Trading places with the market moguls
Toby Green spends his days reporting on the stock market. So how would he cut it on the other side of the screen?
Saturday 19 February 2011
I have been sitting at my trading desk for barely 15 minutes, in front of a confusing number of charts and figures, and I've already managed to make more than $400.
The life of a City trader is starting to feel quite appealing.
Rewind a few hours, and I'm in a small room in front of a PowerPoint presentation, feeling rather like I am back at university. Along with several other novices, I have come to Canary Wharf to be given a crash course in how to trade by Amplify Trading, and to find out whether I have what it takes.
Most people's perception of traders are men in pinstripe suits, barking orders down the phone while winning – and then losing – a fortune. Flash, brash and often spending a lot of cash, they may not be the most loved members of society but it is undeniably a fascinating profession.
I see the results of their decisions every day as The Independent's market reporter. Whether I can actually do their job, however, is another question entirely.
As well as being a trading firm in its own right, Amplify offers courses which it says give valuable experience and training, especially for those wanting to get onto an investment bank's graduate scheme. They can last for months, but for our highly condensed version we are getting only a day.
One of the first things we are taught by Will de Lucy, a founder of the company, is how to use the software, which seems scarily simple. All you need to do to take a position is click either the "Buy" or "Sell" button, although – to limit losses and to make sure any profits are taken – we are also taught how to set backstops, since we will be buying and selling futures contracts.
It is all so low-key that it appears to be easy to commit what is known as a "fat finger" error – an ill-placed key press that could cost thousands.
To be a good trader, Will emphasises, you must do your research. Given that we will be trading on oil as the US Department of Energy reveals its weekly crude inventories data – which always prompts a lot of activity – we need to have thought through several possible scenarios so we are able to react quickly to the numbers.
It sounds like great advice in the classroom, but as I take my seat in front of two computer screens, putting theory into practice seems rather more daunting. Still, at least the trading room itself is calmer than I expected – most of Amplify's traders work from home and log on remotely, swapping tips, rumours and sometimes inane chitchat through an instant messengerprogram.
My first trade is on the S&P 500 – one of the most widely followed stock market indices in the United States – and it is here that I enjoy my successful start, finding myself up by over $400 after a couple of (fairly) educated guesses.
Sadly it does not last for long. Instead of pausing and working out what my next step should be in a considered manner, I decide – high on confidence – to dive straight back in, an ill-judged decision that sees my early profits swiftly wiped out.
According to Piers Curran, Amplify's other founder, my impatience is not a rare trait for first-time traders. "It goes one of two ways," he says. "Either they are mad, trying to trade any movement they think is an opportunity, or you have people at the other end of the scale who are just too scared.
"The fear of losing means they freeze and they can't bring themselves to enter the market. It is rare to find someone in the middle, initially."
Although my first experience was not too promising, I decide to start trading in oil futures. This is a much more volatile and unpredictable market, which I find to my cost after losing more than $400 in a matter of minutes.
We are then told to close our positions as the countdown begins for the crude numbers from the US, and when they do come in – revealing a slightly smaller rise than expected – the market seems unsure about what to do.
Somehow, I manage to take advantage of this, first betting that the price will rise and then going the other way after I feel the peak has been reached. As a result, from being hundreds of dollars in the red, I am suddenly up $500.
Yet, once again – with the adrenaline pumping – I get carried away, and as I take my eyes off my positions for a moment, I am suddenly haemorrhaging money. I spend the rest of the session vainly trying to get my head back above water, each time seemingly choosing the wrong option at precisely the wrong time.
It is this – the psychological reaction to the stresses of trading – that Piers believes is perhaps the key factor. "More than anything, more than your academic background, trading is about your ability to manage financial risk," he says. "It is about how you are able to – in very volatile markets – remain composed, continue to analyse and make logical decisions based on what's happening in the markets."
I finish down $645, which means that once added to the cost of the trades themselves my losses total $890. It is rather disappointing, and although Will is kind about my early successes, I can't help but feel that the day has shown trading is not for me.
Yet, perhaps there is some hope. He may just be being kind, but Piers says he can't usually judge whether someone will make a good trader until quite a while into the course, although he does add that with "the best, you can tell within a couple of weeks".
However, he does warn against those who see it as a way to make money without much effort. "A lot of people would initially come to us asking when they are going to be making their first million," he says. "You have to say, 'If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, then sorry we are not the ones for you'."
So it may not be a path to easy money, but given how intense and addictive my experience was – even as the debts piled up – I can certainly see the appeal. Yet one thing that is for sure is that I should not start thinking about a change of career quite yet.
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