Ask an Ex-Banker: Algorithmic Trading

A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News


Dear Mike,

I spotted something on algorithmic trading on your blog, and finance and investment are a bit of a hobby of mine. I am sending you a press release about a Canadian trader who has worked out a successful trading technique based on an algorithm, and a new trio of former Harvard fellows have made an app allowing you to do it yourself.

Here’s an excerpt from the link he sent me:

AlgoTrades, the leading provider of automatic investing systems for individual investors, and EquaMetrics Inc., the leading provider of algorithmic trading systems and their Intuitive, drag-and-drop interface that lets you quickly build and edit complex algorithms – in a matter of minutes, today announced a strategic partnership that will arm both active traders and investors with the ability to have the AlgoTrades investing system traded for them, and build trading systems of their own[…]
Algotrades is seeing increased demand for its existing automated trading systems. The Algotrades futures system is hitting at 100% accuracy for the first 6 months of this year with a ROI of 12.3% to date. Max peak-to-valley drawdown is 2.4% and many of our clients are asking for more diverse and active automated trading solutions to expand their portfolios.

This intrigues me: My question is: What is your gut feeling about this? Apparently some of the big news journals like Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal gave this coverage, so it might be something, or not? Any ideas about it?

–Willem from the Netherlands

Dear Willem,

You probably saw on my site that I’ve written reviews of three books on this topic: Rishi Narang’s Inside the Black Box and Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, as well as a review of a book by a friend from a high frequency trading firm who says Lewis got it all wrong, Flash Boys: Not So Fast.

As for the opportunity described in that announcement:
I would run, not walk, away from anything like that.

I have a long list of reasons for this advice, but I’ll just name a few.

1. Algorithmic trading typically involves high volume trading activity. For an individual investor the trading costs and – equally importantly – the tax bill make this extremely tax and cost inefficient. Brokers and certain types of professional institutional investors get trading costs lowered dramatically, and are not subject to the same capital gains tax laws as individuals (at least in the US) based on high volume buying and selling of stocks, so they don’t have that inefficiency problem. But for you, high volume trading is likely deathly to your individual account, due to costs and taxes.

2. The ROI (Return On Investment) claim in that press release makes me very wary. Even assuming its true, this is an extremely short time horizon, and barely tells us anything, except the juicy part, namely 12.3% ROI in just 6 months’ time.

In my experience, professional investors who can consistently achieve 12.3% ROI over 6 months (24.6% per year, annualized) never, ever, (ever!), seek to share that technology with others. They don’t market secrets like this. Why should they? Instead, they just quietly compound 24.6% per year for a few years and they can get extremely wealthy all by themselves.

3. Be skeptical of groups or strategies that claim high returns over short time periods, and market their services and technology to the general public. Many strategies can make (or lose) impressive amounts of money over a short time frame. If the strategy could – reliably, provably – earn that kind of return over 10 years, now I might be interested. But again, see point #2 above, because those folks wouldn’t be interested in sharing the strategy with you or me if they had a 10 year track record of 24.6% annual returns. They’d already be extraordinarily rich without us.

4. The successful institutional algorithmic and high frequency traders that make money have extraordinary advantages over individuals trying to mimic their techniques. The kind of traders described in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys for example, invest tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in software and hardware to give them every technological advantage over the kind of individual traders targeted in this press release. I simply do not believe this ‘algorithmic app’ for individuals could possibly compete with the knowledge, technology, and capital of established firms in this competitive space.

In sum, and to recap: Don’t walk away.




Please see related posts:


Book Review of Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Book Review of Flash Boys: Not So Fast by Peter Kovac


Book Review of Inside The Black Box by Rishi Narang

As well as:

Would You Like to Understand High Frequency Trading?

The Rise of the Machines



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