I am often asked what ten steps one should take to become a successful speculator.

I would start by reading the books of the 19th century speculators, 50 Years in Wall Street, The Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Markman, and others.

Next I would read the papers of Alfred Cowles in the 1920s and try to compute similar statistics on runs and expectations for 5 or 10 markets.

Third I would get or write a program to pick out random dates from an array of prices, and see what regularities you find in it compared to picking out actual event or market based events.

Fourth, I would read Malkiel's book A Random Walk Down Wall Street and update his findings with the last 2 years of data.

Fifth, I would look at the work of Sam Eisenstadt of Value Line and see if you could replicate it in real life with updated results.

Sixth, I would start to keep daily prices, open, high, low, and close for 20 of so markets and individual stocks and go back a few years.

Seventh, I would go to a good business library and look at the old Investor Statistical Laboratory records of prices to see whether it gave you any insights.

Eighth, I would look for times when panic was in the air, and see if there were opportunities to bring out the canes on a systematic basis.

Ninth, I would apprentice myself to a good speculator and ask if I could be a helpful assistant without pay for a period.

Tenth, I would become adept at a field I knew and then try to apply some of the insights from that field into the market.

Eleventh, I would get a good book on Statistics like Snedecor or Anderson and be able to compute the usual measures of mean, variance, and regression in it.

Twelfth, I would read all the good financial papers on SSRN or Financial Analysts Journal to see what anomalies are still open.

Thirteenth, of course would be to read Bacon, Ben Green, and Atlas Shrugged.

I guess there are many other steps that should be taken that I have left out especially for the speculation in individual stocks. What additional steps would you recommend? Which of mine seem too narrow or specialized or wrong?

Rocky Humbert writes:

 All the activities mentioned are educational, however, notably missing is a precise definition of a "successful speculator." I think providing a clear, rigorous definition of both of these terms would be illuminating and a necessary first step — and the definition itself will reveal much truth.

Anatoly Veltman adds: 

I think with individual stocks: one would have to really understand the sector, the company's niche and be able to monitor inside activity for possible impropriety. Individual stocks can wipe out: Bear Stearns deflated from $60 to $2 in no time at all. In my opinion: there is no bullet-proof technical approach, applicable to an individual enterprise situation.

A widely-held index, currency cross or commodity is an entirely different arena. And where the instrument can freely move around the clock: there will be a lot of arbitrage opportunities arising out of the fact that a high percentage of participation is inefficient, limited in both the hours that they commit and the capital they commit between time-zone changes. Small inefficiencies can snowball into huge trends and turns; and given the leverage allowed in those markets - live or die financial opportunities are ever present. So technicals overpower fundamentals. So far so good.

Comes the tricky part: to adopt statistics to the fact of unprecedented centralized meddling and thievery around the very political tops. Some of the individual market decrees may be painfully random: after all, pols are just humans with their families, lovers, ills and foibles. No statistical precedent may duly incorporate such. Plus, I suspect most centralized economies of current decade may be guilty of dual-bookeeping. Those things may also blow up in more random fashion than many decades worth of statistics might dictate. Don't tell me that leveraged shorting and flexionic interventions existed even before the Great Depression. Today's globalization, money creation at a stroke of a keyboard key, abominable trends in income/education disparity and demographics, coupled with general new low in societal conscience and ethics - all combine to create a more volatile cocktail than historical market stats bear out. 2001 brought the first foreign act of war to the American soil in centuries. I know that chair and others were critical of any a money manager strategizing around such an event. But was it a fluke, or a clue: that a wrong trend in place for some time will invariably produce an unexpected event? Why can't an unprecedented event hit the world's financial domain? In the aftermath of DSK Sofitel set-up, some may begin imagining the coming bank headquarter bombing, banker shooting or other domestic terrorism. I for one envision a further off-beat scenario: that contrary to expectations, the current debt spiral will be stopped dead. Can you imagine next market moves without the printing press? Will you find statistical precedent of zooming from 2 trillion deficit to 14 trillion and suddenly stopping one day?

Craig Mee comments:

 Very generous post, thanks Victor…

I would add, in this day and age, learn tough typing and keyboard skills for execution and your way around a keyboard, so you don't wipe off a months profit in the heat of battle. I would also add, learn ways of speed reading and information absorption, though these two may be more "what to do before you start out". 

