Jul

15

 I take the subway to work daily. While not the most prestigious means of transportation, it is definitely in my case the most practical, economical, and time saving. I happen to live three subway stops from the beginning of the line.

By the time I catch the subway, it is usually full with no seats available. Sometimes, I am in dire need for a seat to get a little nap, especially if I am caught trading overnight. An hour nap can do wonders in my case.

Out of this need I become more creative about finding this precious vacant seat. Knowing that the previous two subway stops to my own have only two sets of stairs closer to the front end of the train, I started walking all the way to the opposite end in hope that most people will go for the closer compartments. This is in fact the case except oddly enough that the farthest compartment is always packed.

My reasoning in this case is that most people play the same game I do hoping for the precious nap and seat. However, three cars away from the far end seems to be day after day the optimum solution to this game. Now that I choose the optimum car successfully, sometimes I still am not lucky enough to get a seat unless one of the passengers gets off the train.

I start analyzing the passengers’ profiles trying to figure out which ones are likely to get off the train first to sit in his or her place. This is not an easy task but some knowledge of the city and behavior can do the trick. For instance, I stay away from all people over 30 in business suits as chances are that they are headed to my same destination. Once this category is eliminated, I try to eliminate all university students by guesstimating their ages simply because four out of five universities are located downtown (at the end of the line) so the odds are clearly not in my favor there either. I try to spot two age groups. High school students and under since parents most likely prefer to send their kids to nearby schools so it is unlikely that this group will travel all the way downtown for schools. Also, the elderly group is most likely not traveling far either. This whole process usually takes few seconds since I usually get lucky enough to get a seat before we reach the next stop.

This process is very similar to gaming the mistress although I admit it's never this straight forward with her. Incentive, incentive and incentive. I play the market for monetary profits and only profits. I don't care what philosophical reasoning a speculator would give you a la George Soros; the bottom line is that it is all about the monetary reward. It is all about the nap in the case of my subway trip.

I always try to figure the line of least resistance in speculation, the car with the fewest passengers. This is usually the road least followed by the public. In search for prosperity, I have to copper the public play at all times (by going to the opposite end in the case of the subway), but sometimes the simple contrary play is not good enough to win the game. A little tweaking is often needed. In the subway example I had to go to the third car from the opposite end and not the last since some smart passengers figured out the "simple" contrary play by going straight to the last car.

Timing is also a very critical factor and can make all the difference between a win and a loss. In the case of the subway one has to process some information and position oneself accordingly in a few seconds before reaching the following stop. Flexibility is also a key to successful speculation as no fixed system will beat the market forever. In the subway example, my game plan is different on the way back home since a different crowd is taking the subway at that time.

Ever-changing cycles also plays a great role in this game. The last car was full as the public got wiser and I am sure the third will be one day and a new game plan and system will have to be developed.

Knowing who you are playing against is critical to any speculative game as is the case of the passengers' profiles of this subway. An extensive knowledge of the markets you participate in is essential to your success as is a knowledge of the different subway stops and what they represent to different passengers.

I will end this post here as I reached my subway stop and have to vacate my seat for the next player.

Sam Humbert comments:

In my Manhattan years, I'd often give up my seat to a person of gender or age. For me, the psychic pain of sitting whilst a pregnant woman or pensioner is standing outweighs the benefit of sitting down. Often I'd get the fish-eye from my fellow New Yorkers — they were silently thinking "he must be mentally ill." I'd sometimes make eye contact and explain "I'm not originally from New York," and this would calm them.

Craig Mee adds:

Watching commuters pile into the tubes in London, there is sheer brawn! Doors open at the station and boom, some people are fixed on the destination, i.e., empty seats and God help anyone getting in there road. Funnily enough this is usually concentrated to a certain gender. Some people like to try and muscle markets around too!

Chad Humbert adds:

 1. Watch for mothers with small children. Sometimes a child will scurry, and the mother will have to leave her seat to retrieve him. Voila! Open seat!

2. The elderly are often slow. I've found I can often simply beat them to the open seat by walking somewhat faster. If I'm careful, I can make it appear that I passed them inadvertently. "Oh, were you going to sit here? I'm sorry! Do I need to move?" Most of them want to be polite, and they insist that I keep the seat. Copper the elderly.

3. I've found that the handicapped seating rules are rarely enforced, and when they are, it's just a small fine. I pay that fine many times over with the extra trading profits I generate from feeling refreshed after a nice nap.

Yishen Kuik offers:

Mr Saad's comment on how the farthest caboose is not the optimal choice because of gamesmanship, but rather some not so inconvenient caboose reminds me of a well known behavioral finance game.

Ask 100 people in the audience to pick a number between zero and 100. The winner is the one whose number is closest to two thirds of the average.

Eggheads will zero in on zero, but that answer merely demonstrates deductive abilities without canniness.

People with a more limited appreciation of convergent series might pick 33 instead, based on the assumption that the average will be 50. People able to think one more step ahead might pick eleven. People able to think one more step in the convergence series might pick nine, and so on.

