Paper trading is a simulated market environment in which the participant writes down buying and selling decisions, rather than placing actual orders at a brokerage. The process can be simple, with a few numbers jotted on a napkin, or complex, with spreadsheets breaking multiple elements into component parts for reflection and analysis.
New traders are often instructed to paper trade until they learn basic strategies, while many experienced traders utilize the practice from time to time, especially when working on new ideas and approaches.
In theory, paper trading can build insight and improve skill sets at every step in a trader's journey, from novice to market professional. But does it really work as intended, or are there better ways to develop ideas and strategies? What are the key benefits and limitations, and how can market novices get the most value from the experience? Finally, can paper trading actually hurt financial performance, rather than help it?
- Paper trading is a simulated market environment where a prospective trader writes down their trades and tracks their (imaginary) profits and losses.
- Many traders use paper trading as a way to to learn the basics of market strategy without risking real money.
- Most brokerages offer a paper trading environment that are identical to their real-money trading environment.
- While paper trading can be an effective way to learn the basics of trading, there is a temptation to take greater risks because there are no real losses.
- New traders should be aware that paper trading is significantly different from real-market conditions.
Ways to Paper Trade
The simplest approach to paper trading identifies an appealing stock through a chart on a website or an analysis by a market personality, writes down the ticker and chooses a time to place a hypothetical buy order (or sell order if desiring to sell short). The novice jots down the opening price if entering at the start of the session, or watches the chart and ticker during the trading day, picking a spot that looks like a good entry.
The choice of entry price and time varies considerably, depending on the basic tutorials used to learn the trading game. The same holds true during the management phase, when deciding where to place the stop and how long to hold the position. Whatever the approach, an exit price is finally written down, and the novice repeats the process until enough data is gathered to analyze progress.
While pen and paper works perfectly well for paper trading, the spreadsheet provides a more powerful analytical tool for detail-oriented individuals because they can add additional columns to capture:
- stop placement
- time of day
- holding period
- day of the week
- market internals, including index direction and market volatility
Trade simulators offer the most potent approach to paper trading because they let novices set up workstations that mimic actual real-time market conditions. Many brokers now offer this service for free to customers, letting them use the same trading software as real money players. This connection is invaluable because it allows a seamless transition from a simulated into an actual trading environment once the student is ready.
A final approach can be used at any time, even during weekends when the financial markets are closed. Have a friend or spouse pick a technical chart at random, print it out, and hand it to you with the right side covered by a second piece of paper. Make sure the chart has all the technical indicators you want to use in real-world trading. Take the second sheet and move it to the right one price bar at a time, while you choose where to buy and sell.
Paper Trading Providers
Many brokers allow paper trades using their trading platform. Since these venues are identical to the real-money trading platforms, it makes sense to practice paper trades with the same broker that you use for real assets.
Here are some common platforms for paper trading:
- Webull Paper Trading offers unlimited paper trades.
- TD Ameritrade offers paperMoney, a setting on the Thinkorswim trading platform funded with $100,000 of virtual money.
- Interactive Brokers provides a paper trading account with a $1 million opening balance.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Paper Trading
Let's outline the key benefits of paper trading, looking at the ways it shortens the learning curve so that novices have an advantage when it's time to play the game with real money.
It costs nothing, and you can't lose money with bad decisions or poor timing. It also allows you to observe all of the flaws in your analytical process so you can begin the arduous task of building a well-defined trading edge.
Trading evokes the twin emotions of greed and fear, often blinding participants to key information needed for effective risk management. Paper trading bypasses this emotional roller coaster, so the new participant can focus fully on the mathematical process, not the pitfalls.
Builds Practice and Confidence
The participant gains experience in every element of the trading process, from pre-market preparation to final profit or loss taking. When accessing the broker's simulator, they learn how to use real money software in a relaxed environment, where the wrong keystroke won't trigger a financial disaster.