Gary Rogan writes: 

Anatoly, I don't think really understanding the sector and and the niche is all that useful unless one knows what's going on as well as the CEO of the company, which means that in general understanding quite a bit about the company isn't useful to anyone without access to enormous amount of information. It's the subtle, little, invisible things that often make all the difference. There are a lot of people who know a lot about pretty much any company, so to out-compete them based on knowledge is usually pretty hopeless. It is nevertheless sometimes possible to out-compete those with even better knowledge by sticking with longer horizons or by being a better processor of information, but it's rare.

That said, it has been shown repeatedly that some combination of buying stocks that are out of favor by some objective measure, possibly combined with some positive value-creation characteristics, such as return on invested capital, do result in market-beating return. Certainly, just about any equity can go to essentially zero, but that's what diversification is for.

Jeff Watson adds: 

 In the commodities markets it's essential to cultivate commercials who trade the same markets as you(especially in the grains.) One can glean much information from a commercial, information like who's buying. who's selling, who's bidding up the front month, who's spreading what, who's buying one commodity market and selling another, etc. When dealing with a commercial, be sure to not waste his time and have some valuable information to offer as a quid pro. Also, one necessary skill to develop is to determine how much of a particular commodity is for sale at any given time…. That skill takes a lot of experience to adequately gauge the market. Also, in addition to finding a good mentor, listen to your elders, the guys who have been successful speculators for decades, the guys who have seen and experienced it all. Avoid the clerks, brokers, backroom guys, analysts, touts, hoodoos etc. Learn to be cold blooded and be willing to take a hit, even if you think the market might turn around in the future. Learn to avoid hope, as hope will ultimately kill your bankroll. When engaged in speculation, find one on one games like sports, cards, chess, etc that pit you against another person. Play these games aggressively, and learn to find an edge. That edge might translate to the markets. Still, while being aggressive in the games, play a thinking man's game, play smart, and learn to play a strong defensive game……a respect for the defense will carry over to the way you approach the markets and defend your bankroll. Stay in good physical shape, get lots of exercise, eat well, avoid excesses.

Leo Jia comments:

Given that manipulation is still prevalent in some Asian markets, I would add that, for individual stocks in particular, one needs to  understand manipulators' tactics well and learn to survive and thrive under their toes.

Bruno Ombreux writes:

Just to support what Jeff said, you really have to define which market you are talking about. Because they are all different. On one hand you have stuff like S&P futures with robots trading by the nanosecond, in which algorithms and IT would be the main skill nowadays, I guess. On the other hand, you have more sedate markets with only a few big players. This article from zerohedge was really excellent. It describes the credit market, but some commodity markets are exactly the same. There the skill is more akin to high stake poker, figuring out each of your limited number of counterparts position, intentions and psychology.

Rocky Humbert adds:

I note that the Chair ignored my request to precisely define the term "successful speculator," perhaps because avoiding such rigorousness allows him to define success and speculation in a manner as to avoid acknowledging his own biases. I'd further suggest that his list of educational materials, although interesting and undoubtedly useful for all students of markets, seems biased towards an attempt to make people to be "like him."

If gold is up a gazillion percent over the past decade, and you're up 20%, are you a successful speculator?If the stock market is down 20% over a six month period, and you're down 2%, are you a successful speculator?If you have beaten the S&P by 20 basis points/year, ever year, for the past decade, without any meaningful drawdowns, are you a successful speculator?If you trade once every year or two, and every trade that you do makes some money, are you a successful speculator?

If you never trade, can you be a successful speculator?

If you dollar cost average, and are disciplined, are you a successful speculator?

If you compound at 50% per year for 10 years, and then lose everything in an afternoon, are you a successful speculator?

If you lose everything in an afternoon, and then learn from your mistake, and then compound at 50% for the next 10 years, are you a successful speculator?

If you compound at 6% per year for 10 years, and never have a meaningful drawdown, are you a successful speculator?

If the risk free rate is 6%, and you are making 12%, are you a more successful speculator then if the risk-free rate is 0% and you are making 6%?

If you think you are a successful speculator, can you really be a successful speculator?

If you think you are not a successful speculator, can you be a successful speculator?

Who are the most successful speculators of the past 100 years? Who are the least successful speculators of the past 100 years? 

An anonymous contributor adds:

 In conjunction with the chair's mention of valuable books and histories, I would append Fred Schwed's Where are the Customers' Yachts?.

While ostensibly written with a tongue-in-cheek hapless outsider view of 1920s and 1930s Wall Street, it has provided as many lessons and illustrations as anything by Henry Clews. In this case, I am reminded of the chapter in which Schwed wonders if such a thing as superior investment advice actually exists.

