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Day Trading for a Living – Benefits, Risks & How to Succeed

By Michael Lewis

day tradingIn the days before personal computers, instantaneous communications, and sophisticated software, many Wall Street brokerage firms employed veteran traders to sit and interpret the paper tapes of stock transactions that spewed from mechanical tickers across the city. These traders, known as tape readers, would note the price and volume pattern of individual trades in the hopes that they could identify opportunities for quick profits. For example, if the latest trade of a stock differed significantly from previous trades in either price or volume, this might be interpreted as the work of insiders acting before news that could affect the company is announced. The tape readers would then act similarly, hoping their intuition was correct.

Since that time, the stock ticker has been replaced by a massive electronic network capable of analyzing and reporting trade data throughout the world. That technology has led to changes in the way the investment industry functions. One of the more unique positions in today’s landscape is that of the day trader.

Definition of Day Trading

By definition, day trading is the regular practice of buying and selling one or more security positions within a single trading day. No position, long or short, is held overnight. Day traders frequently deal in thousands of shares, often with leverage, and look for small-percentage profits on each trade – often less than $1 or $2 per share. They take positions based upon their analysis of a stock’s probable price direction within the trading period.

Popular day trading strategies include the following:

  • Scalping. Many day traders sell as soon as a trade become profitable, after covering commissions, interest costs, and overhead. This strategy is effective as long as the majority of small trades are in fact profitable and the trader is equally quick to curtail losses.
  • Fading. Many traders short sell stocks with rapid upward movement, anticipating that other investors may take a long position. The combination of short-sellers and those taking a profit creates an imbalance between buys and sells, driving the stock downward.
  • Daily Pivots. Anticipating that many stocks trade in a daily range, day traders may buy at the low price (a “support” level) and sell at the high price (a “resistance” level) or, conversely, short sell the stock at resistance and buy back the position at support.
  • Momentum. Traders buy a stock if it is moving upward with increasing volume. They sell when the price is trending downward with volume, assuming that the price direction continues after they take a long or short position, so they can close the transaction with a profit.

These techniques are different from those of an “arbitrage” trader, who often makes day trades to take advantage of misalignments between a stock price and a derivative. For example, an option trader might identify a stock trading at $50 per share, while a call option to buy the stock at $45 per share is selling at $2 per option. The trader would buy the option, enabling ownership of the stock at $47 per share ($2 for the option plus $45 to exercise the option) and the ability to short sell the stock at $50, thereby locking in a $3 profit per share.

Arbitrage opportunities can exist between stocks and any stock equivalent (an option, convertible bond, convertible preferred stock) or between call and put options for the same stock. Since they are virtually risk-free, arbitrage opportunities are quickly identified and exploited by professional traders. A day trader as defined by regulations is not looking for arbitrage opportunities, but speculating on the immediate price movement of a stock based upon an interpretation of the underlying psychology driving that movement.

In recent years, computers have been responsible for much of the volume on United States stock markets. Small trading houses and day traders cannot compete with large brokerage houses, hedge firms, and other institutional investors who spend millions of dollars developing computerized algorithms to exploit those markets. Due to the large sums of capital invested, major traders concentrate on the more significant exchanges where large volumes of stocks are traded – stocks of smaller companies with limited outstanding shares do not make for feasible trades due to the lack of liquidity in scale. Day traders and small firms, as a consequence, trade primarily in the securities of these companies.

day trading

Day Trading for a Living

Dylan Collins, a 25-year-old University of Miami graduate, spent his college years honing his skills by playing online poker, sometimes earning as much as $5,000 a night while a senior in college. He currently works for a Florida trading firm, trading capital of $1 million, both his own and the firm’s. By his estimate, Mr. Collins spends 50 to 60 hours per week either preparing or trading common stocks.

“Trading is fine,” reports Dylan. “I’m genuinely excited most days when I get to the office. I was so excited and jazzed up by what I was doing that it was a year before I took a day off. For me, this is a dream job.” Mr. Collins is clearly clever as well as fearless. He regularly risks losing most of his net worth in a single transaction, but is confident enough to believe that if he gets caught on the wrong side, he can make it all back. He recognizes that day trading is extremely stressful, and he does not expect it to be his career – rather, it is a source of high income that can eventually enable him to become a successful entrepreneur in another field.

Necessary Tools to Successfully Day Trade

Day trading is not a shoestring operation. You have to have a lot of money  in order to make a profit. Many experienced traders recommend starting with at least $100,000. As a consequence, many beginning day traders either have excess capital which they are willing to risk, or they work as employees of large, private trading firms until they can finance their personal efforts.

Regardless of your position, these are the tools you must have to succeed.

1. Infrastructure

Modern day traders rely on a combination of computers, monitors, routers, modems, and specialized software to keep abreast of the market on a 24/7 basis. They need access to a Level II trading service, which provides real-time quotations of individual market makers (the “bid” and the “asked”). Level II access is the highest level of information available to anyone who is not a NASDAQ member firm and a registered market maker.

