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  1. After the October 17 breakouts to new highs in the S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite, I got to thinking about bull markets. I was pondering over how much traders and investors must be loving and profiting from this powerful rally stocks have had in 2013. But then a worrying thought popped into my head. It occurred to me it’s quite possible that not all traders and investors have actually been raking in the trading profits, despite the major indices being at new highs. Why? Because I fear that many traders and investors have been feeling the pain of the biggest mistake traders make in a bull market. I’m speaking from personal experience when I say it’s a very real concern. I’ll tell you why in just a moment, but first take a quick look at the breakouts in both the S&P and Nasdaq. The October 17 rally in the S&P 500 Index ($SPX) put the index at a new closing high for the year, which is a great sign considering where this benchmark index was only six sessions ago: The tech-heavy NASDAQ continues to extend above its prior swing high, and has now gained approximately 6% since our September 6 market commentary that suggested another breakout to new highs in the NASDAQ was coming soon: With stocks on a seemingly unstoppable upward trajectory, it’s easy to get sloppy and make careless mistakes in the stock market without having majorly negative repercussions. Yet, there is indeed one mistake that has some pretty damaging consequences (in the form of opportunity cost), even in a bull market. Have You Ever Made The Greatest Mistake? In a raging bull market such as the present, approximately 80% of stocks and ETFs will be dragged alongside of the main stock market indexes and move higher. Small and mid-cap growth stocks with a strong history of solid earnings growth will typically outperform the percentage gains of the S&P 500 and Nasdaq by a wide margin. These are the same stocks we focus on trading in bull markets. But even if you fail to buy the best stocks in the market, you can basically throw a dart right now and still have a good chance that the stock you buy will move higher (note this only applies in healthy bull markets). Nevertheless, roughly 20% of stocks and ETFs will still fail to move higher in a bull market. Obviously, it is a frustrating experience if you make the unfortunate mistake of buying one of these dogs. Yet, this biggest mistake is surprisingly common among traders, especially newer ones. So, let’s talk about an easy way to avoid this problem. Failing To Overcome Gravity When I was a new trader many years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit that I intentionally focused on buying stocks and ETFs that were NOT rallying alongside of the broad market (showing relative weakness). Why? Because I wrongly assumed they would “catch up” to all the other stocks in the market. Furthermore, I mistakenly thought stocks and ETFs that had already rallied a large percentage would probably not go much higher. Damn, I sure was proven wrong! What was the outcome of buying these stocks and ETFs with relative weakness? I was painfully forced to watch (what seemed like) every other stock in the market rally, while my positions failed miserably to overcome gravity. Adding insult to injury, the leading stocks that I thought “couldn’t possibly move any higher” ended up being the same ones that once again made the biggest gains on their next waves up. The worst part is I also discovered that when a stock is so weak that it fails to set new highs alongside of the broad market, that stock is typically the first to sell off sharply (often to new lows) when the broad market eventually enters into even the slightest pullback from its high. Once in a blue moon, a stock or ETF with relative weakness will suddenly start to show relative strength. However, that typically only occurs with the luck of some major news event. Betting on future news that may or may not cause a stock to rally is akin to betting on red or black in a casino (maybe worse). It’s All Relative, And That’s All You Need To Know As momentum trend traders, we focus on buying stocks and ETFs that are making “higher highs” and “higher lows,” along with chart patterns that indicate relative strength to the benchmark S&P 500 Index. In a moment, I will show you about a great way to quickly and easily identify relative strength, but let’s first discuss what relative strength (don’t confuse this with the RSI indicator) actually means. Relative strength - Any stock or ETF that has broken out over the past few weeks automatically is showing great relative strength to the S&P 500 because it has rallied to new highs ahead of the benchmark index. One such example is Guggenheim Solar Energy ETF ($TAN), which recently netted us a 44% gain. On the individual stock side, we are currently showing an unrealized price gain of more than 55% in Silica ($SLCA) since our July 8 buy entry, so this is another great example (we will remain long until the price action gives us a valid technical reason to sell). Neutral - Stocks or ETFs that are breaking out right now (in sync with S&P 500) are also decent buy candidates and may eventually outperform during the rally. These stocks and ETFs may not be as good as buying equities with relative strength (on a pullback), but can still offer substantial returns. One such example is Direxion Daily Semiconductor Bull 3X ($SOXL), which we are currently long in The Wagner Daily. Relative weakness - While stocks and ETFs that broke out ahead of the S&P 500 are the best stocks to buy, and some equities only breaking out now may be fine, you definitely want to avoid stocks and ETFs that are lagging behind. