Stock Exchange: Can Humans Compete with High Frequency Traders?

Many individual investors have been frustrated by the growing prominence of High Frequency Trading. Complicated algorithms can process new information and react in fractions of a second. It sounds intimidating, and in some sense, it is. Individual Investors would be poorly suited for direct competition.

Instead, stick to what the market is giving you. The connections made by these programs are often spurious – totally unrelated to the fundamentals of a given business. This is intentional. After all, they’re after a quick buck rather than a long-term investment.

For that reason, a stock being walloped for frivolous story in the 24-hour news cycle may present an attractive buying opportunity. It all comes down to the individual investor’s process and commitment to their goals.

To help give us perspective this week, we’re bringing in earnings expert Brian Gilmartin. Since 1995, Brian has managed Trinity Asset Management. You can find his regular writings on Fundamentalis.

This Week—Holmes sniffs out a deal

It can be tempting to make a trading decision based on a glance at its recent chart. Unfortunately, a stock that has underperformed in recent days might be providing a big opportunity. Holmes uses a mix of advanced trading techniques and technical analysis to avoid significant drawdowns. When he chases after a down stock, it’s because he sees some serious upside. Let’s see what he’s up to this week:

Holmes

Holmes: This week I’m buying  Jack-in-the-Box (Jack) a restaurant chain in the U.S. (95.98).

It’s not easy finding stocks that fit the exact criteria I’m looking for. I try to find stocks that have been trending higher, then have broken down below that trend, and have started to base a for reasonable period of time.

This gives me a good entry with limited downside risk and upside gains that may get back to the previous levels before the most recent debacle. I like risk/reward ratios of 2:1 or better.  With Jack, my downside is 93.70(Stop), my upside is 106, risking $2.28 to make $10.02. Woof Woof!

Brian: a comp miss sent the stock down to its 200-day moving average after February ’17 comp’s for JACK as the industry that the “low-end” consumer has taken a breather. Forward earnings and revenue estimates are a little weaker following the February ’17 miss, but JACK is trading at 20(x) expected ’17 earnings for expected 17% growth. Even if EPS growth slips to 15% or even low teens the stock is cheap on a PEG (P.E to growth) basis.

Holmes: Glad to hear you approve! Jeff is usually a bit harsher.

Brian: It’s not a bad pick, depending on how long you’re holding onto this one.

Holmes: My usual target is about 4-6 weeks, though I wouldn’t hesitate to unload this if another downturn became apparent.

Brian: Solid reasoning – for a talking dog, at least…

Oscar

Oscar: My big pick this week is the China Large-Cap ETF (FXI).

We’re in the midst of March Madness, so let’s call this pick a rebound. Not in the classic sense: that’s better suited for FXI’s behavior through early January.

Still, I made this my pick on 2/9 and hung with it for a couple of weeks. Now that we’ve seen another drop, I’m ready to jump off the bleachers and get back in the game.

Brian: BRIC’s and Emerging Markets have traded well since the bottom in Q1 ’16. FXI is the safer asset class in a crowded China ETF market. As someone who was never a fan of China as a strategic or even tactical asset allocation recipient, Emerging Market ETF’s might be a better risk / reward. The ETF is scraping along its 200-day moving average.

Oscar: So, you like this one too?

Brian: I’ve always thought China was like playing the US stock market in the late 1800’s – it is the Wild Wild West of outcomes, as a Communist country tries to centrally plan a free-market economy.

Oscar: It’s a risk I’m willing to take!

Felix

Felix:

Continental Resources (CLR) is my next long position.

The decline here has been sustained and significant, which I find attractive. At $43.22, there is definitely potential for the stock to improve near previous highs above the $55 mark. I could hang onto this one for months.

Brian: Continental took a beating on Wednesday as crude oil fell 5%. The Energy sector is a battleground sector as crude gyrates around $50 per barrel and CLR is leveraged to the price of crude. The stock is oversold and trading below its 200-day moving average.

Felix: I agree the stock is oversold, but I don’t like the sound of that “battleground.” How do I know when I’ve hit a proper valuation here?

Brian: Tell me what crude oil will do and you can figure out what CLR will do.

Felix: Uh oh.

Athena

Athena: I understand my methods are often met with skepticism. That’s why I like to pause now and then and reflect on some small successes. Let’s review my recent foray into Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

I recommended this stock back on 2/9/17, just after a huge spike in price. Put lightly, this was not my most-loved pick. That was fine by me. Because I had the right time frame in mind, I was able to collect a tidy sum and close out this position near the end of the month.

