to exist for some time, and do not suffer from a lot of competition from other (potentially better) traders.

A great example of a trading strategy that does not meet any of the above criteria is trying to swing-trade the stock market.  There is little evidence that any one can predict where the stock market will go in the next week, month, or year. The CXO Advisory Group has a good analysis of various stock market commentators, none of whom show any evidence of being able to reliably predict the direction of the market. The best among them was accurate only 63% of the time, while the group average was 48%. Mark Hulbert, who tracks many stock-investing newsletters, agrees that market-timing does not work (this is compounded by market timing becoming more popular during market lows and less popular at market highs). If predicting the market were possible, there would be a lot more smart traders (such as hedge funds) that time the market. Instead, the traders who try hardest to time the market are small retail traders (suckers). (I should add that I believe that sometimes it is possible to beat the market by making fundamental calls, such as betting that housing was going to cause a recession, but past experience shows that the people who bet correctly on the current market downturn have no more ability than you or I to predict where the stock market will be in a year. John Paulson, for example, has been sitting on his bearish bets on mortgages for a couple years.)

Now, for an example of a trading strategy that works and that meets all the above criteria.  This is my strategy for arbitraging the differences in value between Berkshire Hathaway share classes.  While this has made me money, it is niche trading strategy; the strategy produces bond-like returns, requires that I pay close attention at all times, requires a minimum of $200,000 to trade, and cannot be scaled up past maybe a few million dollars because the shares are relatively illiquid.  The problems with this strategy preclude all of the following types of traders from competing with me in this niche: hedge funds, part time traders, traders with little capital, and traders who have enough capital and time but use their capital all of the time for other trades.  In essence, the very problems with this strategy are its strengths for me–its problems keep other traders away, meaning that I will likely be able to continue profitably trading this strategy far into the future. (Disclosure: I am currently short BRK-A and long BRK-B.)

The Characteristics of a Good Trading System

Most people believe that the only thing that matters about the trading system is how profitable it is.  This is incorrect.  There are many different aspects of trading systems to which a trader must pay attention.  Profitability per se is actually not one of them.  Instead, profitability is best thought of subdivided into its component parts: percentage of winning trades vs. losing trades and the average profit per winning trade / loss per losing trade.  Many good trading systems will produce about the same number of winning and losing trades, but they produce much greater profits on winning trades than losses on losing trades.  It is a rare trading system indeed that produces both a large percentage of winning trades and significantly larger profits on winning trades than losses on losing trades.

Besides these measures of profitability, there are many other important aspects of trading systems.  The frequency of trading opportunities is one of the more important; the trading system that produces three trade opportunities per week will be three times as profitable as the system that produces only one trade opportunity per week.  Conversely, anything that makes the trading system more profitable can be tweaked to make it that much less risky instead.  So if a trading system produces many trades, the trader can devote less capital to each trade, reducing the probability of losing large sums of money on any one trade.  Another benefit to a trading system that produces many trades is that allows for quicker evaluation of a system and higher statistical certainty that a trading system actually works (given equivalent profitability profiles, we can be more statistically sure that the trading strategy with thousands of trades is not due to chance than we can of the trading strategy with just 50 trades).

Another important facet of a trading system is its scalability.  It is a lot easier to devise a trading strategy that generates 100% annual profits with $100,000 in capital than it is to generate such profits with $10,000,000 in trading capital.  If you’re reading this article, you are likely not a hedge fund manager with over $50,000,000 or $10,000,000,000 in capital.  You should use your size to your advantage by pursuing non-scalable strategies.  Pursuing non-scalable strategies also guarantees that you will not be competing against the best and brightest traders.  A good example of this is my recent arbitrage trade in KV Therapeutics stock.  Over the last week, my trading was over 2% of the trading volume in KV B shares (KV-B); on the days I actually traded the stock, my trades accounted for up to 10% of the volume!  A hedge fund with even $50,000,000 (tiny for a hedge fund) that does the same type of arbitrage trading I do would not be able to build up a meaningful position in such an illiquid stock, forcing it to trade other pairs of securities that offer much less profit potential.

How to Find or Design a Trading System

There are many different ways to trade stocks profitably.  These do not generally include common trading systems that you find advertised everywhere.  There are multiple problems with these systems.  The main problem is that there is no way to know if these trading systems work.  I have not heard of one trading guru whose returns are not only audited but also can display the great audited returns of a random sample of their followers.  The only trading guru of whom I am aware that has great audited returns is Timothy Sykes (who has plenty of educational materials to sell you).  He has the website Covestor.com tap into his brokerage account automatically to verify all his trades.  So at the very least you know that the trades he has been reporting are trades that he has actually made. If you run into any trading guru selling some system, ask them why they don’t use Covestor (it is free) or have a well-known auditor audit their trades. The evasive answers will likely be amusing.