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Any stock or ETF that is failing to even keep pace with the current breakouts to new highs in the S&P 500 and Nasdaq has relative weakness. However, don’t confuse this with stocks and ETFs that already broke out to new highs within the past few weeks (ahead of the broad market) and are now building another base of consolidation. A Tool To Stop Being A Fool The good news is there’s a simple tool that enables traders to quickly and easily spot patterns of relative strength and weakness. This tool is a great way to know which stocks and ETFs to avoid right now (the 20% mentioned earlier). Surprisingly, the tool is utilized by simply comparing the daily chart patterns of any stock or ETF versus the S&P 500 Index. The chart below, comparing the price action in a Real Estate ETF ($IYR) against the S&P 500 ETF ($SPY), clearly shows how this works: It’s as simple as that. If you thought our tool for spotting relative strength or weakness was going to be complicated, I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, our proven trading strategy has always been about keeping our analysis of stocks simple, and this tool is in line with that philosophy. Putting The Wind On Your Back Notice that we compared an industry sector ETF (real estate) to the S&P 500, rather than an individual stock. We did this because it’s a great way to determine if a particular industry group or sector has relative strength or weakness. This is important to know because you don’t want to buy an individual stock that has a great looking chart pattern, but belongs to an industry sector with relative weakness. If you do, the stock will struggle to move higher, despite its bullish chart pattern. In trading, you always want the wind to be on your back. Making sure the individual stocks you buy are part of an industry sector with relative strength (or at least not with relative weakness) is one of the most effective ways to do so. Now that you know this highly effective and easy way to eliminate stocks and ETFs with relative weakness from your watchlist, you have no excuse for continuing to make one of the biggest mistakes traders make in a bull market.
  2. Emotional Intelligence and the Trader’s Mind An Emotional Braking System Failure “I left money on the table yesterday, and I’m not going to leave money on the table this time!” Harry silently declared, “I’ve missed out to many times – I’m going to ride this one and clean up.” Harry could feel the excitement pulsing in his veins – he could hardly contain himself. He pushed beyond his exit point, knowing that this one was going up. What a rush! Harry could feel the surge of energy. He almost became giddy as he saw the numbers climb even higher. That triggered even more excitement as he thought, “I’ve hooked a big one – I’ll show them who’s a trader!” In the blink of an eye, without explanation, the numbers began to drop. Harry kept waiting for the downward spiral to right itself. It didn’t. Harry moved the stop because he knew in his gut that it would go back up again. It didn’t. Finally Harry pulled the trigger and accepted that he had another draw down on his trading account. He felt frustrated because, in his irrational exuberance (some would call it greed), and he let a perfectly good trade go bad. He had sabotaged himself yet again. Now Harry felt shame and wondered, “What made me think that I could trade for a living?” You Trade Your Psychology What happened to Harry? How did he get suckered into bad trading practices? From the sidelines, it is easy to say that Harry neglected to trade his plan. This assertion misses one big point about humans (and particularly the ones who trade) – emotions rule mind. Out of your emotional states comes the kind and quality of the thinking of which you are capable. In Harry’s case the state of mind that he needed to trade effectively was swept away by a fear of missing out. Once this fear triggered and accelerated, his thinking became clouded and his rational evaluation process was blown out of the water. Like many traders, Harry did not have the skill sets to keep his emotions regulated as he entered the trade. Consequently, a guy who had diligently done his charting and was ready for the trading day got ambushed by unseen forces. His trading plan did not also include a psychological plan for managing emotions. This was a big mistake for Harry and for many traders. And until he learns how to make visible the unseen forces that hijacked his rational mind, his trading will suffer. The problem is age old. Since the rise of Descartes’ rationalism, people (traders included) have attempted to separate body (emotions) and mind. Today, even Western medical science is concluding that this separation is impossible. The mind and the body (emotions) are woven together life a garment. They are inseparable. Maintaining awareness of your emotional nature as a trader is, in fact, the first step to developing a peak performance state of mind specifically for trading. Before this is explored, let’s take a look at what just happened to Harry. The Anatomy of a State of Mind Hijacking Harry experienced the trap of an undisciplined trader’s mind. As he moved into the trade, he was not attuned to what his hardwired and primitive emotional brain was biased to sense – nor how to manage the impulse. He did not notice the excitement of emotional arousal of the hunt that evolution had programmed into him. The thrill of the hunt (and its companion – the fear of missing out) was mobilizing Harry to pursue the prey before it could get away. From a resting place where a calm, observant state of mind prevailed, Harry began to pursue the “hunt”, not noticing that his thinking was being compromised. (Remember, thinking