The Holy Grail of Trading: It’s not your System

Do you have a wonderful trading system, one that consistently makes you money? You probably believe that you have found your holy grail but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Your system has very little to do with consistent profitability in the markets.

I often here amateur investors talk about that the “best way” or “only way” to invest and argue why their way is better than everyone else’s. The passion and energy exuded by these novice investors is wonderful but they are missing the point completely. No one can say that options are better than stocks, commodities are better than options or forex is better than everything, etc… Each investor develops a system that is suited to their own personal character traits and they use a vehicle (stocks, options, forex, commodities, real estate, etc…) that can help them reach their goals.

Investors also debate systems within a market such as: trend trading, swing trading, scalping, shorting, day trading, buy and hold, fundamental trading, technical trading, Elliot wave theory, moving average crossovers, etc… They all work if the “person” understands the holy grail of trading. And that is being able to understand YOU and how your mind works.

However, it is not the system that makes one successful. It is YOU that makes the system work properly. What do I mean? Each individual must master their own personal psychological impacts on their trading results. You must work on YOU to become consistently successful! I recommend reading The Disciplined Trader by Mark Douglas if you would like to understand the psychological trader in you.

To say that one system or vehicle is the “way to go” is ignorant.

Pick up any Market Wizard book and read how these men and women made hundreds of millions in the markets using different systems. The only thing they all had in common was money management and risk management. That’s ALL! Every one of them traded in different ways and used different vehicles but they all watched their risk, calculated proper position sizing techniques and understood their system’s expectancy.

Money management, also termed as risk management is a major part of the holy grail of investing, NOT THE SYSTEM! Novice investors will eventually understand this after many years of trading (some quicker than others).

So, if someone ever tells you that their “system” is better than yours, turn away and run and run fast because they don’t know what the hell they are talking about.

Here are some examples supporting this idea from the Market Wizard books:

  • Michael Marcus turned $30,000 into $80 million trading futures
  • Michael Steinhardt ran a fund that averaged 30% annual return over 21 years trading stocks
  • Tom Baldwin started with $25,000 and eventually traded $2 billion a day in T-bond futures on the floor or in the pit.
  • Paul Tudor Jones ran funds that averaged triple digit returns for five consecutive years trading multiple markets
  • Ed Seykota realized an astounding 250,000% return over 16 years (yes that says 250,000%) managing accounts trading in the futures markets – possibly the best trader of our time
  • Bill Lipschutz traded currencies with a staring account of $12,000 (started out as an architect – very motivating for me since I started the same way).

The list can go on forever but the point remains the same; they all traded different markets with unique systems from different locations (the floor, an office or their home in the mountains) but they all had one major factor in common: money management and risk management.

Just about every market wizard refers to position sizing as a major part of the “holy grail” of trading. Van Tharp (also featured in Market Wizards) coined the phase in the first edition of his book but he only realized that money management was the holy grail after studying and speaking with hundreds, if not thousands of very successful traders. Tharp’s Book, Trade Your Way to Financial Freedom, is a must read if you would like to understand position sizing and expectancy and learn more about understanding “you”.

The Holy Grail of Trading:
Understanding you and combining that with sound money management rules. Conquer these two entities and you will be successful beyond your wildest dreams!

Position Sizing and Expectancy

So where does system development start?

Investors will be prepared to trade in situations when the odds are in their favor by properly understanding position sizing techniques and calculated system expectancies. A system that has been tested will have an approximate expectancy that will tell the trader how much will be gained or lost during each trade over a period of time. Using this knowledge, the investor will determine how much risk to undertake by calculating a position sizing algorithm which tells you how much to place on a specific trade. The word ‘algorithm’ sounds scary but I have developed very simple position sizing and expectancy spreadsheets that can be found through the links below. They can be downloaded, studied and tweaked without any advanced spreadsheet or mathematical experience.

Most traders look for three major factors when developing a system:

  • How much to trade on each position
  • The right odds or positive expectancy
  • Number of trades or how much opportunity the system presents

How do we Calculate Position Size?
We can determine how much to place on each trade by assuming a $100,000 account with 1% risk on each position. Using a basic trading approach, I will place my stops approximately 8% below the ideal entry area or pivot point. Please use more advanced methods for locating the ideal stop rather than a general 8% (I am doing this for example purposes only). Look for the ideal risk-to-reward setup based on recent support and resistance levels and set your stop and potential target accordingly.

$100,000 Account
1% Risk = $1,000
8% Stop Loss
Position Size will be $12,500

We calculate the position size by dividing the 1% risk by the 8% stop loss or $1000 / 8% = $12,500.

If the stock we are watching has an ideal entry of $50, we now know that we can buy 250 shares or $12,500 worth of stock. Our stop loss is $46 or 8% of $50 and our maximum loss is $1,000 of the original $100,000 portfolio.