Active day traders also need to use an electronic communication network (ECN) to avoid paying commission to a broker for each trade. The primary ECNs are Instinet, SelectNet, and NYSE Arca – memberships are fee-based and must be approved. In addition, traders normally monitor several real-time news outlets to keep up with any information that might affect the market or their positions. The cost of infrastructure, not including the development of customized software, can run thousands of dollars each month.

Some investors occasionally day trade, opting to rely upon online brokerage accounts to provide information and execute their trades instead of establishing Level II and ECN relationships. However, they incur the risk of delayed information and they pay additional costs due to their reliance on the broker. If you intend to become a full-time day trader, immediate access to information and minimal transaction costs can be the difference between a profitable trade and a loss.

2. Substantial Capital

Day traders must use margin accounts if they engage in short selling – selling shares of a stock you do not own in anticipation that the price will decline. Theoretically, when you sell a stock short, you assume unlimited risk since there is no ceiling on how high the stock price can rise before you cover the short position. Conversely, purchasing a stock has a limited risk since the stock price cannot go lower than zero. A margin account is akin to a line of credit secured by the cash or value of stocks in the account. The broker loans you funds – subject to legal regulations – to acquire or maintain your stock positions.

The SEC adopted rules in 2001 that declared anyone who makes more than four trades within a five-day period in a margin account to be a “pattern day trader.” Unlike typical margin accounts which require a deposit of $2,000 to open, broker-dealers registered with NASDAQ or the NYSE require that day traders keep $25,000 equity in their accounts on any day that day trading occurs, even if they have not executed any short sales. This number is also the minimum for margin trading, whether you are buying or selling short. Many experienced traders recommend at least $50,000 to $100,000 in order to have sufficient power to buy or sell stocks in the $100 to $500 price range.

If you trade 1,000 shares at a time, you can do so with one to three stocks, since a margin of 25% gives you buying power of $200,000 to $400,000 – acquiring a large number of shares is required when you are making profits of 1% to 3% per trade. For example, if you purchased 1,000 shares of a stock trading at $20, the total cost would be $20,007 ($20,000 for stock and $7 for commission). In this example, you would provide all of the purchase price.

Suppose that later in the day you sell the stock for $20.75 per share. Your total proceeds are $20,743 ($20,750 less $7 commission), and your profit is $736 ($20,743 less $20,007). Since you borrowed no money, the percentage gain on the total value of the trade and the return on your actual cash invested are the same: 3.6% ($736 divided by $20,007).

If you could replicate this performance each of the 252 trading days, your annual return would be a whopping 907%. At the end of the year, you would have more than $185,000 in your account from the original $20,007 investment. The possibility of these high returns, even though such daily results are unlikely to repeat, is the appeal of day trading.

Day traders operate in a variety of different markets – stocks, options, commodities, and currencies – since their criteria for investment is volatility of price, not value. Capital requirements vary for each market, but the principles of day trading apply to all:

  • Opening and closing positions each day, keeping no securities overnight
  • Initiating transactions based upon technical analysis
  • Buying or short selling as required to take advantage of projected price movement

3. Knowledge

Traders are not concerned with the fundamental value of the companies whose securities they trade. When a holding period is measured in minutes, fundamentals have little impact on price. Traders are concerned with the psychology of the market – the fears and hopes of individual shareholders as they buy and sell. They focus on indicators that represent those feelings, rather than factors like price-to-earnings ratios, market share, or competition.

Rumors, rather than facts, drive emotions, unless news is unexpected. Even then, however, traders often doubt whether any news can be truly secure, believing that “insiders” may begin to take action before truly consequential news is released. In short, the action of yelling “fire” is more relevant to a trader than an actual fire.

Using computers and software, traders make decisions based upon technical analysis, the mastery of which requires hours of study and familiarity with historical individual stock price movements. Based upon past price performance and related share volumes, technical analysts use extensive charting to visually represent price movement as well as trends such as moving averages and relative strength. Technicians, including day traders, look for and interpret patterns of stock prices, such as head and shoulders, flags, and pennants, in their charts to project short- and medium-term price direction.

Traders do not often prepare charts themselves, but rely upon professional charting services to provide real-time data and analysis using sophisticated software programs such as IQ Charts, MotiveWave, or OmniTrader. Successful traders interpret the results and take action based upon their “feel” of the situation, learning through trial and error.

4. Experience

Toni Turner, author of “A Beginner’s Guide to Day Trading Online,” says, “Learning to day trade successfully can take as long as going through college and obtaining a degree.” Because of the risk involved, some traders suggest starting out by “paper-trading” – making imaginary buys and sells using actual market data, but without risking real money – to identify potential profit opportunities and learn the mechanics of the marketplace. Many brokers allow you to create a virtual account to facilitate this.

What paper trading cannot prepare you for is the psychological pressure of having significant money at risk. You can read a hundred books about lion taming, but never truly understand what it’s like to be face to face with one. Recalling their early experiences, many day traders wondered which would come first – losing their money or finding success. To their chagrin, many learned that there are easier ways to make a living and no longer trade.

