Few people associate Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd and the 1983 movie "Trading Places" with one of the greatest trading stories of all time. However, in the same year the movie was released, a real-life experiment along similar lines was carried out by legendary commodity traders Richard Dennis and William Eckhardt. In the end, life imitated art and the experiment proved that anyone can be taught to trade well. (For related reading, see Financial Careers According To Hollywood.)

The Turtle Experiment
By the early 1980s, Dennis was widely recognized in the trading world as an overwhelming success. He had turned an initial stake of less than $5,000 into more than $100 million. He and his partner, Eckhardt, had frequent discussions about their success. Dennis believed anyone could be taught to trade the futures markets, while Eckhardt countered that Dennis had a special gift that allowed him to profit from trading.

The experiment was set up by Dennis to finally settle this debate. Dennis would find a group of people to teach his rules to, and then have them trade with real money. Dennis believed so strongly in his ideas that he would actually give the traders his own money to trade. The training would last for two weeks and could be repeated over and over. He called his students "turtles" after recalling turtle farms he had visited in Singapore and deciding that he could grow traders as quickly and efficiently as farm-grown turtles.

Finding the Turtles
To settle the bet, Dennis placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal and thousands applied to learn trading at the feet of widely acknowledged masters in the world of commodity trading. Only 14 traders would be make it through the first "Turtle" program. No one knows the exact criteria Dennis used, but the process included a series of true-or-false questions; a few of which you can find below:

  1. The big money in trading is made when one can get long at lows after a big downtrend.
  2. It is not helpful to watch every quote in the markets one trades.
  3. Others' opinions of the market are good to follow.
  4. If one has $10,000 to risk, one ought to risk $2,500 on every trade.
  5. On initiation one should know precisely where to liquidate if a loss occurs.

For the record, according to the Turtle method, 1 and 3 are false; 2, 4, and 5 are true. (For more on turtle trading, see Trading Systems: Run With The Herd Or Be The Lone Wolf?)

The Rules
Turtles were taught very specifically how to implement a trend-following strategy. The idea is that the "trend is your friend", so you should buy futures breaking out to the upside of trading ranges and sell short downside breakouts. In practice, this means, for example, buying new four-week highs as an entry signal. Figure 1 shows a typical turtle trading strategy. (For more, see Defining Active Trading.)

Figure 1: Buying silver using a 40-day breakout led to a highly profitable trade in November 1979.
Source: Genesis Trade Navigator

This trade was initiated on a new 40-day high. The exit signal was a close below the 20-day low. The exact parameters used by Dennis were kept secret for many years, and are now protected by various copyrights. In "The Complete TurtleTrader: The Legend, the Lessons, the Results" (2007), author Michael Covel offers some insights into the specific rules:

  • Look at prices rather than relying on information from television or newspaper commentators to make your trading decisions.
  • Have some flexibility in setting the parameters for your buy and sell signals. Test different parameters for different markets to find out what works best from your personal perspective.
  • Plan your exit as you plan your entry. Know when you will take profits and when you will cut losses. (To learn more, read The Importance Of A Profit/Loss Plan.)
  • Use the average true range to calculate volatility and use this to vary your position size. Take larger positions in less volatile markets and lessen your exposure to the most volatile markets. (For more insight, see Measure Volatility With Average True Range.)
  • Don't ever risk more than 2% of your account on a single trade.
  • If you want to make big returns, you need to get comfortable with large drawdowns.

Did It Work?
According to former turtle Russell Sands, as a group, the two classes of turtles personally trained by Dennis earned more than $175 million in only five years. Richard Dennis had proved beyond a doubt that beginners can learn to trade successfully. Sands contends that the system still works well, and said that if you started with $10,000 at the beginning of 2007 and followed the original turtle rules, you would have ended the year with $25,000.

Even without Dennis' help, individuals can apply the basic rules of turtle trading to their own trading. The general idea is to buy breakouts and close the trade when prices start consolidating or reverse. Short trades must be made according to the same principles under this system because a market experiences both uptrends and downtrends. While any time frame can be used for the entry signal, the exit signal needs to be significantly shorter in order to maximize profitable trades. (For more, see The Anatomy of Trading Breakouts.)

