Just in time for holiday sales Nassim Taleb is back with what The New York Times dubs a “happily provocative new book of aphorisms,” The Bed of Procrustes. If you are among the unwashed who don’t understand the reference, “the Procrustes of Greek mythology was the cruel and ill-advised fool who stretched or shortened people to make them fit his inflexible bed.” It’s easy to understand why Taleb invoked this fool: “we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences.”
The book is short and inexpensive. I will undoubtedly succumb and buy it even though it evokes mixed memories of exchanged aphoristic barbs with a titan in his (very different) field. Academic cleverness can easily turn ugly. But then why should the battles for intellectual capital be any different from those for other forms of capital?
The unofficial biography of Jesse Livermore was Reminiscences of a Stock Operator published 1923. Below are selected quotes:
- Another lesson I learned early is that there is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market today has happened before and will happen again.
- I told you I had ten thousand dollars when I was twenty, and my margin on that Sugar deal was over ten thousand. But I didn’t always win. My plan of trading was sound enough and won oftener than it lost. If I had stuck to it I’d have been right perhaps as often as seven out of ten times. In fact, I have always made money when I was sure I was right before I began. What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game- that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play. There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily- or sufficient knowledge to make his play an intelligent play.
- It takes a man a long time to learn all the lessons of his mistakes. They say there are two sides to everything. But there is only one side to the stock market; and it is not the bull side or the bear side, but the right side.
- There is nothing like losing all you have in the world for teaching you what not to do. And when you know what not to do in order not to lose money, you begin to learn what to do in order to win. Did you get that? You begin to learn!
- I think it was a long step forward in my trading education when I realized at last that when old Mr. Partridge kept on telling the other customers, Well, you know this is a bull market! he really meant to tell them that the big money was not in the individual fluctuations but in the main movements- that is, not in reading the tape but in sizing up the entire market and its trend.
- The reason is that a man may see straight and clearly and yet become impatient or doubtful when the market takes its time about doing as he figured it must do. That is why so many men in Wall Street, who are not at all in the sucker class, not even in the third grade, nevertheless lose money. The market does not beat them. They beat themselves, because though they have brains they cannot sit tight. Old Turkey was dead right in doing and saying what he did. He had not only the courage of his convictions but the intelligent patience to sit tight.
- ?the average man doesn’t wish to be told that it is a bull or bear market. What he desires is to be told specifically which particular stock to buy or sell. He wants to get something for nothing. He does not wish to work. He doesn’t even wish to have to think. It is too much bother to have to count the money that he picks up from the ground.
- To tell you about the first of my million dollar mistakes I shall have to go back to this time when I first became a millionaire, right after the big break of October, 1907. As far as my trading went, having a million merely meant more reserves. Money does not give a trader more comfort, because, rich or poor, he can make mistakes and it is never comfortable to be wrong. And when a millionaire is right his money is merely one of his several servants. Losing money is the least of my troubles. A loss never bothers me after I take it. I forget it overnight. But being wrong- not taking the loss- that is what does damage to the pocketbook and to the soul.
- What I have told you gives you the essence of my trading system as based on studying the tape. I merely learn the way prices are most probably going to move. I check up my own trading by additional tests, to determine the psychological moment. I do that by watching the way the price acts after I begin.
- Of all speculative blunders there are few worse than trying to average a losing game. My cotton deal proved it to the hilt a little later. Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit. That was so obviously the wise thing to do and was so well known to me that even now I marvel at myself for doing the reverse.
- The loss of the money didn’t bother me. Whenever I have lost money in the stock market I have always considered that I have learned something; that if I have lost money I have gained experience, so that the money really went for a tuition fee. A man has to have experience and he has to pay for it.
- In booms, which is when the public is in the market in the greatest numbers, there is never any need of subtlety, so there is no sense of wasting time discussing either manipulation or speculation during such times; it would be like trying to find the difference in raindrops that are falling synchronously on the same roof across the street. The sucker has always tried to get something for nothing, and the appeal in all booms is always frankly to the gambling instinct aroused by cupidity and spurred by a pervasive prosperity. People who look for easy money invariably pay for the privelege of proving conclusively that it cannot be found on this sordid earth. At first, when I listened to the accounts of old-time deals and devices I used to think that people were more gullible in the 1860’s and 70’s than in the 1900’s. But I was sure to read in the newspapers that very day or the next something about the latest Ponzi or the bust-up of some bucketing broker and about the millions of sucker money gone to join the silent majority of vanished savings.
- There are men whose gait is far quicker than the mob’s. They are bound to lead- no matter how much the mob changes.
From “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre, the 1923 classic pseudo-autobiography of legendary trader Jesse Livermore:
… I didn’t always win. My plan of trading was sound enough and won oftener than it lost. If I had stuck to it I’d have been right perhaps as often as seven out of ten times. In fact, I always made money when I was sure I was right before I began. What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game — that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play. There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily — or sufficient knowledge to make his play an intelligent play.