So with anyone selling a trading system (or with just random trading bloggers) it is impossible to know if they are telling the truth or not.  There was actually a recent case where a trader I am acquainted with exposed a  generally respected trader/blogger who had blatantly lied about a trade he said that he made.  While that blogger was not selling anything, I am sure people have lost money following his free advice. If there is not a reputable source that has verified the trades of a trading guru or system, I would recommend following trades in real time (for a long period, such as a few months) to see if a system actually works before committing money to trading the system or paying the guru.

Other than fraud, the main problem with using someone else’s trading system is that it is easy to mess it up.  In any probabilistic endeavor, whether shooting a basketball or trading stocks, there will be long streaks of hits and misses.  If a person is shooting a basketball and knows that on average he hits 60% of his shots, he will not give up in disgust and quit basketball when he misses seven shots in row (which should happen by chance alone 0.16% of the time, although much more frequently in games due to variation in a defender’s skills).  (I should also point out that there is no statistical evidence that such a thing as a hot hand exists in basketball; people simply misinterpret the chance occurrence of a long string of good shots; the same is probably true for stock traders).  If a person is confident in a trading system that she has developed (or that she has rigorously tested and understands) and is confident that the trading system will continue to work, she will not abandon it.  A trader who uses another person’s trading system without fully understanding it and testing it will be prone to abandoning it when by chance alone the system produces a string of losses.

Another important caveat for those who would consider purchasing a trading system from some guru is that the best trading systems will never be sold.  Take me, for example: I use four main trading systems; my most profitable trading system I will never disclose to anyone (unless they wish to pay me $500,000 right now) because I can make far more money trading that system than by selling it.  On the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to discuss my other trading systems because they are far more limited (as I have done above with my share class arbitrage trading strategy).

Designing Your Own Trading System

By now it should be obvious that I believe it is much better for a new stock trader to design her own trading system, or at least plan on adapting an existing trading system to her own personality and style.  If you are interested in designing swing-trading systems based partly on technicals and fundamentals, I would recommend Portfolio123.com.  I successfully used Portfolio123 to design trading systems that have helped my IRA outperform the stock market by 20 percentage points over the last 18 months (when I stopped using Portfolio123 last July and switched my IRA to other stocks I was outperforming by 40 percentage points!).  If you are interested in purely technical trading, I recommend Stockfetcher.com. I use Stockfetcher to
scan for my day-trading stocks.  As far as books go, I think most trading books are utter crap; I recommend James Altucher’s “Trade Like a Hedge Fund“. It encourages the right kind of critical thinking in designing a trading system.

One last note: as far as technical analysis goes, 99% of it is crap. I only use the simplest kinds, all of which I can justify by understanding the psychology of traders. No happy prime Fibonacci retracement levels for me!

Note: I have not yet published a followup to this article, although I will eventually.

Disclosure: Short BRK-A and long BRK-B. This article was originally posted on my investing blog on 2/7/2009. I have paid Tim Sykes money, have successfully used his system, and am an affiliate of his. See my disclosure policy for details.

So you want to be a stock trader? (Part one of many)

I am a professional stock trader. I sit in my home office all day and look at numbers on my computer screen clicking here and there. For some reason, people believe that stock trading is sexy, fun, or a worthwhile hobby. It is not. It is perhaps one of the most difficult pursuits available because it is a zero-sum game. For every winner there is a loser. Whereas if you are a hand surgeon or a statistician or a synthetic organic chemist or an entrepreneur you can make money just by being good at what you do, if you are a stock trader you make money only if you are better than the traders that take the opposite side of your trades. In other words, the second best entrepreneur might become a billionaire. The second best trader will lose money. If you are interested in trading stocks I will give you some pointers, but first I will explain why most of you should not trade stocks.

Types of Games

Negative-Sum Games

In game theory, there are three basic types of games. There are negative-sum games, in which everyone who plays loses (and the outcome determines only the extent of the loss). The classic example of this is global thermonuclear war (if you have not seen the movie War Games, see it). In any conceivable global nuclear war every side incurs massive loss of life and infrastructure. The unrealistic best-case scenario for a country might involve losing 2/3 of its population and having 50% of its land mass rendered uninhabitable. A more realistic ‘victory’ scenario would involve 95% loss of life and 90% of a country’s land mass rendered uninhabitable. Clearly no one would wish to play such a game.

Yet, another example of a negative-sum game is mutual funds (and particularly the largest funds). On the whole, they make up so much of the market that they cannot realistically outperform the market. And after expenses, they are guaranteed to underperform the market. So on average, mutual fund investors would be better off if they all invested in low-cost index funds. This is exactly the point of Warren Buffett’s Gotrocks parable in his letter to shareholders (excerpted here).