Despite its great successes, however, the downside to turtle trading is at least as great as the upside. Drawdowns should be expected with any trading system, but they tend to be especially deep with trend-following strategies. This is at least partly due to the fact that most breakouts tend be false moves, resulting in a large number of losing trades. In the end, practitioners say to expect to be correct 40-50% of the time and to be ready for large drawdowns.

The story of how a group of non-traders learned to trade for big profits is one of the great stock market legends. It's also a great lesson in how sticking to a specific set of proven criteria can help traders realize greater returns. In this case however, the results are close to flipping a coin, so it's up to decide if this strategy is for you.

Related Articles
  1. Chart Advisor

    Now Could Be The Time To Buy IPOs

    There has been lots of hype around the IPO market lately. We'll take a look at whether now is the time to buy.
  2. Chart Advisor

    Copper Continues Its Descent

    Copper prices have been under pressure lately and based on these charts it doesn't seem that it will reverse any time soon.
  3. Chart Advisor

    Watch These Stocks for Breakouts

    These four stocks are moving within price patterns of various size, shape and duration, and are worth watching for a breakout
  4. Trading Strategies

    How to Trade In a Flat Market

    Reduce position size by 50% to 75% in a flat market.
  5. Chart Advisor

    Like Ranges? These Are Stocks to Consider

    Whether you want to trade the price fluctuations within a range, or await a breakout, here are four stocks for you.
  6. Chart Advisor

    Is This The Beginning Of A Downtrend In Home Builders?

    Falling lumber prices and weakness on the charts of home builders suggest that the next leg of the trend could be downward.
  7. Investing

    The Semiconductor Sector is On the Verge of a Breakout

    The semiconductor sector may be on the verge of a major breakout that provides market leadership in 2016.
  8. Chart Advisor

    Is Now the Time to Buy Lumber?

    News that Weyerhaeuser is planning to buy Plum Creek has put attention on the forest-products sector. Is now the time to buy?
  9. Options & Futures

    Terrorism's Effects on Wall Street

    Terrorist activity tends to have a negative impact on the markets, but just how much? Find out how to take cover.
  10. Investing Basics

    Explaining the Liquidity Preference Theory

    According to the liquidity preference theory, investors demand interest in return for sacrificing their liquidity.
  1. Do hedge funds invest in commodities?

    There are several hedge funds that invest in commodities. Many hedge funds have broad macroeconomic strategies and invest ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can mutual funds invest in options and futures?

    Mutual funds invest in not only stocks and fixed-income securities but also options and futures. There exists a separate ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do futures contracts roll over?

    Traders roll over futures contracts to switch from the front month contract that is close to expiration to another contract ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Why do companies enter into futures contracts?

    Different types of companies may enter into futures contracts for different purposes. The most common reason is to hedge ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What does a futures contract cost?

    The value of a futures contract is derived from the cash value of the underlying asset. While a futures contract may have ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. How are double exponential moving averages applied in technical analysis?

    Double exponential moving averages (DEMAS) are commonly used in technical analysis like any other moving average indicator ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Take A Bath

    A slang term referring to the situation of an investor who has experienced a large loss from an investment or speculative ...
  2. Black Friday

    1. A day of stock market catastrophe. Originally, September 24, 1869, was deemed Black Friday. The crash was sparked by gold ...
  3. Turkey

    Slang for an investment that yields disappointing results or turns out worse than expected. Failed business deals, securities ...
  4. Barefoot Pilgrim

    A slang term for an unsophisticated investor who loses all of his or her wealth by trading equities in the stock market. ...
  5. Quick Ratio

    The quick ratio is an indicator of a company’s short-term liquidity. The quick ratio measures a company’s ability to meet ...
  6. Black Tuesday

    October 29, 1929, when the DJIA fell 12% - one of the largest one-day drops in stock market history. More than 16 million ...
Trading Center