The real challenge of the game is to guess the distribution of this gradient of deductive powers among the audience and weight one's answer accordingly.

e.g. If you think half the people in the room will guess 33 and the other half are extremely bright but guileless and will guess zero, you should guess eleven.

So perhaps if the challenge is given in a lecture room at MIT, guess one (zero is pointless because of the likely pot split). If the challenge is given to the general public, guess between ten and fifteen.

Philip Tetlock, whom I'm reading currently, reports that the most common winning answer is thirteen.

Barry Gitarts contributes: 

 Here are a few of my subway gaming experiences as they relate to the market.

Gain an edge by counting - I use the grip mats markers to note where the train doors open when the train stops, so next time I will be standing there well in advance of the train arriving. This prevents others from being the first in the door. This takes several observations, because the train never stops in exactly the same spot, but it’s remarkable how close to the doors you can be. Standing on different parts of the platform to observe which cars are the emptiest helps in figuring out which car you would want to focus on.

Work harder then the next guy and be prepared in advance - Even if you are the first in at your door, there will be others coming into the same car through other doors, competing for the same seats as you, this is why you must start looking for empty seats through the windows as the train is still pulling in so you know exactly which seat you need to go for, instead of walking in, looking around and then going for a seat. Those two seconds are the difference between sitting and standing.

Know the relationships between markets - I find that sometimes, especially during rush hour, it makes sense to take a different train one stop away from your destination so one can catch the transfer one stop before the mob boards.

Capitalize on the public fears long after the threat is gone - Unlike Mr. Saad, in my case the last two cars are the emptiest, because the train I take starts in a more unfriendly part of the city where people wouldn't want to be caught sleeping in the last car, so when the train gets to midtown, every car is packed like sardines except the last two which are near empty.

George Zachar strategizes:  

As someone who sits most of the day in front of screens, my subway priority is not getting a seat but minimizing total transit time. I have a mental map of where the stairs are at my destination, and maneuver to get closest to the doors that will open nearest to my exit route.

Market lesson? Different players have different goals. Absolute or relative return? Style box restriction? etc. 

John Floyd adds: 

 I spent one of my school day summers as a messenger in Manhattan. To increase efficiency I learned the exact subways, waiting positions on platforms for door openings, and the correct cars to place me near an exit that would easiest to get me to my destination. I did this for as many of the routes I traveled as possible.

The numbers of possible routes in terms of subways, exits, etc. are myriad. The proper choice allowed me to be the first off the car and up the stairs, oftentimes placing me right inside the building I needed to reach. This was an added benefit as I avoided the often hot, humid, and crowded streets. I would estimate that this on average increased my efficiency by 20-30% at least. Conversely when I rode my motorcycle across the country I looked at the map once in the morning to get a general idea on the direction I wanted to head and roads I might want to take and then just drove. My efficiency of time probably dropped by 50% but my efficiency of pleasure went up by equal.

When traveling now I try to use the time to read, listen to books on tape, or use the time as a period of thoughtful reflection. I do this mostly because I find it most productive for me given I do not find the sleep comfortable or useful to me in modes of transport. I can understand others find it as a useful battery charger that allows them to be productive later.

So I would extend the logic and say that while the goals –profits, learning, etc., may be the same, the path and methods to getting there may be very different. I think another important point is that one needs to decide and focus on what works best for them, as it may not be the same as what works best for others. 

James Sogi comments:

 We don't have subways here in Hawaii, but I try to find the best time to find uncrowded waves for surfing. The best bet is to take my boat to spots such as the nearby national park that has nice waves, but only with a long walk and even longer paddle which weeds most out. The boat takes me to the front row spot and a short paddle, with refreshments waiting.

The other method is to go right after lunch, but before school is out and before workers get out. That seems to be the old guys’ slot, and usually only one or two old guys like me are left still surfing.

The other odd thing, is that even if its crowded, many in water can't see where and when the wave will form and break. If you calmly paddle to the spot where the wave will form as you see it coming over the horizon before anyone else realizes where or when it will come, you will be right at the right spot as it breaks without paddling and catch the perfect wave with a single stroke without effort at the perfect spot while all the crowd is scrambling around trying to catch the wave in the wrong spot.

This of course takes about 40 years water experience and have obvious market application as well. Study of the bottom, which many in water don't bother looking at, triangulation of shore navigation aids, like palm tree lined up with volcano peak and far point, and timing of the waves and sets all help find the ideal entry point. I guess it’s like standing at the right spot on the subway platform.

Another method if the waves are small, or really big, is to use a big board. All the kids ride short boards and only have one board, so if the waves are mushy they can't catch rides, or if the waves are big, they can't catch rides, and with 12 different boards for each micro category of waves it’s easier to catch the nice ones. So really good equipment helps.

Another method is to exercise and train even when the waves suck, so when the waves come, you are in great shape and can charge while the kooks are gasping for breath. Of course pros like Shane Dorian exercise all day long lifting weights, and after surfing five hours, swim around Tavarua Island twice. Geeze.

There are a million ways to beat the crowd. The last one is move a million miles away. The market still reaches here in about 89 milliseconds. 

