Traders Roundtable: Maximum Compounded Return Versus Fear of Drawdown
In a recent traders roundtable discussion on the subject of balancing maximum gain with risk management the question was posed how to reconcile these two issues. A few definitions for the purposes of this essay are in order.
First let’s consider maximum compounded return to be defined as a system that is traded at every viable opportunity at the maximum level of acceptable risk with profits that are rolled into the total portfolio and with maximum acceptable risk in leveraging the markets money. This definition allows us to stay within natural risk limits but operate the machine as close to the red line of sustainable performance as possible.
Now let’s consider the fear of drawdown to be defined as the natural human response to operating power tools or heavy equipment in a dangerous setting as close to the edge as possible with full recognition of the consequences implied of potentially catastrophic failure. The human mind is capable of creating shades of distinction between various perceived levels of risk and these degrees of perception vary by individual. Some people are fully physically capable of walking within 5 feet of the edge of the balcony where as others can go right up to the edge and peer over and still remain in full normal natural control of their reactions. For each person though there is a line beyond which you judge that you are in dangerous territory in that extraordinary measures of protection and care must be taken because of the increased risk.
I am certain that there is a lot of evolutionary biology involved inside our brains which had to face this exact challenge on every front in prehistoric times or more technically, in the era of evolutionary adaptation. Even the most primitive caveman was certainly capable of appreciating the pay off of killing a mammoth for the future of survival needs of the tribe. And yet that same caveman was fully aware of the danger to himself that he took by stocking the huge beast. Sharpened by fear and hunger in the visions of a plentiful tomorrow, each caveman had to reconcile distention in some fashion and the successful ones passed on their adaptations to countless generations. This manifests itself in modern times in any place where risk and reward are brought together and we asked humans to make a balanced trade-off decision.
In every significant situation, and by significant I mean where impactful money is being rest for an impactful reward, the brain is flooded with chemicals which trigger flight or fight responses and invoke millions of years of stored up collective unconsciousness which shape and color our decisions and effectiveness of implementing those decisions. Trading is no different.
My sense is that for long-term safety and survival and given a trading system that generates a significant number of opportunities that long-term survival should drive us towards finding the minimum level of risk with which to trade to meet our specific financial goals. For those whose goal is expressed as maximum compounded rate of return, I suggest they are more likely than not to push it past the red line and come crashing down.
Without an appreciation of the real cost and friction associated with long-term trading in multiple market conditions that require constant adaptation is too easy to extrapolate the results of a few successful trades into next taxation that is far from being achievable. These false expectations are more likely than not to add to the level of stress and further degrade performance. My sense is that minimum risk levels rather than maximum risk levels are appropriate place to begin your inquiry into long-term trading as a potential career.
Therefore, I strongly suggest that you start with ways to use part-time small position sizing trading and learn to supplement your current income at your current standard of living and proceed in small stages, and getting larger only when supported by the evidence of long-term performance. It’s an incremental approach, it does not generate lottery size winds, but it will keep you in the game while you’re learning and keep your feet planted firmly on the ground.