is emotional state dependent.) The arousal of conquest or greed came to dominate his mind. He could no longer think rationally. Then he pursued his “prey”, consumed by the passion of taking no prisoners. In this emotional stupor, Harry overtraded and lost. This trait of Harry’s (a single minded pursuit of winning big and being the best) had served Harry well in many areas of his life. It had helped him achieve many goals in his life, particularly in his career before trading. What he was beginning to recognize was that it did not serve him well as a trader though. What is different about trading? Peak Performance and States of Arousal In this discussion we are focusing on the component of an emotion called arousal. Arousal is preparation for action that happens in your body as an emotion prepares us for action. Powerful levels of adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into Harry’s body as he becomes excited by the trade. That excitement, as the arousal increases, becomes fixated on the object of pursuit – bringing down the home run trade. This is called a high arousal and is a great component to some peak performance states of mind – particularly ones that more physical exertion and less cognitive functioning. Foot ball would be a good example of where peak performance demands high levels of arousal and reliance on instinct that has been trained into the athlete. A peak performance trading state of mind requires low arousal. Impartiality, discernment, dispassion, and calm states of mind are the emotional components sought after for trading success. This is because cognitive functioning is what is necessary for trading peak performance, rather than physical exertion. The moment that high arousal states become apparent in trading, the trading has lost his capacity to take a step back emotionally and think impartially. You can be passionate about trading, but you cannot be passionate while trading. Managing Arousal Until a trader learns how to manage their emotional arousal levels, trying to use the mind to manage emotions often creates more (not less) stress and fixation. As an example imagine a chocoholic attempting to talk themselves out of wanting the warm fudge just coming out of the aromatic oven. The more you try to talk yourself out of the fixation, the more you want the chocolate. The arousal has already kicked started the desire to acquire. Fortunately our breathing is both automatic and volitional – this is key to emotional regulation. If let on automatic, your breathing style will accelerate the arousal of an emotion as it triggers. In Harry’s case, his fear of missing out lead to the arousal of pursuit based on greed. He both held his breath and he then would breathe rapidly and shallowly. This excited breathing style accelerated his heart to beat faster adding to the excitement. The emotion greed and its motivation to grab all the profit he could, then took over Harry’s capacity to think impartially. And out of this emotional state, his thinking became compromised which lead to his over trading. It did not have to be this way. Breathing is both automatic and volitional. With training, Harry has learned how to stay in a calm, impartial state of mind, in part, by managing the kind of breathing he does throughout a trading day. Once he understood that peak performance trading requires low arousal state of mind, he began using diaphragmatic breathing to manage his emotions while trading. He has much better control of his overtrading. He does not wait to feel arousal kick in. Instead, Harry using diaphragmatic breathing to help kept his emotions in check. The moment he senses the triggering of arousal, he volitionally uses his breathing to cut off the gasoline supply to the fire of the aroused emotion. Rather than fear of missing out, greed, or a desire to pursue hijacking his mental faculties, he now is consciously able to calm the excitatory process of the emotional brain. Having learned how to manage the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in his body by managing breathing style, he is much less reactive in the management of his trading days. Harry now maintains a calm, impartial, and disciplined state of mind from which to trade. In the process, Harry has learned how to change himself. His focus is on developing the skills and tools that allow him to trade at peak performance levels. And to let go of habitual historical practices that hinder his progress. His first step was becoming aware of the power that breathing has over emotional nature to influence states of mind. Other steps to lead to peak performance states of mind will be explained in the coming posts. Stay tuned. Rande Howell MEd, LPC
  3. “We create the possibility of our future based on the way we interpret our world. Becoming a new observer of our world opens the door to new ways of being in the world.” Between the Crosshairs of Emotion and Trading Hesitation gripped Jack’s tensed hand. He couldn’t decide when to enter this trade. His trading plan said he had really gone past the entry point he should have taken. But he had hesitated – what if he was wrong? He decided to wait and track it just a little longer – just to be safe. This was the story of his trading life – waiting on the sideline frozen by his fear of uncertainty. “If I stay on the sideline, I’ll be safe,” he consoled himself. He watched the price go higher and higher. Still he hesitated. Ex-banker that he was – he wanted to be sure. But as he hesitated on the sideline pondering this trade, Jack also began to fear he was missing out on a profitable trade – he wanted in. He felt the urgency build. “Just a little more proof”, his tentative side whispered in his ear. “Get in this trade before it’s