Okay, you say, you think other people should use index funds, but you are smart enough to pick good fund managers. Oh really? But what if the probability of any one fund outperforming is not better than random chance (and that is before fees)? Oh, and those “growth fund managers” that outperform their benchmark? That is only because there is such dreck in their benchmark (like American Superconductor or Ener1 at the moment), stuff that is so odious it is easy to avoid. But growth benchmarks on the whole underperform the broad stock market, meaning that even if growth fund managers can reliably beat their benchmark, they will underperform the broad market (as measured by the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 or a similar index).

I could go on, but this article is not focused on mutual funds. I just wanted to illustrate the concept of negative-sum games in finance.

Positive-Sum Games

The opposite of course is a positive sum game, where each player expects to win, although the degree of winning may differ. Spin the bottle is of course an example of this type of game. Any cooperative game (the type I hate playing, which is why I cannot think of more examples) would qualify as a positive-sum game.

The stock and bond markets are positive-sum games for long-term investors, because the expected return from stocks and bonds is positive. So in picking stocks, on average everyone makes money. Some people will lose money because they invest emotionally or stupidly and are not diversified, but on average stocks and bonds provide a certain positive return. That return on the whole (for stocks) comes from economic growth (ultimately driven by population growth and productivity growth) and dividends.

Zero-Sum Games

Zero-sum games are of course the most common when we think about games. Some common games include chess, checkers, and betting on football games (although that becomes a negative-sum game if you place it with a bookie, because the house takes a cut). Stock trading is also a zero-sum game. When you are literally day-trading stocks (buying them), holding nothing overnight, your expected market return will be about zero, because your transaction costs will nullify the tiny expected daily gain of the stock market. Looked at another way, the market return on such a short timescale is irrelevant; all that matters is whether you can outsmart another trader who takes the opposite side of your trade.

Even if you buy and hold stocks as an investor, you are betting that the stocks you buy will beat the market. In that sense, you are playing a zero-sum game (trying to beat the market) with professionals who are a lot better and smarter than you. Why would you play that game?

A Million Grand Masters

Do you play chess? Would you imagine that by studying chess for a few hours a week you could become a master, let alone a grandmaster? Would you then believe that you could go up against Garry Kasparov? Studies of experts in various fields have generally shown that to reach an elite level of performance (whether playing a musical instrument or chess or catching a football) takes something on the order of 10,000 hours of practice. That is three hours a day for ten years. Worse, those who achieve that elite level of performance start when they are very young, when their capacity to learn is much greater.

You surely would not attempt to take on Garry Kasparov if you were but a lowly chess master, let alone a dilettante who cannot beat a simple computer chess game. Yet many people, knowing little about analyzing companies, think that a few hours and a couple books prepares them to beat professional investors who spend 60 hours a week on investing or trading.

It is not necessary for the stock market to be efficient for amateur investors or traders to have very low odds of succeeding. It is only necessary that there be professionals who can profit off of the idiocy of the amateurs.

The Impossibility of Mastering Multiple Skills

If you spend 40 to 50 hours a week at your day job and a significant amount of time with your family and friends, then you do not have enough time to master another skill. I am a great example of this–when I first started to learn about investing and trading while in graduate school I devoted more and more time to learning investing, such that by the time I decided to leave school my advisor was unsurprised, because I had not been a very productive or good graduate student. Mastering one subject left me little time to master another. Even a man much smarter than myself, the famous cognitive psychologist Richard Shiffrin, experienced the same problem. In graduate school he started playing the game Go and eventually reached the level of 6 dan, perhaps roughly equivalent to a chess master; yet he realized that he had to quit either Go or psychology if he wanted to master one. Thankfully, he chose psychology. You are probably not smarter and more dedicated than Rich or myself, so don’t believe you can master a skill without devoting absurd amounts of time to it.

While stock trading is not as difficult as Go, it requires a lot of time to study patterns and learn what does and does not work. Most dilettants do not have the time or focus required to do it right.

Most Traders Lose Money

Most stock traders lose money. For day traders in Taiwan, the figure is 80% over any 6-month period. The figures are probably similar in the USA (one study finds that 20% of US daytraders make decent amounts of money). Many of those are just lucky or trade using a strategy that ceases to work; they do not continue to make profits over a period of months and years. Keep in mind that studies like these greatly overestimate the probability of a trader making money because they focus on those who trade the most; by using that there is a selection bias: traders who make money will trade more; those that lose money will tend to quit. If you could survey all the people who have tried daytrading, even just briefly, I am sure that fewer than 1% make any money while many lose large sums.

Okay, I Warned You

If you still wish to learn about trading, read on. Hopefully I have scared you enough so that you will not try it. In the followup article to this I will address different trading methodologies and strategies.

