Amateurs risk all to be Soros for a day

A London entrepreneur will bring the controversial day-trading phenomenon to the UK early next year. Dan Gledhill reports
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There are those who would argue that this is the worst possible time to be launching a day trading venture in the UK, but not Clive Cooke. The 41-year old from London's Fulham, who has spent the last eight years domiciled in New York, has watched the craze take hold of his adopted nation. There are now more than 60 American companies providing members of the public with the opportunity to exchange their turgid nine-to-five routine for the non-stop buzz of trading on the US stock market. These aspiring dealers are thrown together in a custom-built trading floor, given a desk, telephone and computer screens and let loose to compete with the likes of George Soros in the jungle of the financial markets.

Alas, rather than emulating the great Hungarian speculator, many American day traders have had more in common with the ill-fated Nick Leeson. A survey commissioned by a US watchdog last week revealed that 70 per cent of day traders lose money. It identified one office in Massachusetts where all but one of the 68 resident dealers were in the red. Rogue firms who oblige their customers to execute hundreds of trades a day, running up huge transaction charges in the process, were singled out for particular criticism.

Whether they make money or not, day traders are nothing if not hard workers. While millions of investors on both sides of the Atlantic have made stock market fortunes simply by watching their investments appreciate, day traders are constantly buying and selling shares to profit from the small variations in price that long-term investors can comfortably ignore. Only adrenalin junkies need apply.

The Atlanta killing spree last month, which left nine people dead, provided an extreme example of the effect of the job's unique pressures. The perpetrator, Mark Barton, was a day trader whose failure had left him owing thousands of dollars to a couple of firms. All of a sudden, the world's media could not learn enough about a profession that had supposedly spawned a mass murderer.

So it is not, on the face of it, the best time to be bringing the concept to these shores. Mr Cooke disagrees. Fresh from two interviews with the BBC, he has indeed been thrust into the media spotlight by the disclosure of his plans. But not even the revelation that his partner in the venture, Momentum Securities, had links with Barton has curbed his optimism.

"I think that only those in the financial market place would have taken note of this had it not been for the tragedy in Atlanta," he says. "It is quite extraordinary how this was picked up on and clearly it is not just because of what is going on in the markets."

By the first half of next year, Mr Cooke is hoping to open a dealing room in the City where an initial quota of 25 punters will be equipped to make a living from buying and selling US stocks. Unlike most of the dealers employed by Square Mile banks, who usually keep about 10 per cent of the money they make, any profits will be theirs to keep. The inevitable downside is the absence of a multi-billion-pound employer to make good any losses that might accrue.

No doubt Mr Cooke realises that it is those who "drop a million" who will attract the headlines, rather than the ones who generate a steady income. Day trading is not the instant gold mine portrayed in some quarters. Certain unscrupulous American operators have exploited the misfortune of their unsuccessful traders by offering them easy credit, a sure-fire way to multiply their losses. Encouraging novices to execute unnecessary trades just to boost an operator's revenue is another way of milking unsuspecting losers for all they are worth before they go bust.

Mr Cooke, however, recognises that for his venture to be profitable and reputable, the bulk of the traders will have to make money.

"There are a lot of trading companies in America where inexperienced people have been involved," he says. "We want to bring in professional people, preferably those who have traded before. They will be vetted heavily, and those who do not understand the risks will be told they aren't suitable."

Mr Cooke takes issue with the portrait of the industry in the watchdog's recent survey, pointing out that its conclusions were based on one operator. Nevertheless, he recognises the need for an image overhaul.

"The regulatory environment will get stricter in the US," he said. "It is important not to have a cloud hanging over the industry."

Since the Financial Services Authority gave it the go-ahead earlier this year, City-based InvestIN Securities has been offering the technology for the public to deal from home.

"We are a regulated company," says Stephen Coles, InvestIN's finance director. "We look at the suitability of our traders and if they've traded before, we want to see some proof. They need to deposit a minimum of pounds 20,000 and some have pounds 50,000 with us."

Like Mr Cooke's prototype venture, InvestIN's customers deal in US stocks. The obligation to pay stamp duty on each purchase means that trading on the UK stock market in this way could never be profitable.

But it is Mr Cooke's venture that will create the first dealing room set aside for independent traders to gamble their own money on the stock market. Although his guinea pigs are likely to be drawn from the hundreds of traders displaced by last year's round of City job cuts, dedicated laymen with the right attitude and deep pockets could also get a chance.

One thing they may reflect on, however, is that even traders of the stature of Mr Soros and Julian Robertson of Tiger Management, the mighty hedge fund, have struggled to make money this year.

If these lords of the jungle can lose their way, it would be wise for the tyro explorers to tread carefully.