Victor Niederhoffer extends:

These posts on how to get a good subway seat are a fine pyrotechnic display of native ingenuity. Presumably many of our readers, in their days as poor shavers, also had to apply these techniques to finding parking spaces, especially if they lived in urban areas and didn't want to pay $50 a day for a garage. What I'd like to ask, however, is how these ingenious delectations could be applied to getting a seat in the market. When someone is forced to get out at an unfavorable price, how do you know it's coming, like on the subway, and how can you take his place at a very favorable position to you? One hint is to study Michael Covel and his gurus.

Allen Gillespie replies:

In my experience, a sign of an open seat in the markets frequently presents itself when everyone sells a stock from news on a single company. A recent example is the retail selloff following SHLD's news — only to have WMT, HD, and retails sales numbers lead the market higher a few days later.

Questions I always try to ask myself in those situations:

1) Is the news company-specific or general?
2) Is the bad news the result of good play by a competitor?
3) Did the valuation make the news appear more important than it really is?
4) Which companies have future catalysts? 

Hany Saad contributes:

A fund manager using a trading system that has been losing for more than three consecutive reporting periods is usually a good bet, especially if the majority of fund managers trading the system fall into the switch trap by moving to a different system (usually a very thorough read of the fund prospectus is necessary in this case). They usually give up on the first system at the exact wrong time when it is on the verge of a big win, falling into what Rob Bacon warned against in his wise words "beware of the switches", leaving a seat wide open for the wise observant player.

The same reason I wager that trend following will make a killing next year with the only reservation being that it should be on the long side. 

Barry Gitarts adds:

I have tried to predict who would get up on the train, but such efforts have usually been futile. Instead I stand ready, knowing that anyone could be the next person to get up and I'll be ready to run for the seat. Of course this works better standing in the part of the car where there are fewer people, since there will be less competition for that seat when someone does get up.

In the market, this is like predicting the next big selloff. I can't predict when it will come, but I can be sure I have sufficient reserves for when the opportunity presents itself. As in the subway, this may work better where it is less crowded, and in stocks/markets with less media/analyst coverage. 


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3 Comments so far

  1. James Schroeder on July 11, 2007 9:42 am

    Some mass transit markets exhibit seasonality and also sensitivity to the weather. Here in Chicago this is especially true and fitting since our grain markets are particularly sensitive to the season and the weather. For those of you who are not familiar with the city our trains mostly run on elevated tracks, and are affectionately reffered to as the “El”.

    Stops on the El are generally open air, with a small heating vestibule located in the center (with room for about four people), and a centrally located overhang that covers about a third of the station leaving each end third fully exposed to the elements. The entrances to the platforms are generally in a central location.

    Similar to Mr. Saad I have made “El seat speculation” a hobby of mine, and on clear days from April to October I find his system would work fairly well with some modification. Since most platform entrances are located near the center the second car from either end is generally a safe bet, while the end cars seem to be a bit more full than one would expect. Perhaps passenger distributions have fat tails.

    On rainy days during these months I’ve found the best technique to be slightly different. On these days it’s best to have a raincoat or an umbrella to facilitate standing in the elements, and simply wait for the end cars. This typically works because there are those that refuse to leave the shelter of the central overhang and therefore clog the center cars of the train. Some of the more daring riders will wait beneath the overhang until the train approaches and then make dash for the cars further from the center, but rarely making it all the way to the end cars.

    The winter is generally the complete opposite of what one would expect. Most people are aware that the four-person heating vestibule fills up rather quickly and therefore choose to find their comfort in a seat near the ends of the train. Aside from that most Chicagoans own a warm winter coat, and take a certain amount of pride in being able to withstand the frigid days of January and February. The best winter technique is therefore to head directly for the heating vestibule. Not only does this provide one with a better chance of sitting on the commute; it keeps one warm and cozy while waiting for the train.

    Of course there are many variations on the weather and changes can happen rapidly. The lesson I guess is to always stay on your toes and carry a raincoat or umbrella so you can weather the storm and fade the crowd when no one else can.

  2. Adam Nelson on July 12, 2007 8:12 am

    On DC’s metro, there are typically 2-3 feeder stations 2-3 very low use stations and 3-5 unload stations in the morning with the reverse in the evening. Almost all stations have a single escalator that is usually 2/3 of the way down the platform. In the mornings if you are not at the first station it very much pays to know which end of the train the first station’s escalator is on (because that is where the majority of the people will be) the empty cars from the get go tend to remain less utilized.

    Like Chicago’s El DC’s metro is highly seasonal with valleys in the hot summer and cold winter and each time congress is out of session (mostly because the lobbist aides go home). Spring and Fall have high tourists, which matters far more in the afternoon commute home.

  3. Craig Bowles on November 20, 2007 10:39 am

    I found that riding a bike is faster door to door and a lot more fun. Jogging is in between the time in takes to bike and the subway. Jogging the short run to work and back is the easiest way to run the marathon without training. Some of the best runners during the 1960s and 1970s were people that ran to work/school and back, since they had to work for a living back then. It takes out the decision of whether I will run today or not since merely the method of transportation. Not that many people are doing two runs a day.

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