Okay, I’m Warning You Again

If you want to stand a chance at making money trading, here are a few suggestions of things not to trade: Apple (AAPL), GE (GE), Amazon.com (AMZN), and any other well-followed large-cap stock (or index or ETF). The big hedge funds have programs and experienced traders that trade these stocks based on thousands of statistical factors, news, and many other things I cannot even imagine. There is no point in trying to trade these. You have no edge whatsoever.

Another bad idea is to trade based on news or rumors. The hedge funds and iBanks hear the rumors first, so you won’t stand a chance (I’ve ignored that one a few times). The same thing goes for news as for rumor–the big traders hear it first. And with news they have programs to read the press releases and SEC filings and instantly make trades (that is what happened when a years-old report of United Airlines’ bankruptcy mistakenly hit the wires back in September: program trading sent the stock down 50% in minutes). If you trade solely based on what you do know (price momentum), you can make money, but you will be trading blind. This is what some traders I know did with UAUA and what I did with Constellation Energy (CEG) when there were rumors that it would go bankrupt. If you do this you are at a huge disadvantage.

If you do wish to trade stocks, the key is to have an edge. Whenever you want to do something, whether investing in a random stock or trying a quick day-trade, ask yourself: “What are the risks?” and also ask yourself, “Why aren’t other smart investors / traders / hedge funds doing this trade and taking this opportunity away from me?” You will quickly realize that most “trading ideas” have no value and that you almost never have an edge.

I recommend reading the next post in this series on emotion and developing a trading system.

Disclosure: No positions in any stock mentioned. This article was originally posted on my investing blog on 2/2/2009. I have a disclosure policy.

Stock to watch: Cannabis Science (OTC BB: CBIS)

CBIS has surged from $0.08 to $1.14 on millions of shares of volume over 5 days. It is a top watch for shorting on green to red action tomorrow. Unfortunately it is hard to borrow at Interactive Brokers and as an OTC stock is unavailable to short at SogoTrade.

CBIS

Here is some of the “news” that has sent the stock skyrocketing:

July 27: Cannabis Science to Apply to the FDA to Utilize Their Fast Track Procedures to Help Speed the Approval of Its Cannabinoid Medicines in Treatment of H1N1 Swine Flu as AP Report Predicts Swine Flu Could Hit up to 40 Percent in the USA

July 24: Today’s CNN Pandemic Report on H1N1 Pushes Cannabis Science to Move Faster to Release Its Anti-Inflammatory Cannabis Drug as Similarities Between 2009 and Deadly 1918 Influenza Pandemic Cause Concern; FDA Approved Drugs Needed Now to Meet This Urgent Situation

July 23: Today’s Wall Street Journal Reports on Cannabis Science Inc. in Article on Booming Medical Cannabis Industry; Indicates Great Demand for Products From a Patient Oriented Company

The common factor in all those press releases is that none of them are material to the company. The WSJ article only mentioned the company because the company’s CFO is involved in medical marijuana in California (the company is not). The other two press releases simply state that the company is going to try hard to get its cannabis drug approved quickly. Any self-respecting biotech would not even have put out press releases to say they are trying to get fast-track approval. Everyone tries it. Only a few of those who apply for fast-track approval get to use it. The press releases above therefore offer no real information and serve only to hype the stock. Once the hype dies down the company’s stock will head back to the gutter in which it belongs.

Note: as of the company’s most recent 10Q, it had a net worth of negative $870,000 and tangible assets of $2,467. It is hard to develop and market drugs with no money.

Disclosure: No position. I have a disclosure policy.

The Greatest stock chart of the year: Aspyra (APY)

This is a classic trading post from my investment blog GoodeValue.com. I have added a few more details to the end of this post.

This brought tears to my eyes … never before have I put a limit price on a big order so far below the market price, but alas there were no shares.

Here is how it played out … I caught this on the Scottrade MarketMovers list around $1.50 on the way up, was ready to short as the bid backed down to $1.30, could not find borrows, but hoping that IB could find borrows I placed a limit short for 5,000 shares at 90 cents (yes, 40 cents below market) … no shares became available.

This is the one-hour chart from 3pm EST to 4pm EST today.

This is a perfect example of what I call “fat-fingered shorts” … stocks with little volume where the price and volume shoot straight up on no news. They are likely caused by traders accidentally placing market orders instead of limit orders. This is one of the easiest charts to short sell. I usually run across one decent one a week. Of course, you need to get in on these quick; because of these constraints this is only a viable trading strategy for people who are already full-time daytraders and the potential profit is limited. As of this re-posting on 7/27/2009, my net profit in 2009 from similar trades is $2,505.99, with an average profit margin of 0.79%.

Disclosure: No position.