What exactly is expectancy?
Expectancy tells you what you can expect to make (win or lose) for every dollar risked. Casinos make money because the expectancy of every one of their games is in their favor. Play long enough and you are expected to lose and they are expected to win because the “odds” are in their favor. Most games at a casino are completed in a short period of time so they can increase their odds of winning.

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All-in with my Poker Expectancy

I will start by saying that my poker expectancy may not be an exact science but it does give me a great idea of how I will perform next year when I play a similar number of games online (if the government allows ISP’s to allow players access to these sites). I personally play on PokerStars and only do it for fun as I enjoy the strategies and challenges each game presents. I’m primarily a low limit poker player because I don’t have the stomach of a gambler even with excellent odds on my side (sometimes luck does play a part). I play sit-and-go games online because they are short and sweet and the best players can typically make the money three out of every four games. In my case, I made the money 71% of the time in 2006 as I will explain in a second.


When I travel to Atlantic City or Las Vegas, I play $1-$2 no limit cash games because they offer low entry fees for potentially unlimited reward. I occasionally play cash games online but I have a better record playing sit-and-go tournaments with 9 players at a table.

I decided to keep statistics of every sit-and-go game in 2006 so I could develop expectancy similar to the one I have been keeping for my trading account.

I have played 174 games with a $10 + $1 entry fee to date.
Of those 174 games:

  • I placed in first 21 times or 12% of the time
  • I placed second 30 times or 17% of the time
  • I placed third 73 times or 42% of the time
  • In total, I placed in the money 71% of the time.

    Each game costs me $10 plus a $1 entry fee paid to the casino for a total of $11.
    First place awards $45 (50%) minus the entry fee of $11 for a profit of $34.
    Second place awards $27 (30%) minus the entry fee of $11 for a profit of $16.
    Third place awards $18 (20%) minus the entry fee of $11 for a profit of $7.

    My total account position varies because of the cash games but according to these notes, I made $1,155.00 in 2006 by playing $10 sit and go games. The breakout occurred like this (all fees have been subtracted from winnings):

  • I made $714.00 for first place finishes
  • I made $480.00 for second place finishes
  • I made $511.00 for third place finishes
  • I lost $550.00 for placing out of the money
  • PW is71%
    AW is $13.75
    PL is 29%
    AL is $11.00

    PW: Probability of Win
    AW: Average Gain
    PL: Probability of Losing
    AL: Average Loss

    If I play 15 games per month for each of the twelve months next year, I can expect to make approximately $1,182.60 with $10 sit and go games. My actual expectancy per game is $6.57.

    So, for every game I play, I can expect to make $6.57 regardless of a win or loss and the size of the win. My goal is to increase the number of first and second place finishes by becoming more aggressive in the late stages of the game.

    Interesting stuff if you ask me and I will keep you updated as I continue to play in 2007. I am looking to step up a level and play $20 + $2 games but the level of skill rises with each level so my expectancy is sure to change.

    As long as you have data and a consistent way of playing the game (in this case with the odds of each hand), you can calculate an approximate expectancy that is sure to be accurate.

    Commission Fees water down Expectancy

    I have talked about position sizing and I have talked about expectancy.
    If you understand the proper positing sizing algorithms and positive expectancy, you would think that you are on the road to riches or at least to a system that returns a profit. Not so fast! What happens when commissions start to eat away at the profits you thought you would have at the end of the year? Many investors have a winning system with a positive expectancy but that might not be profitable in the end when adding in the heavy toll of commissions.

    As I have stated in previous posts, expectancy will tell you if your system will be profitable over time but you must use a position sizing calculation in order to trade the proper amount or you could be broke before you know it. Trading too large will send you to the poor house on your first or second major mistake. You don’t want to dig yourself into a hole you can’t climb out of with a positive expectancy system. It would be a sin to have developed a positive expectancy system, only to be ruined by commissions.

    I am not a day trader although I continue to see advantages each and every day as I learn more about many of the advanced techniques of professional investing. Under my current system of investing (call it trend trading, momentum trading or swing trading), I pay a commission of $9.95 on each end of the trade (I rarely use limits but they cost a few dollars more on each end). That is cheap in my estimation but the more I increase my activity, the higher my costs become and the lower my expectancy becomes when adding in this major factor. Besides, I don’t have the advantage of using 4-to-1 margin the same way a day trader can leverage their account and position sizing algorithm. Day traders typically pay commissions per share rather than paying on each end of a “total trade”. From what I understand, this breaks down to a much cheaper structure as long as minimum trading levels are reached. If these levels are not reached, penalties may be applied but check with your own broker before you take my word for it.