Pete Earle writes:

It is my opinion that the first thing that the would-be speculator should do, even before undertaking the courses of actions described by our Chair, is to open a small brokerage account and begin plunking around in small size, getting a feel for the market, the vagaries of execution quality, time delays, and the like. That may serve to either increase the appetite for such knowledge, or nip in the bud what could otherwise be a long and frustrating journey.

Kim Zussman adds: 

The obligatory Wikipedia* definition of speculation is investment with higher risk:

Speculating is the assumption of risk in anticipation of gain but recognizing a higher than average possibility of loss. The term speculation implies that a business or investment risk can be analyzed and measured, and its distinction from the term Investment is one of degree of risk. It differs from gambling, which is based on random outcomes.

There is nothing in the act of speculating or investing that suggests holding times have anything to do with the difference in the degree of risk separating speculation from investing

By this definition one must define risk and decide what comprises high and low risk — which may be simple in extreme cases but (as we have seen repeatedly) is not very straightforward in financial markets

*Chair is quoted in the link 

Alston Mabry writes in:

I'm successful when I achieve the goals I set for myself. And rather than a target in dollars or basis points or relative to any index or ex-post wish list, those goals may simply be to act with discipline in implementing a plan and then accepting the results, modifying the plan, etc.

Anatoly Veltman adds: 

And don't forget Ed Seykota: "Everyone gets out of the market what they want". I find that everyone gets out of life what they want.

Plenty a market participant is not in it to make money. Fantastic news for those who are!

Bruno Ombreux writes:

This will actually bring me back to the question of what is a successful speculator.

In my opinion success in life is defined in having enough to eat, a roof, friendships and a happy family (as an aside, after near-death experiences, people tend to report family first). You can forget stuff like being famous, leaving a legacy or being remembered in history books. If you are interested in these things, you have chosen the wrong business. Nobody remembers traders or businessmen after their death except close family and friends. People who make history are military and political leaders, great artists, writers…

So you are limited to food, roof, friends and family. Therefore my definition of a successful speculator is a speculator that has enough of these, so that he doesn't feel he needs to speculate. I repeat, "a successful speculator does not need to speculate."

Paolo Pezzutti adds:

I simply think that a successful speculator is one who makes money trading. Among soccer players Messi, Ibrahimovic are considered very successful. They consistently score. They experience short periods without scoring. Similarly, traders should have an equity line which consistently prints new highs with low volatility and a short time between new highs. Like soccer players and other athletes it is their mental characteristics the main edge rather than knowledge of statistics. One can learn how to speculate but without talent cannot play the champions league of traders and will print an equity line with high drawdowns struggling losing too much when wrong and winning too little when right. Before dedicating time to find a statistical edge in markets one should assess his own talent and train psychologically. In this regard I like Dr Steenbarger work. In sports as in trading you very soon know yourself: your strengths and weakness. There is no mercy. You are exposed and naked. This is the greatness and cruelty of markets and competition. This is the area where one should really focus in my opinion.

Steve Ellison writes:

To elaborate a bit on Commander Pezzutti's definition, I would consider a successful speculator one who has outperformed a relevant benchmark for annual returns over a period of five years or more. Ideally, the outperformance should be statistically significant, but market returns can be so noisy that it might take much of a career to attain statistical significance.

Jeff Rollert writes:

I propose a successful speculator dies wealthy, with many friends. Wealth is not measured just in liquid terms.

Should a statistical method be preferred, I suggest he is the last speculator, with capital, from all the speculators of his college class.

In both cases, I suggest the Chair and Senator are deemed successful, each in their own way.

Leo Jia adds:

If I may wager my 2 cents here.

I would define a successful speculator as someone who has achieved a record that is substantially above the average record of all speculators in percentage terms during an extended period of time. The success here means more of a caliber that one has acquired which is manifested by the long-term record. Similarly regarded are the martial artists. One is considered successful when he has demonstrated the ability to beat substantially more than half of the people who practice martial arts, regardless of their styles, during an extended period of time. It doesn't mean that he should have encountered no failures during that time - everyone has failures. So, even if that successful one was beaten to death at one fight, he is still regarded as a successful martial artist because his past achievements are well revered.

With this view, I will try to answer Rocky's questions to illustrate.

Julian Rowberry writes:

An important step is to get some money. Preferably someone else's. [LOL ]





Speak your mind

12 Comments so far

  1. Paul O'Leary on January 30, 2012 12:37 pm

    I would read “The Lightning-rod Man”


    “But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”

    Learn to recognize when this character appears in other guises.

