by Elliot Turner, Wall Street Cheat Sheet
Lately I’ve heard a lot of heated conversation about the day trading industry. There’s an intriguing debate with opinions ranging from “it’s a great way to make a living” to “it never worked in the first place” to “we’re now in the midst of the great shakeout.” But the bottom line is: day trading is DEAD.
Two-thirds of the rhetoric focuses on the idea that day trading is a firmly entrenched part of markets with a somewhat stable future ahead. I disagree. More realistically, a much larger change is taking place with market structure. Like the extinction of human beings roaming the floor of the NYSE, this evolution presents a bleak picture for the day trading community moving forward.
The Best in the Business Exited the Business
I’ve been itching to discuss this topic ever since Schonfeld fired a significant chunk of their trading desk. Schonfeld is an interesting case study in the “prop shop” day trading space. They had been a successful day trading firm which more recently transitioned into the “hedge fund” model.
In a letter expressing their intent to lay off many daytraders, the firm stated bluntly that “unfortunately, our vision of the future of trading has changed. It is getting much tougher for traders to make a living or get by.” Therein lies the cold, hard reality facing many daytraders and their firms.
The Insurmountable Challenges
The challenges for daytraders are twofold. First, computer trading (e.g. high frequency trading) has significantly eroded much of the edge daytraders require to garner a profit. Second, and perhaps of equal import, has been a court’s decision in the case SEC v. Tuco which is causing proprietary firms to completely recreate their business model.
This landmark case requires firms to either take on more of the day-to-day trading risk themselves or become registered Broker/Dealers. If they choose to become registered Broker/Dealers, firms must transition into a completely different regulatory structure.
The significance of this is not to be overlooked. Many firms have either opted to fully follow the transparent route of becoming a B/D or entered the less regulated and more opaque hedge fund industry.
The Scary Shape-Shifting from Trading Firms to Training Firms
The largest fallout from Tuco stems from the fact that it became much harder for firms to take in deposits from traders right at a time when day trading lost its competitive edge. In order to compensate for the increased risk and diminished profit margins, many day trading firms have started “selling” their trading expertise to pupils wanting to trade with the firm.
I am troubled that at the time these firms were exploring ways to find a new competitive edge in a dynamic playing field, they started selling what they themselves knew to be a market strategy declining in efficacy. As a result, rather than continuing to explore new edges, these training programs necessitated firms stick with their archaic strategies in order to convince paying students the day trading model was worth buying.
The Industry and Its Future
Many will outwardly critique my premise that the day trading edge has diminished. In order to stay objective, I ask those people to simply open their books and prove they still have their edge. (Apparently, Schonfeld is one of the few willing to be honest.) Until then, let’s take a closer look at the primary strategies deployed by daytraders over the past decade. This will provide a little clearer picture of the history of the industry and its future.
In my interview with Justin Fox, we had an interesting conversation about “efficiency” in the market. Justin quantified “efficiency” in a totally new way for me: he made the distinction between “price” and “value” efficiency. This got me thinking about the way in which market participants make money.
More generally, this is a gross oversimplification, but our market participants (other than the market maker) are either value investors, growth investors, technical traders, or arbitrageurs. There is certainly some overlap between the four, and there are some strategies which don’t fit any of these labels. However, in terms of investment/trading strategies, the predominant number of market participants fit into one of these four cookie-cutter labels.
Daytraders are arbitrageurs who rely on some kind of price inefficiency to make an intraday profit. I’m not sure many daytraders understand their place in the market to the point where they would subscribe to the arbitrageur label; however, at its essence, day trading is the attempt to make money off the market’s intraday fluctuations.
Historically, there have been several ways in which daytraders were able to accomplish this task and below is a summary the most widespread of these methods:
As you can see with the popular strategies above, a fundamental shift has taken place in the profession. In today’s market, traders now have to be both right about direction and have conviction in the direction at the same time. Traders must spend increasing amounts of time familiarizing themselves with the fundamentals of the economy and individual equities.
Perhaps most importantly, the surviving daytraders no longer trade solely on an intraday basis. With 24/7 markets and massive overnight moves, it has become not just profitable but necessary to survive through longer term trades. The day traders left standing are more analogous to hedge fund traders, and successful new daytraders are much harder to come by (i.e., a lot more Average Joe’s are going to lose their money in a business where 90+% of the participants are already losing).
Often times when something becomes conventional wisdom in the market is exactly when that something quickly loses its prestige. For the past few years we have heard over and again that “buy and hold investing is dead” and that “trading” is the way of the future. Personally, I believe we are in the midst of the classic example of reversion to the mean.
Over the past ten years, trading was wildly successful relative to buy and hold investing. The pronouncement that this relationship will continue into the future seems to be coming from those who are now trying to train more than trade, or those who missed the boat and are attempting to play catchup.
The evidence proves computers now own the short-term, but humans still own the long-term. Getting back to my conversation with Justin Fox, over the past decade “price efficiency” ruled in creating a substantial opportunity for traders. In today’s market, earnings multiples are so compressed that “value efficiency” creates an equally great opportunity for buy and hold investors.
The Proof is Everywhere
My evidence for the demise of day trading is the hoards of people I know leaving the game, the shift of profits to HFT books, and the transition trading firms are making to become training firms. If all of this is an illusion and day trading still lives, simply open the books to your discretionary trading desks and state your case below …
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Damien Hoffman, Esq. decided to launch a financial website and exclusive subscription-based newsletter after achieving a 63% return versus a -48% return for the S&P over a nearly two year time frame as a co-founder of popular stock blog SmartGuyStocks (member of the Forbes Business and Finance Blog Network, and certified by Seeking Alpha). Mr Hoffman is currently Editor-in-Chief of Wall St. Cheat Sheet and trades full-time. After graduating early with honors from Duke University, he raised private equity with friends during the late Nineties to launch a successful start-up. Mr. Hoffman went on to work for boutique sports investment bank Inner Circle LLP where he worked on the sale of the NBA franchise New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn real estate development firm Forest City Ratner Companies (NYSE: FCE-A). Mr. Hoffman also graduated with honors from the University of Miami School of Law as a Dean’s Merit Scholar. He clerked at the Florida Supreme Court for the Honorable Justice Kenneth Bell and Central Staff. In 2006 at Harvard Law School he gave a guest lecture entitled, “Business and Law in the New Independent Music Industry.”
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