    I typically place the entire trade when I get a signal and use retracement stops to get out of a position to capture gains so I am only required to pay commissions once on each end. In tough markets, I will place tester buys but I also understand that my commission fees will accumulate due to the fact that I scale into the position and sometimes scale out. If I only place 1/3 of my anticipated position on the breakout in a weak market, my $20 round trip commission could accumulated to $40, $60 or $80+ based on the number of scale-ins or scale-outs I use. Using my current style of momentum trading, I can handle these larger commissions because I am aiming to capture larger gains per trade than most day traders. I am looking for the 25% initial breakout gain that accompanies many CANSLIM type stocks. Looking forward, I am developing systems that trade more frequently so I can realize my calculated expectancy over a specific number of trades. Since my number of trades will increase and my individual profits per trade will decrease, I want to minimize my commission fees.

    It is very important to factor in commissions when calculating your overall expectancy. If your expectancy is positive but only slightly, be wary that higher commissions may push this number into negative territory. Weigh all factors before implementing a system that looks good on paper but actually comes out negative and gives you no chance of winning over the long term. A negative expectancy system (including commissions) will make you go broke if you continue to trade it. Think of that casino analogy; gamblers will go broke playing the tables in Vegas because the odds are against them. They may make a few big scores but in the end, the casinos take it all! Trade a negative expectancy system and the markets will take it all!

    I love the movie Casino and there is a scene in this movie when Robert Di Niro develops a plan to keep a high stakes gambler at the casino so he can continue playing (to give back the money he won by luck – he made a big score). Di Niro (the casino manager in this movie) knows that the shark will lose if he continues to play because math never lies and the game of baccarat has a negative expectancy geared towards the players. Again, this is why I play poker at the casinos (they get a rake but that is just a commission fee in my mind as the positive expectancy is based on me playing the odds)!


    What is Expectancy?

    To Start: Here is the link to the Expectancy Calculator in Excel
    Feel free to save it to your computer!

    Use the expectancy calculator with my Position Sizing Calculator

    I have been watching as a several people on a forum discuss, argue and lend their ideas about entry techniques. They are going crazy over what the proper entry should be and why one chart pattern is better than the other. One person has even said how they purchased massive amounts of software to help them enter the market. Now don’t get me wrong, I always use techniques to get me in the market but I understand that this is the least important factor weighing on an investor’s overall success. I use technical analysis every day and I study patterns that allow me to enter with the ideal buy point (what I believe to be the ideal entry) but I know that strong up-trending stocks give me just as good a chance to make money as stocks breaking out of a cup with handle pattern. I am one that makes my living buying stocks making new highs so I can basically prove that the random entry strategy does work as long as strong money management and exit strategies exists.

    By reviewing my personal trades and the coverage of dozens of stocks on the MSW Index over the past two years, I can tell you that my system with the highest expectancy is buying fundamentally sound stocks that are making new highs on above average volume. Where do I find these fundamentally sound stocks? I use multiple computerized screeners that filter out stocks with increasing earnings, high EPS ratings and increasing relative strength ratings. Once I find these stocks, I narrow them down using my own eyes by performing technical analysis. The process is simple as I am basically looking for stocks making new highs with decent to strong fundamental numbers. The process is almost random. To tell you the truth, I could probably narrow down my buy candidates each week to a list of 20 and throw darts at ten stocks to buy the following week and still have a profitable year because I do use position sizing and strict sell rules. Think I am crazy: think again as I explain what expectancy is.

    I responded on the forum by saying: Entering at the right time is important and it can lower your risk and increase your overall expectancy but money management and exits are much more important than entry.

    Studies have been done between random entry systems and specific systems that use entries based off of chart patterns with amazing results. The random entry system typically outperforms the structured entry system when it uses money management (position sizing techniques) and a strong exit strategy (assuming that the structured system doesn’t employ money management tools).

    I love CANSLIM and O’Neil but the entry is not the most important aspect you should be focusing on, it is money management and exits. Most people don’t want to hear this and that is why so many “entry based systems” sell so well over the years. How many of those systems actually make their users money? CANSLIM does use a 7%-10% sell stop rule but it ignores position sizing and never explains the probabilities of the system when implemented in certain ways.

    As I said, I make money using a system based from CANSLIM (an entry system) but it is heavily balanced with strong money management techniques and a strong exit strategy.

    So what is expectancy?

    Expectancy tells you what you can expect to make (win or lose) for every dollar risked. Casinos make money because the expectancy of every one of their games is in their favor. Play long enough and you are expected to lose and they are expected to win because the “odds” are in their favor. Most games at a casino are completed in a short period of time so they can increase their odds of winning. The same holds true for investing. If your expectancy is positive; you can make more money with multiple trades in shorter periods of time. If you told me this ten years ago, I would strongly disagree based solely on beliefs. Now with experience, I continue to move down the path to more frequent trading and a structured system that is run like a business. I now have massive amounts of data based on real trading that I have performed over the past several years.