  2. Andre Wallin on January 30, 2012 3:32 pm

    there is a problem in finding the right apprenticeship. the only real way is to fail forward with real money. the companies that I could get a job at in chicago don’t teach you anything about trading as an individual. they have their systems that you must follow like a robot. at the end of the day you have to do everything on your own. i think it is a process of dying. “once you have removed all the illusions of life, there isn’t much left.”

  3. Question on January 30, 2012 5:55 pm

    Does George Soros use statistics?

  4. Brendan Dornan on January 30, 2012 6:02 pm

    Great post; also, one should analyze all of their losses, systematically. Score yourself on setup, trigger, and exit. Mark the trades on a chart, compute statistics, especially the average size of the winner to the loser and likewise, how long you hold your winners vs losers.

    It can be painful, which is why so few do it, or it can be enjoyable, depending on your outlook on life, but it’s turned around many a trader’s career. Michael Jordan studied every shot taken and he’d get excited upon noticing a mistake: you should too.

    None of this matters if you have no edge. You can find one by trial and error or you can test, the latter does not guarantee you have an edge, but it is much preferable to the former.

  5. pacific SW on January 31, 2012 7:07 am

    since it was brought up…


    1. manage old europe money, politicians etc. then hobnob with your clients at various parties (davos anyone?) with generous winks and nods.

    2. plunk 10% of your net worth (…say $2bn ?) in piigs bonds 2 weeks before Draghi let it rip.

    3. collect

    statistics FTW!

  6. Sanjay Kohli on January 31, 2012 1:59 pm

    Mr Niederhoffer have your book Practical Speculation in my library. Agree with most of what you say. Some of the advice however is hard to implement. You must be having a fantastic library of data which even chronicles intra-day data before Electronic Trading became popular. So whenever i have a question like, if the market open negative does it pay to short it for the first hour? its almost 50:50 or when the Japanese Market declined 75% over 15 years what % were down days. Surprisingly only 51%. The probabilities never seem to be significant to have a trading system. Which ties in with what message your book mostly conveys. My best gains have been on long term investments of undervalued & under-researched Companies run by honest people. I continue to trade as my capital is limited and my ambition presumes that i would generate investment capital from trading.

  7. Manav on February 1, 2012 12:41 am

    I asked this question about 15 months ago when I started speculating fulltime for a living and having had the benefit of some experience (teeny-weeny as it is relative to the chair and other honourable members on the site), I think the key is to see if one has the temperament and patience to be a speculator — all else is learnable but I suspect this is not…one either has it or one doesnt…and if one doesnt one would be well advised to stick to the adrenaline rush of one’s ibanking chasing deals as I used to or whatever else one does which does not need the temperament to take knocks and patience to see them through till the good trades arrive and then most importantly, take all that the good trades give, not sell too early !!!

  8. Michael on February 1, 2012 9:35 pm

    Question: How does reading the novel, Atlas Shrugged, help make one a successful speculator?

  9. Jeff Watson on February 1, 2012 9:51 pm

    I liked the link to the origin of the abbreviation LOL. In ham radio, CW to be specific, we’ve been using abbreviations for 150 years. Our abbreviations are meant to be things that are easier to send. Here’s a partial list of CW abbreviations used by Hams worldwide. http://www.ac6v.com/morseaids.htm#CW

  10. Bastiaan Agtereek on February 2, 2012 2:18 pm

    1)Be original and keep it for yourself
    2)On top about businesslaw with toplawyers in your team because the richest people participate in the markets and are nearly all convicted about something concerning the markets (damagecontrol)
    3)Charity and PR will bring in new money, existing and new clients
    4)Finetune the moneymanagement about performance which can result in withdrawal of funds by clients (learn how Paulson has handeled it this year)I know positive performance can also result in withdrawals, but less
    5)Learn how it comes your behind or excelling (personal wealth)
    6)No Ponzi scheme (see 2)
    7)Have trustworthy personel and business-associates like brokers, clearinghouses (counterpartyrisk)etc.

  11. Peter Panhholzer on February 28, 2012 7:44 am

    Viktor has just proven he is indeed a successful speculator:
    in “Ten Steps One Should Take to Become a Successful Speculator” he has come up with 13 ! Hmmm…
    That’s a 30% gain already!

  12. http://www.stuteriveterinarerna.se/sendmeil.asp?p=56 on November 25, 2013 6:42 am

    Cohen generated an emergency appeal to dam disclosure of that testimony, but Giles dominated from him Thursday.
    http://www.stuteriveterinarerna.se/sendmeil.asp?p=56 http://www.stuteriveterinarerna.se/sendmeil.asp?p=56


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