Brian: A semiconductor company that was a serial capital destroyer for most of its life and long an “also-ran” to Intel, AMD had an impressive string of “earnings beats” and raises in 2016. On the other hand, the valuation is stretched with the Street looking for $0.07 and $0.26 thus AMD is trading at 50(x) next year’s earnings.

Athena: Would you say something like this might be due for another pop in the near future? How hot is this trend?

Brian: The semiconductor space looks good both technically and fundamentally, and AMD is a resurgent laggard in the space.

Background on the Stock Exchange

Each week Felix and Oscar host a poker game for some of their friends. Since they are all traders they love to discuss their best current ideas before the game starts. They like to call this their “Stock Exchange.” (Check it out for more background). Their methods are excellent, as you know if you have been following the series. Since the time frames and risk profiles differ, so do the stock ideas. You get to be a fly on the wall from my report. I am the only human present, and the only one using any fundamental analysis.

The result? Several expert ideas each week from traders, and a brief comment on the fundamentals from the human investor. The models are named to make it easy to remember their trading personalities. Each week features a different expert or stock.

Questions

If you want an opinion about a specific stock or sector, even those we did not mention, just ask! Put questions in the comments. Address them to a specific expert if you wish. Each has a specialty. Who is your favorite? (You can choose me, although my feelings will not be hurt very much if you prefer one of the models).

Conclusion

The growing establishment of High Frequency Trading algorithms has changed the investment landscape. However, that doesn’t spell doom for the individual investor. Overreactions to trivial matters, like a POTUS tweet, can actually create bargain opportunities. Keep these ideas in mind:

  • Do not compete directly by trying to react more quickly to news.
  • Find a method that differs in time frame.
  • Do not use stops that become limit orders.  A random move can take you out of a position at a poor price.
  • If possible, use the HFT algorithms to your advantage.  If a stock is solid, consider buying dips by having some standing buy orders.

Take what the market is giving you.

The Fastest Way to Improve Your Investment Results

Here is the key concept: Abandon that which is not helpful!

Background

One of my best friends loved “investing” in baseball. He had an opinion about every team and every game. He also had a happy bookie.

He called me after taking a course in baseball betting. He explained that you could improve your results, regardless of your system, but refusing any team that had lost the day before. The course provided the evidence, and it was right. Systems all did worse when recommending losing teams.

I could not resist. I told my friend that if he also passed on all plays involving teams that won they day before, he would have a great system!

Investment Advice

Investors flock to websites providing the least helpful information. The writers are making a fortune without ever providing a single constructive or profitable idea! They collect by preying upon your fears and providing confirmation biases for the conclusions you already have reached.

This is a brilliant business model. It is much better than mine, since I must try to explain the contrarian side, provide evidence, and highlight good ideas.

Here is a suggestion for readers hoping for better results:

Review each source you regularly follow. If you cannot find some helpful advice in the last year, cross it off your reading list. If there is not a single stock recommendation that worked, put the site on double-secret probation!

Conclusion

This brief post might be the best piece of investment advice you will ever see. Most will continue their old habits. They love horror stories and lust for confirmation of their biases. You can choose to be different.

Finding Investment Excellence

There is a lot of recent buzz about active management – basically showing that excellence is difficult to achieve. The conclusion is popular, especially among those who have no aspiration to beat average.

I cannot do this in a single post, but I must start somewhere. As I often do, let me start with something far away from financial markets as the original illustration. As the TV lawyers say when wandering off course, “Your honor, just give me a few questions and I’ll connect it all up.”

Experts Exist

Let us suppose we have a difficult situation, not unlike a complex market. In this case, you are golfing. Your ball is in the rough, and there is a danger of going over the green on your approach shot.

If you are a golfer, you will get a laugh out of Golf Digest’s 26 most difficult shots. I have experienced all of them. The “shot over water” was especially intimidating at Butler National, where I asked my caddy about the drop zone. He wisely told me, “You need a better swing thought.” That was great advice!

Here is an example of Phil Mickelson hitting a 64-degree wedge. It is not a cherry-picked result. A google search will show many other similar shots.

The commentator observes that Lefty might be the only one who could hit that shot.

Finding the Expert

I hope everyone is convinced that there are experts in golf. In fact, there are experts in any field. In most cases there is a problem of “Untangling Skill and Luck” as Michael Mauboussin astutely poses it. In the case of Mickelson’s flop shot, the skill is evident. Many important cases are more challenging. What about someone with a model that provides a 10% improvement in forecasting hurricanes? Or earthquakes? The social gain from such expertise is important, but it might be difficult to identify.

If you are an investor in search of excellence, this is the challenge. For over ten years I have taken pride not in my own expertise, but in the ability to spot the best experts in various fields. That is now more important than ever for those who want more than mediocrity.