Achilles heel of a Discretionary trader

Discretionary trading

Achilles’ heel was an unguarded weakness that ultimately brought down a hero of Greek mythology and this post is an attempt to understand the things that has to be kept in mind while designing a trading methodology as a discretionary trader.

As many of you know that am a mechanical(rule based) trader, my trading day is pretty monotonous and boring, many a times. The other group of traders are often called as ‘discretionary traders’. Both groups have their advantages/disadvantages and one should follow what they are comfortable with. At the end of the day, both discretionary and systematic traders have the same goal – making money.

What is discretionary/mechanical trading?

Discretionary trading is decision based trading – when the trading idea shows up in the charts, the trader decides(at that moment) whether to take the trade or not based on current market conditions. Discretionary trading does not mean random trading. Every trader(mechanical or discretionary) has a methodology to enter/exit the market – there are no two ways about it. For example, even if all the conditions are met for a trade, a discretionary trader will not take the trade as volatility is too low (current market condition) – so, basically the trader decides to let it go seeing the current market condition.

On the other hand, Mechanical trading is driven by rules. The trader do not make any decision on taking the trade but the system does. If A happens, then the trader go long and if B happens, the trader goes short. There is no element of decision making involved by the trader as everything is planned out beforehand and the trader just has to execute those trades.

Designing a trading methodology as a discretionary trader

There are certain things discretionary traders should keep in mind when they design their system. More often than not, the psychological pressure of making the ‘quality’ decision of whether to take the trade or not can overwhelm a discretionary trader. To understand this behavior, we need to analyze how our brain works.

A. How brain works?

Evolution has effectively given us (human beings) a dumb brain and a smart brain. The smart brain runs the show most of the times unless a threat is present/perceived and consequently, the dumb brain takes over. Why? The reason is very simple – Dumb brain is faster at making simple/resolute decisions. This avoids people taking a long time on making a choice as time is critical in predatory situations. If we take too much time to take a decision on ‘fight or flight’ situations, there is a good possibility of ending up in the jaws of a predator 🙂

B. Markets are there to get me

With this understanding in mind, one can easily comprehend why this could create a problem in trading as our natural responses can be inappropriate and the way we view/assess info changes when the dumb brain takes over.
Our brains are built to handle belligerent situations and hence, even in a normal situation in trading (like a loss – by the way, many dont consider trading loss as normal 🙂 ), we tend to do things like making “revenge trades”, which is treating the market like an adversary.

Think about it for a second – this is tantamount to curve fitting data so that it fits our trading model but only here, we are fitting the market to how our behavior and natural responses are designed to interact with predators. This is exactly why we see people saying ‘Markets are there to get me’

C. Demo trading and tunnel vision

As a discretionary trader, when we do demo trading of our ideas, we almost always get superlative results. The reasons could be multi-fold but the important one is so evident. When we practice in a non-stressful situation, we evaluate our success based on how our smart brain handles the situation. Under stress, in real trading, we might find that we fail to notice things that are obvious when we look at the same information after the stress has passed. People tend to overlook/ignore information that is contradictory to their analysis of the situation. In behavioral science, this is often called as “tunnel vision“.

Let us sit on this ‘tunnel vision’ for a moment. Like the airport traffic controller who ignores contradictory information (as he is affected by stress), traders fail to exit a losing trade, because our discriminative attention ignores things that indicate it’s time to get out of the trade. Practice (or demo trading) does help, but many traders find that their behavior is different under stress.

So, when a discretionary trader designs/practices a system, he needs to consider human behavior, psychology, and the human factors that were discussed here. In another post, i will discuss the difficulties in being a mechanical(systematic) trader.

Final thoughts

As it generally happens in any endeavor specific to a competitive pursuit, people end up with hallowed beliefs without subjecting them to rational scrutiny. The subject of ‘which style of trading is better’ is one such associated with the business of trading and is a favorite ‘peg to hang’ blame for failure in becoming a successful trader by many.

This blogpost does not favor one over the other – Pick the one that best suits you and pursue trading in that direction.

Happy trading all !!