A few weeks ago, even as stock markets around the world suffered a turmoil triggered by downbeat economic news from China, a prolific 36-year-old Japanese day trader claimed to have made $34 million by betting big against the market trends and timing the bottom precisely.
Notwithstanding frequent mention of such success stories and blaring ads in the media tempting you to stake money on your wits and your instinct to profit from market swings, it can be very hard to make money consistently in day trading and short-term speculation.
As a fundamentals-based long-term investor, I don’t think there is anything wrong with day trading or short-term speculation. With skill, strategy, and the right temperament, it’s possible to be just as profitable in speculating as in investing with any other time horizon.
Over the years, many sophisticated stock-analysis services have emerged to facilitate trading and speculation by amateurs such as these pictured day-traders from Bangalore. Vast online social networks such as StockTwits engage in the exchange of information, opinion, gossip, rumors, and stories of successes and losses.
For a few successful trades, luck may be the main factor. However, in the fullness of time, the most important factors for consistent stock market gains are discipline, temperament, and risk management.
Most day traders fail because it’s too darn hard to time the market. They lack a coherent technique that works consistently. Instead of following a definite strategy rooted in fundamentals or a structured thought-process, they follow the news-tickers, minute-by-minute stock prices, volume- and price-trends, and poorly understood media-fed euphoria. Moreover, most day traders engage in short selling, a complex skill that goes against the grain of the conventional buy-and-hold mindset. Worst of all, most speculators don’t understand how their emotions come into play—both when they lose and when they win.
Like anything that requires focus, drive, discipline, persistence and a stroke of luck, day trading and speculation are hard to do successfully. It may take years of painful education and experimentation before creditable success. The U.S. market regulator Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) offers the following cautions on day trading:
- Be prepared to suffer severe financial losses
- Day traders do not “invest”
- Day trading is an extremely stressful and expensive full-time job
- Day traders depend heavily on borrowing money or buying stocks on margin
- Don’t believe claims of easy profits
- Watch out for “hot tips” and “expert advice” from newsletters and websites catering to day traders
- Remember that “educational” seminars, classes, and books about day trading may not be objective
Idea for Impact: Most studies on day trading and speculation reckon that over three-fourths of amateur traders lose money, some of which may have been borrowed. The high risk that comes with high-yield investments and the self-inflicted stress of loss and debt may not be for you.
A Low-risk Alternative: There is no fail-safe way to invest without any risk. If you don’t have the time, energy, determination, or a strong understanding of investing, consider low-cost index funds. Do your own research. Read my previous article about John Bogle, founder of Vanguard and his tireless advocacy of low-cost index funds.
Recommended Reading: Edwin Lefevre’s 1923 classic, “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”, is a fictionalized biography of Jesse Livermore (1877–1940), one of the greatest stock market speculators of all time. This “font of investing wisdom” (per Alan Greenspan) is filled with insightful trading advice and shrewd market/price movement analyses.