5. Discipline

According to Robert Deel, author of “The Strategic Electronic Day Trader,” “Many day traders are addicted to the action and making money has little to do with their true reason for trading. These individuals are not traders, they are gamblers. Action addicts lose as many times as necessary just for the adrenaline rush to win once.” In fact, the link between day trading and gambling is so strong that Gamblers Anonymous has a general rule that members should hold a stock for at least 18 months – if they invest in stocks at all.

While discipline is important when making a decision to take a profit or loss, one of the hardest things for a day trader to do is refrain from making a trade unless conditions are just right. Nevertheless, John Kurisko, trader and host of Day Trading Radio, says, “You need to develop a set of strict rules that take the emotion out of a trade.”

Having a plan and sticking to it is critical to profitable day trading. Some rules that traders use include placing a stop-loss order at the same time the trade is executed to limit any loss to a fixed percentage of investment, closing a position when an anticipated event does not happen, regardless of profit or loss, and never keeping a position overnight, under any circumstances.

6. Time Commitment

Day traders can easily spend 60 to 70 hours per week either trading or preparing to trade. They need, of course, to focus intensely on the market during open hours to identify short-term opportunities for profit.

However, in addition, they must stay abreast of ongoing news stories, including earnings reports and projections, regulatory events, and other events that can potentially affect their positions. Many traders spend their nights preparing for the next day’s trading sessions, identifying possible opportunities where they can make a profit. Finally, day traders may trade on international markets which are open in the U.S. in the evening and night.

day trading

Benefits of Day Trading

In addition to potentially enormous profits, day trading has many benefits for those rare individuals who can manage their emotions and withstand the inherent pressures:

  1. Independence. Many day traders are self-employed, working by themselves and answerable to no one. They are true entrepreneurs living by their wits and, hopefully, reaping the benefits of their own decisions.
  2. Euphoria. There are few events that can match the emotional high that comes with a huge profit earned solely by the efforts of a single person.
  3. Status. Day traders occupy an almost mythical status in certain communities, similar in many ways to the legendary “fast guns” of the old West – iconic outsiders living by their own rules and making their own way.

Risks of Day Trading

Despite the benefits, day traders must manage a number of financial and psychological risks:

  1. Capital Loss. Even if a majority of trades are profitable, considerable up-front costs such as hardware, software, and initial news services must be paid before one can begin trading. Also, ongoing expenses such as ECN fees (or commissions if the trader is not using an ECN), interest, real-time news fees, financial analysis and charting packages, and communication charges must be maintained.
  2. Market Movement. Michael Sincere, day trader and author of “Start Day Trading Now,” claims it is hard to make money when the market moves less than 100 points in either direction from the day before. According to MoneyBeat, 2013 was one of the least volatile years of the S&P 500, moving an average of 0.55%, below its post-1928 average of 0.76%. Too many traders are chasing too few opportunities, meaning that only those quick enough to recognize an opportunity and act are likely to make money. Being late on a trade can turn a potential profit to a loss.
  3. Psychological Addiction. According to Ed Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, day trading is “like crack cocaine – it’s much more addicting than other kinds of gambling.” Some psychologists suggest that gamblers and day traders are similar in that they tend to be competitive and of above-average intelligence.

Final Word

While the possibility of becoming extremely wealthy in a short time is what attracts people to day trading, the unfortunate fact is that failure, financial loss, and depression are the more likely outcomes. According to day trader and author James Altucher, who claims to have traded up to $40 to $50 million per day at his peak, “It’s the worst job in the world on a bad day. I would make a trade, it would go against me, and then I wanted my heart to stop so my blood would stop thumping so loudly. Day trading pulls everything out of you.” Altucher goes on to say, “Only around 5% of retail traders make money as full-time day traders. The probability of success is slim.”

Altschuler claims to know a thousand day traders, and only two that won’t go bankrupt. Forewarned is forearmed.

Are you interested in day trading in spite of the risks?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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  • http://www.doctorofcredit.com/ doctorofcredit

    As an individual you’re going to struggle to consistently beat the markets, even with a strong financial background most day traders lose out to markets in the long term. It’s definitely not a hobby.

    • http://www.moneycrashers.com michael r lewis

      doctorofcredit,
      I agree with your statement that day trading is not a hobby – I’m not sure it qualifies as a profession since I’ve never known anyone who has been able to make a career of trying to beat the market on a daily basis by this method. Never the less, there are always those who think they can achieve different results.

      thanks for writing,

  • http://www.jamiesmoneyadvice.com/ Jamie

    I can count the number of successful day traders I know on one finger. I know hundreds of successful long term investors and most are not into owning a lot of stocks

    • Michael Lewis

      My experience over the past 50 years is similar to yours. I’ve never met anyone – or heard of anyone, for that matter – who has successfully day traded for any length of time or in various market conditions. But, knowing the human spirit, hope springs eternal that someone will prove me wrong.
      Thanks for writing.

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