Lessons from a Trading Great: Bruce Kovner

Lessons from a Trading Great: Bruce Kovner

Bruce Kovner retired in 2011 from Caxton Associates, the hedge fund he founded and ran for 28 years.

Over that time the fund returned an average of 21 percent a year since its inception. In comparison, the SPX averaged just 11%. Kovner had only one losing year (in 94’). Before Caxton, while trading at the famous Commodities Corp, he averaged close to 90% over 10 years. Impressive numbers by any measure.

Many traders know of this cab driver turned trading legend from his interview with Jack Schwager in the original Market Wizards — one of the best interviews in the book (and there are many).

He comes from perhaps the most notable lineage of trader mentorships; having traded under Michael Marcus at Commodities Corp, who himself studied under Ed Seykota.

To follow are bits of wisdom from one of the greatest:

Having the Necessary Vision                     

Michael [Marcus] taught me one thing that was incredibly important… He taught me that you could make a million dollars. He showed me that if you applied yourself, great things could happen. It is very easy to miss the point that you really can do it. He showed me that if you take a position and use discipline, you can actually make it.”

I’m not sure one can really define why some traders make it, while others do not. For myself, I can think of two important elements. First, I have the ability to imagine configurations of the world different from today and really believe it can happen. I can imagine that soybean prices can double or that the dollar can fall to 100 yen. Second, I stay rational and disciplined under pressure.

What I am really looking for is a consensus the market is not confirming. I like to know that there are a lot of people who are going to be wrong.

One of the jobs of a good trader is to imagine alternative scenarios. I try to form many different mental pictures of what the world should be like and wait for one of them to be confirmed. You keep trying them on one at a time. Inevitably, most of these pictures will turn out to be wrong — that is, only a few elements of the picture may prove correct. But then, all of a sudden, you will find that in one picture, nine out of ten elements click. That scenario then becomes your image of the world reality.

The Importance of Risk Management

The first rule of trading — there are probably many first rules — is don’t get caught in a situation in which you can lose a great deal of money for reasons you don’t understand.

I would say that risk management is the most important thing to be well understood. Under trade, under trade, under trade is my second piece of advice. Whatever you think your position ought to be, cut it at least in half.

Through bitter experience, I have learned that a mistake in position correlation is the root of some of the most serious problems in trading. If you have eight highly correlated positions, then you are really trading one position that is eight times as large.

Whenever I enter a position, I have a predetermined stop. That is the only way I can sleep. I know where I’m getting out before I get in. The position size on a trade is determined by the stop, and the stop is determined on a technical basis.

My experience with novice traders is that they trade three to five times too big. They are taking 5 to 10 percent risks on a trade when they should be taking 1 to 2 percent risks.

I never think about stop vulnerability, because the point about a technical barrier — and I’ve studied the technical aspects of the market for a long time — is that the market shouldn’t go there if you’re right.

The only thing that disturbs me is poor money management. Every so often, I take a loss that is significantly too large. But I never had a lot of difficulty with the process of losing money, as long as losses were the outcome of sound trading techniques.

A common mistake is to think of the market as a personal nemesis. The market, of course, is totally impersonal; it doesn’t care whether you make money or not.

Whenever a trader says ‘I wish,’ or ‘I hope,’ he is engaging in a destructive way of thinking because it takes attention away from the diagnostic process.

A Trader’s Mindset

To this day, when something happens to disturb my emotional equilibrium and my sense of what the world is like, I close out all positions related to that event.

(On Michael Marcus) He also taught me one other thing that is absolutely critical: You have to be willing to make mistakes regularly; there is nothing wrong with it. Michael taught me about making your best judgment, being wrong, making your next best judgment, being wrong, making your third best judgment, and then doubling your money.

The emotional burden of trading is substantial; on any given day, I could lose millions of dollars. If you personalize these losses, you can’t trade.

Successful traders are strong, independent, and contrary in the extreme. They are able to take positions others are unwilling to take. They are disciplined enough to take the right size positions. A greedy trader always blows out.

The Importance of Macro

I almost always trade on a market view; I don’t trade simply on technical information. I use technical analysis a great deal and it is terrific, but I can’t hold a position unless I understand why the market should move.

There are well-informed traders who know much more than I do. I simply put things together… The market usually leads because there are people who know more than you do.

Mastering Price Action

For me, technical analysis is like a thermometer. Fundamentalists who say they are not going to pay any attention to the charts are like a doctor who says he’s not going to take a patient’s temperature. But, of course, that would be sheer folly. If you are a responsible participant in the market, you always want to know where the market is — whether it is hot and excitable, or cold and stagnant. You want to know everything you can about the market to give you an edge.

The principle characteristic of a bear market is very sharp down movements followed by quick retracements… In a bear market, you have to use sharp counter-trend rallies to enter positions.

Technical analysis, I think, has a great deal that is right and a great deal that is mumbo jumbo… There is a great deal of hype attached to technical analysis by some technicians who claim that it predicts the future. Technical analysis tracks the past; it does not predict the future. You have to use your own intelligence to draw conclusions about what the past activity of some traders may say about the future activity of other traders.

Technical analysis reflects the voice of the entire marketplace and, therefore, does pick up unusual behavior. By definition, anything that creates a new chart pattern is something unusual. It is very important for me to study the details of price action to see if I can observe something about how everybody is voting. Studying the charts is absolutely critical and alerts me to existing disequilibria and potential changes.

Trading and The Heisenberg Principle

The general rule is: the less observed, the better the trade.

The Heisenberg principle in physics provides an analogy for the markets. If something is closely observed, the odds are it is going to be altered in the process.

The more a price pattern is observed by speculators, the more prone you are to have false signals. The more a market is the product of non-speculative activity, the greater the significance of technical breakouts.

As an alternative approach, one of the traders I know does very well in the stock index markets by trying to figure out how the stock market can hurt the most traders. It seems to work for him.

As a trader who has seen a great deal and been in a lot of markets, there is nothing disconcerting to me about a price move out of a trading range that nobody understands.

Tight congestions in which a breakout occurs for reasons that nobody understands are usually good risk/reward trades.

Regardless of your strategy, whether it be value investing, day trading, or even selling volatility, listening to Kovner’s advice can help take you to the next level. The best market wisdom transcends individual trading styles and can be applied anywhere. Be sure to take a tip or two from Kovner and apply it to your own trading process in the future…



Macro Ops


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Alex Barrow

Alex Barrow spent over a decade working as a U.S. Marine Scout Sniper and as an Intelligence Professional for the government where he specialized in covering the economic and political spheres of the Asian-Pacific region. Barrow left the public sector to work as a consultant for a leading silicon valley firm that creates advanced data software for intelligence and finance. He then went on to pursue his passion for markets, working at a global-macro hedge fund. Barrow co-founded Macro Ops with two other former hedge fund analysts with the goal of helping friends and family navigate these volatile markets.