Making a series of complex decisions that gets rewarded with hypothetical profits goes a long way in building the novice's confidence so that they can do the same thing when real money is at stake.
Paper trading for several weeks up to a month builds useful statistics about the new strategy and market approach. The results are likely to be discouraging, forcing the next step in the new trader's educational process, in turn requiring additional paper trading and data sets.
Now let's outline the limitations of paper trading and the ways it can hurt the novice's performance if key lessons aren't learned.
Neglects Market Correlation:
Paper trading fails to address the broad market's impact on individual securities. The majority of equities move in lockstep with major indices during periods of high correlation, which is common when the Market Volatility Index (VIX) rises. While results may look great or terrible on paper, broader conditions may have created the results, rather than the virtues or pitfalls of the individual position.
Neglects Slippage and Commissions
Real money traders deal with all sorts of hidden costs from slippage and commissions. This is exacerbated by wide spreads that are poorly captured in most paper trading techniques. For example, the momentum stock you think you're buying on paper at $50.00 may cost you $50.50 or more in the real world.
Neglects Emotional Reality
Paper trading doesn't address or evoke real-world emotions produced by actual profits or losses. In the real world, many traders cut profits short and let losses run because they lack market discipline. Those self-destructive calculations don't come into play when dealing with hypothetical numbers.
Paper traders pick out ideal entries and exits, missing the minefield of obstacles generated by the modern computer-driven environment. These shakeout levels become all too obvious to real-world participants who have watched dozens of technically sound positions go up in flames when algorithms shift into predatory mode and seek out their stops.
Offers a no-risk way to practice trading and learn the basics of market strategy.
Allows traders to identify their potential shortcomings and strategic weaknesses without losing money.
Allows traders to strengthen their confidence and build up useful statistics about the current market.
Does not replicate the stress and emotional pressure of real trading.
Does not include the real-world costs due to slippage and commission fees.
Paper trading neglects the broader market's impact on individual securities.
Tips for Paper Trading
While paper trading is an effective way to learn the market without risk, some traders may be susceptible to euphoric trading, especially if they have exceptionally large accounts. They might make risky trades or other decisions that they would not make with real money. Even if there are no capital losses, this type of paper trading does not help traders prepare for real-world markets.
To get the most out of paper trading, it is important that simulated accounts should be as close as possible to the real thing. Paper trades should limit themselves to the same amount of money that they would be able to use in real-world conditions, and research their investments as if they were spending actual money.
It's also important to record every trade, whether successful or not. This includes not only the entry and exit points, but also the trader's investment thesis and their thought process on choosing an exit price.
How Do You Reset Paper Trading on Thinkorswim?
To reset your paper trading account, look for the "adjust account" button on Thinkorswim. Choose the account balance you want to start with and tick the box labeled "reset margins and positions." After you click "OK," the account will reset your trading history and start with the new balance.
How Do You Do Paper Trading on TradingView?
To enable paper trading, log into your TradingView account and navigate to the trading panel at the bottom. Activate the "paper trading" button on the far left side. After that, you will need to reset your account balance as close as possible to your real-life trading balance. In the gear menu on the right-side panel, click "reset paper trading account" and enter a new account balance.
How Do You Do Paper Trading on Webull?
To start paper trading on Webull, the first step is to set up an account and follow the steps to validate your identity. Once you're logged in, open the menu and click the "paper trading" option to set up paper trading.
The Bottom Line
Paper trading benefits new participants by letting them act out key steps in risk-taking, from the selection of securities to the final exit, but the process has limited value because it underplays the impact of index correlation and emotional reactions in a typical market day. In addition, it doesn't address the impact of algorithmic strategies that routinely target the flesh-and-blood crowd.
Even so, most novices should spend a considerable amount of time paper trading their new ideas and strategies before risking real capital, and gaining as much experience as possible. The exercise will pay excellent dividends, shortening the learning curve while allowing limited profitability much earlier to initiates as opposed to new participants who pass on the opportunity.