Sometimes the best play is to not play at all. When playing the market, you have to let the opportunities come to you, and take advantage of them when the odds are in your favor. If you don’t, you’ll get very frustrated — and you’ll lose money.
If you think about it, it makes sense – the very best time to buy something is when everyone is convinced that the price is going to fall lower, and the very best time to sell something is when everyone is convinced the price is going to shoot to the moon. Just learn the importance of trading against the crowd. The crowd is reacting to the market, and you learn to react to the crowd, this simple change in mindset can produce incredible profits if you are willing to look like a fool (in the eyes of others).
1. Under capitalization – One of the first mistake I made when beginning to trade was being under capitalized. I started with a $10K account without any idea on how to trade. You need enough capital to learn and gain the experience. Some like to call the initial stake “market tuition.” If you can avoid paying your dues, great for you. But most new traders will lose their money. Just make sure you learn from every loss.
2. Having the approach to trading as a “learn as you trade” – Big mistake. “Learn as you trade” = losing money. Losing money can lead to emotional and financial stress and may even create enough fear in you making it hard to trade. Make sure you come prepared to the battlefield. Be a strategist. Sun Tzu said, “The battle is won before it is fought.” Think about it.
3. Trading as a hobby – Take a look at your hobbies. Do they make money? Hobbies in general are entertainment that cost money. Do not approach trading as a hobby. Treat it like a business. Develop a business plan, have goals, and understand what you want out of trading.
4. Thinking that you know it all – The moment one thinks he knows it all is the moment he has become a fool. Its impossible to know everything about the markets. This is a lifetime learning process. Find your niche…. find your speciality and be an expert in it. In other words, find your edge. One thing I learned in trading is that niche = money.
5. Trading without a plan – One of the worst things you can do as a trader is to trade without a plan. Trading without a plan is like driving in a new area without a map or a navigation system. You are lost. (more…)
Waiting for the right opportunity increases the probability of success. You don’t always have to be in the market. As Edwin Lefevre put it in his classic Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, “There is the plain fool who does the wrong thing at all times anywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool who thinks he must trade all the time.”
One of the more colorful descriptions of patience in trading was offered by Jim Rogers in Market Wizards: “I just wait until there is money lying in the comer, and all I have to do is go over there and pick it up.” In other words, until he is so sure of a trade that it seems as easy as picking money off the floor, he does nothing.
1. Bulls make a little. Bears make a little. Pigs get slaughtered
In other words, do not be a greedy trader. If you are a bull, don’t expect to get in at the bottom and out at the top. If you are a bear, don’t expect to pick an exact market top and ride a market all the way down to the lowest low. Thinking otherwise allows the destructive “greed” emotion to take over. Greed has been the ruin of many traders.
2. Any fool can get into a market, but it’s the real pros that know when to get out
Indeed, market entry is certainly an important element of successful trading. However, exiting the trade is paramount. Many times a traders will allow a market to “go against” him or her for way too long and way too far–meaning big trading losses. See next item.
3. Use protective buy and sell stops
One of the major mistakes many traders make is not using protective buy and sell stops when they enter a trade. Or, traders may pull their protective stop, “hoping” the market will turn in their favor. Don’t be fooled into using “mental stops.” Determining where to place protective buy and sell stops BEFORE market entry is one of the best money-management tools available. (more…)
Of course there is always a reason for fluctuations, but the tape does not concern itself with the why and wherefore.
My plan of trading was sound enough and won oftener than it lost. If I had stuck to it I’d have been right perhaps as often as seven out of ten times.
What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game.
But there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time. No man can always have adequate reasons for buying or selling stocks daily or sufficient knowledge to make his. play an intelligent play.
The desire for constant action irrespective of underlying conditions is responsible for many losses in Wall Street even among the professionals, who feel that they must take home some money every day, as though they were working for regular wages.
It takes a man a long time to learn all the lessons of all his mistakes. They say there are two sides to everything. But there is only one side to the stock market; and it is not the bull side or the bear side, but the right side. It took me longer to get that general principle fixed firmly in my mind than it did most of the more technical phases of the game of stock speculation.
My losses have taught me that I must not begin to advance until I am sure I shall not have to retreat. But if I cannot advance I do not move at all. I do not mean by this that a man should not limit his losses when he is wrong. He should. But that should not breed indecision.
I was still ignoring general principles; and as long as I did that I could not spot the exact trouble with my game. (more…)
It makes it hard to make successful, opinion based trades.
You enter a trade on the basis that everyone is wrong, accepting scope for the crowd to get it even more wrong before waking up to reality. When the crowd does eventually realise the error of it’s ways, the price turns in your favour. However, it is extremely difficult to hold on to the trade and enjoy ‘being right’, because the crowd is always wrong, and if it is now moving in your favour, then you are also wrong, an equal fool.
This unhealthy skepticism leads to early culling of winners and ensures that one’s portfolio spend most of it’s time holding on to losing positions.