too late!” urged another impulse, “Sitting on the sideline isn’t getting you anywhere. You’ve got to get in to win.” This internal struggle in Jack’s mind escalated. Finally, to prove he had the courage to face his fears, he jumped in. The impulse to get in on the trade finally trumped his fear of uncertainty. In a matter of moments, however, the price began to tank and hit his stop. Because of his hesitation, Jack bought beyond the higher end of his entry range. He had missed the opportunity of profit. Instead, he took a small loss. Hesitation was fatal. Why Jack Can’t Trade An emotional roller coaster ride is not what Jack imagined trading was going to be like. Before he started investing in trader training, he studied the opportunity. With his deep institutional investing experience, Jack reasoned active trading was a skill set that he could learn and develop successfully. It was going to require practice and training – he was prepared for that. What he was not prepared for, however, was the role emotions play in trading – and the need to manage them. None of this was mentioned, or he did not hear it, before he committed himself to learning how to trade. No one told him that 90% of trading was in his head – putting himself literally on the line really fired up his stress level. After investing in a solid trading system and training to develop a methodology and trading plan, he was finding that he had a difficult time sticking to and executing his trading plan. And, it was the moment that he moved from simulation trading to having his money in the game that things changed. After all, this was his money he was risking now! In this new world, he seemed to be pulled emotionally in various directions at once. Fear and self doubt collided with a child-like impulsivity that left Jack stressed out and making poor trading decisions. Jack had spent a lifetime pushing emotions away like a nuisance. Now he felt emotional chaos and did not know how to get it under control. Whether it was getting into a trade or getting out of a trade, Jack was often confounded by a mixture of self doubt fueled by his fear of uncertainty or impulsiveness egged on by his fear of missing out. Caught in the crosshairs of these two emotional positions, his winning percentage was dismal. What he knew is that if he did not get a handle on his emotional nature soon, his trading account was not going to survive his learning curve. Thinking Hijacked by Fear A trader’s emotional state determines how he will interpret the market and what he sees as possible in the market. This is because all thinking is emotional state dependent. What does this mean for the trader? Everything – because we trade our psychology. And emotion drives psychology. In the example above, Jack was being pulled in different directions by competing fears. Initially his thinking was contaminated by a fear of uncertainty that kept him tentatively on the sidelines of trading. As he sat out watching the price climb, a fear of missing out on a profitable trade fueled an impulsive entry into a trade. And with no understanding of how to manage them, he sabotaged his trading plan and himself. Without a capacity to manage his emotional states, Jack’s thinking historically fell into self doubt and caution. When he was in the corporate world, this was never a problem. He was always able to steer clear of having to deal with the messiness of having to deal with emotions. In business, there was little need for introspection and he could always hold other peoples’ behavior responsible for the way he felt. It did not work this way in trading. There was no one responsible for his trading but Jack. In taking full responsibility for his trading successes and failures, he discovered that he had developed a habit of avoiding emotional discomfort. The breakdown for Jack, and many traders, is that there is no room to avoid the fears and self doubt in trading. They had to be dealt with head on – a talent he had never developed. Its time had come. Distinguishing Biological Fear from Psychological Discomfort To help him identify and resolve issues that affected his trading performance, Jack found a trading coach. By taking responsibility for his profitability, Jack came to recognize that he could develop himself into the trader he needed to be. The first thing that he learned to do was to separate biological fear from psychological discomfort. This is critical. The brain cannot distinguish between a real threat to life and psychological distress. Jack’s biological fight-or-flight system had been triggering him to avoid risk because the body interprets all risk as a threat to life. His brain’s hardwired motivation to avoid uncertainty (biological risk) put Jack on the sideline. But risking capital is not a biological threat – it does produce psychological discomfort though. When we are faced with the trials and tribulations found in life (particularly trading), our motivation needs to shift from avoidance of the threat for short term gain (biological fear) to approaching the source of the discomfort (it is not going to kill and eat us) in an emotional state of calmness, curiosity, and impartialness. It is in these emotional states that we become capable of long term problem solving. By learning how to calm his body and mind down so that fear did not sweep his thinking into negative appraisal and catastrophic thinking, Jack was able to learn how to take biological fear (and its avoidance motivation) off line before it swept him into reactive behavior. And he was able to replace it with the confidence of a risk manager. A risk manager knows that there will be losses – but there will also be a higher ratio of gains. His job was to reasonably manage risk over a larger