    Expectancy is your profit percentage per win multiplied by your win rate minus your loss percentage per loss multiplied by your loss rate. I will use examples from Trader Mike’s: Trading 101: Expectancy and Van Tharp’s Book: Trade your way to Financial Freedom:

    Expectancy = (Probability of Win * Average Win) – (Probability of Loss * Average Loss)

    Expectancy = (PW*AW) less (PL*AL)
    PW is the probability of winning and PL is the probability of losing.
    AW is the average gain (win) and AL is the average loss

    So let’s do an example (assume $12,500 per position, a $100,000 portfolio using 1% equity risk):
    If my trades are successful 40% of the time and I realize an average profit of 20% but I lose an average of 5%, my expectancy is $625 per trade.

    (0.4 * $3,125) – (0.6 * $625) = $625

    $1,250-$375 = $625

    I lose 60% of the time yet I show a profit of $625 per trade. If I have a system that produces 65 trades per year, I would realize an annual gain of $40,625 (hypothetical scenario). A 40% gain on the original $100,000 (minus all commissions, fees, taxes and compounding).

    Trader Mike offers an example geared towards a day trader:
    “As an example let’s say that a trader has a system that produces winning trades 30% of the time. That trader’s average winning trade nets 10% while losing trades lose 3%. So if he were trading $10,000 positions his expectancy would be:
    (0.3 * $1,000) – (0.7 * $300) = $90

    So even though that system produces losing trades 70% of the time the expectancy is still positive and thus the trader can make money over time. You can also see how you could have a system that produces winning trades the majority of the time but would have a negative expectancy if the average loss was larger than the average win:
    (0.6 * $400) – (0.4 * $650) = -$20

    In fact, you could come up with any number of scenarios that would give you a positive, or negative, expectancy. The interesting thing is that most of us would feel better with a system that produced more winning trades than losers. The vast majority of people would have a lot of trouble with the first system above because of our natural tendency to want to be right all of the time. Yet we can see just by those two examples that the percentage of winning trades is not the most important factor in building a system. ” – Trader Mike

    Most traders look for three major factors when developing a system:
    The right odds or positive expectancy
    Multiple trades (opportunity)
    Shorter holding periods to compound the profits

    Let’s look at the calculation one more time using only percentages:
    PW: 48%
    AW: 10%
    PL: 52%
    AL: 4%

    (48% * 10%) – (52% * 4%) = 2.72%

    Using a trade size of $12,500, each trade would return you $340 or 2.72% (profit). Let’s say this system gives you 200 trades per year; your result would be a $68,000 profit with only 1% of equity risked or $12,500 on $100,000. This doesn’t include compounding profits with each successful trade.

    A positive expectancy can come from an unlimited amount of numbers or scenarios. You could have a system that produces winners 30%, 50% or 80% of the time and each system could be positive or negative based on PW, AW, PL & AL. An infinite number of trading systems and/or number combinations can be used to find a positive expectancy system.

    The one thing I have realized over the past few years as my account grows is the fact that opportunity must exist to make money with a positive expectancy system. Think of the casino; the more you play, they more they win. The same is true for trading; the more you play with a positive expectancy system, the more your odds are for that system to return the expected number.

    I have been tailoring my system to produce more trades and opportunity so I can take full advantage of the mathematical odds. As many of you know, I graduated as an architectural engineer and love numbers since my courses were based in advanced math and physics. Numbers don’t lie; I love to play poker because I understand the odds so I am typically successful over long stretches of time at the table because I have the emotional stability to only jam the pot when the odds are in my favor. Like stocks, I do my best to let go of losing hands and losing positions (sometimes I follow a committed hand in poker or a committed position with stocks but the odds are no longer in my favor and more times than not, I lose the hand or settle for my maximum stop). I am attracted to games with numbers and odds and the stock market is the best game in the world (in my opinion). Poker is a close second.

    I want you to think about one more example (provided from ARB Trading)

    “You will be more profitable with $100,000 that you could “turn” 250 times per year, than $500,000 that was tied up in one trade for 12 months. As an example, let’s say we have one trade and that trade yielded a 50% return. You just had a great year – a $250,000 profit.

    On the other hand, say you had $100,000 for stock purchases, and your expectancy was only 1.2% per trade but you turned over your stocks 250 times in the same year. This method ends up generating $300,000 for the year, and that assumes you never increase the position size as the equity grows. You just had a better year. And it is easier to get 1.2% per trade than 50%.” – ARB Trading