Our boss once invited us into his office to discuss a trading program that he wanted to set up. "I have one rule only," he noted. Looking us straight in the eye, he said, "no excuses."
Instantly we understood what he meant. Our boss wasn't concerned about traders booking losses. Losses are a given part of trading and anyone who engages in this enterprise understands and accepts that fact. What our boss wanted to avoid were the mistakes made by traders who deviated from their trading plans. It was perfectly acceptable to sustain a drawdown of 10% if it was the result of five consecutive losing trades that were stopped out at a 2% loss each. However, it was inexcusable to lose 10% on one trade because the trader refused to cut his losses, or worse yet, added to a position beyond his risk limits. Our boss knew that the first scenario was just a regular part of business, while the second one could ultimately blow up of the entire account.
The Need For Rationalization
In the quintessential '80s movie, "The Big Chill", Jeff Goldblum's character tells Kevin Kline's that "rationalization is the most powerful thing on earth. As human beings we can go for a long time without food or water, but we can't go a day without a rationalization."
This quote has strikes a chord with us because it captures the ethos behind the "no excuses" rule. As traders, we must take responsibility for our mistakes. In a business where you either adapt or die, the refusal to acknowledge and correct your shortcomings will ultimately lead to disaster.
Case In Point
Markets can and will do anything. Witness the blowup of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). At one time, it was one of the most prestigious hedge funds in the world, whose partners included several Nobel Prize winners. In 1998, LTCM went bankrupt, nearly bringing the global financial markets to its knees when a series of complicated interest rate plays generated billions of dollars worth of losses in a matter of days. Instead of accepting the fact that they were wrong, LTCM traders continued to double up on their positions, believing that the markets would eventually turn their way.
It took the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a series of top-tier investment banks to step in and stem the tide of losses until the portfolio positions could be unwound without further damage. In post-debacle interviews, most LTCM traders refused to acknowledge their mistakes, stating that the LTCM blowup was the result of extremely unusual circumstances unlikely to ever happen again. LTCM traders never learned the "no excuses" rule, and it cost them their capital. (To find out more, see Massive Hedge Fund Failures.)
The "no excuses" rule is most applicable to those times when the trader does not understand the price action of the markets. If, for example, you are short a currency because you anticipate negative fundamental news and that news occurs, but the currency rallies instead, you must get out right away. If you do not understand what is going on in the market, it is always better to step aside and not trade. That way, you will not have to come up with excuses for why you blew up your account. No excuses. Ever. That's the rule professional traders live by.