number of trades. He had to develop a longer term view rather than a biologically driven, emotional, and short-term knee-jerk reaction to risk. Before, Jack placed life or death significance on each and every trade. With training he was using his psychological discomfort as a reminder that he needed to trade from a calm and impartial state of mind. His ability to take a step back from his automatic fear response into a calm state of mind allowed him to develop the qualities of a successful trader. Freed from habitual triggering to fear and dread allowed him to access inner resources within himself. By cultivating these aspects of his psychology, Jack developed his inner game of trading to a new level. Creating and Managing Peak Performance States of Mind He now mentally rehearsed his trading day, rather than just allowing it to hit him with full force. He used breathing and relaxation to calm his body and mind so that accessing calmness, discipline, patience, courage, and impartialness became a possibility – he achieved emotional state management. And with a disciplined daily practice of keeping the body and mind calm and mental rehearsal of calm assertive states of mind, he was prepared for the trading day. His inner game was in the zone. Developing this part of his inner game of trading led him deeper into his ability to manage his emotions and his states of mind – and it positively impacted many other areas of his life. He had come a long way from being stuck on the sidelines by his fear of uncertainty and then impulsively entering trades out of a fear of missing out. Jack’s decision to take responsibility for his states of mind and to learn to manage them created a very different trader. As a result a very different psychology of the self was deciding when to enter and exit trades – calm, relaxed, impartial states of mind rather states of mind rooted in fear. J. Rande Howell, MEd, LPC http://www.tradersstateofmind.com
  4. A Time for Self Reflection: Why do so many traders stay stuck in painful self limiting patterns rooted in fear and self doubt? It's not like your trading account will allow you to live in comfortable denial for long. Hold this question in your mind. The trader can see that what they are currently doing is not working. They acknowledge they need to do something about their fear-based trading - "they talk the talk" - but they, for some reason, can not push themselves into "walking the walk" of actually doing something about the power fear has over their trading. What's at work here? I asked a very successful trader and teacher this question, and his reply was: "Because the trader has not suffered enough pain." What!? I asked him to go on. "It takes tremendous pain for a trader to seek help and decide to change his ways. It was the same way for me. I'd been trading for 7 years before I finally cried out "UNCLE "- I've had enough and sought help for the psychology I was bringing to the trading room - I had blown out several large trading accounts, had declared personal bankruptcy, and was staring at my family starting to fall apart. That is what did it for me." "Until then, I had way too much pride to admit that I was the problem - not something outside of me. It just wasn't me I was destroying - it was my family. That was rock bottom for me. I couldn't allow that - the pain was just too great. Finally, I knew I had to do something. Avoiding my pain wasn't worth it anymore. It was just a short term fix anyway. The fear kept coming back. In getting beneath the hood of my mind, I found the courage, plus the skills and tools, to face what I had spent my entire life avoiding. I know now that my fear of not measuring up created a bigger than life personna that tried to protect me from feeling my wrong-headed sense of unworthiness. " "What's crazy is why it took me so long. I was really invested in "looking good". I much prefer who I am now than the trader I used to be. Losing is not longer a statement about me anymore. Anyone who trades professionally trains themselves to emotionally think in terms of having an edge in probabilies as they approach the uncertainty of a trade. Over time they are going to have more winners than losers and the winners will be much bigger than the losers. Calm, detached, confident, and humble. Losing or winning is no longer emotionaly charged. Confronting my fears allowed me to separate fear from uncertainty. This psychological freedom is what has allowed me to develop the trader I am today. But I had to experience pain beyond my threshold before I was willing to push through my denial and face the demons roaring like a hungry lion in my mind. Once did that, I wondered why it took me so long to do something so simple." What can you learn from this trader's journey into financial success and personal growth? What I want you to notice about this trader's story is how long he stayed in the denial that continued his march into pain. I also want you to notice the enormous pain he shouldered. What was the cost of his not acting to master his fear? Hundreds of thousands of dollars for sure. But you, as a trader, know the cost of not confronting and mastering your fear is much greater that dollars alone. It is the loss of your potential as a human being that is really robbed. The tragic part is that it is not the market that robs you. It is nothing outside of you. It is your fear that robs you of the potential that trading offers. This is what keeps the unsuccessful trader locked in the comfort zone of his self limiting beliefs. How do you or how have you broken out of this biologically-wired spell fear has entranced you? Where are you at in the evolution of the trader in you? Rande Howell
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