Week In The Life Melanie Powers, Day Trader Los Angeles: High- speed gambling is mother's little job

Click to follow
MELANIE POWERS has to tear herself away from her home computer screen. She has been trading hot Internet and hi-tech stocks all morning, but she also knows she has to put on the lunch. The kids will soon be home from school.

So, with positions still open on Yahoo! and Ameritrade stock, she sneaks off to the kitchen in her west Los Angeles home to chuck some pasta into a pot, leaving her assistant, Armando, to hover over the screen and alert her in case the price either jumps enough for her to sell at a quick profit, or shoots down far enough to warrant cutting her losses fast.

Melanie throws chopped tomatoes and olive oil into a pan.

"AMTD at 973/8!" shouts Armando from the study.

"How does the selling pressure look?" she shouts back, grappling with a hunk of parmesan and a cheese knife.

"It's moving down fast!" he says.

"Okay, I'm coming!"

Melanie does not panic. She has become a professional at this, and within 10 minutes she has recovered her money on Ameritrade and got the pasta made without overcooking it

THIS IS the way her life goes. Since she started full-time day trading last October, she has juggled a punishing work schedule and the pressure of gambling with tens of thousands of dollars of the family's money alongside the more mundane need to feed her two young children, ferry them about and negotiate with her husband, an acting instructor and screenwriter, for use of the family study space.

Her fortunes fluctuate from day to day, but she earns a living. This week, things were very quiet because of the Memorial Day weekend and because the market has been depressed lately. On Wednesday she decided to call a halt for a couple of hours and go shopping. When she returned the market was hopping. Several hi-tech stocks had taken off. Yahoo! had jumped 10 points after the company announced it was buying a service provider called Online Anywhere. Melanie cranked up some heavy rock music and set to work.

HER STRATEGY is to catch a stock as it starts moving up, then bail out again a few minutes later before it starts falling. It is motivated purely by short-term profit. "It's like going fishing," she says. "You cast your bait and wait for something to catch."

Most of her activity is in companies on the volatile Nasdaq index. The mathematics of volatility is what it is all about: not only does she not research the companies she trades in, in many cases she knows them only by their four-letter trading code.

Windows on her screen indicate the buying and selling pressure with green and red bars. An online chat forum helps to alert her to big news developments, and keeps her in touch with her fellow day traders. It is like a high- pressure, high-speed video game. CNBC, the market news cable channel, is blaring away behind her, and her brokers are one speed-dial button away on the phone by her terminal.

AN ESTIMATED 6.7 million American households dabble in home stock-trading, accounting for roughly one in seven of all stock trades - a phenomenon that was all but unheard of a couple of years ago. Start-up investment is needed for a powerful computer, a decent software package, a subscription to an information and chat service (she uses daytraders.com), and a few thousand dollars to flutter but otherwise it is unfettered and unregulated.

Averaging between 50 and 100 trades per day, Melanie is one of the star clients of her brokerage firm, Charles Schwab, which earns a $25 (pounds 15.60) commission every time she uses them to buy or sell.

"I'M COOL about it now, but at first I spent most of the time with my stomach in my mouth," she said. Cool means she is not bothered when, at the height of the trading day, her children beg her to come into the kitchen and serve them cornflakes. Cool means shrugging her shoulders when the family dog nudges her elbow and pushes her finger down on to the sell button before she is ready.

Most day traders do not have assistants, but Armando - her family's snowboard instructor - makes the whole thing more fun. Earlier this week, after a particularly successful morning, they poured themselves Martini cocktails and strolled nonchalantly down the street, waving at their baffled neighbours and walking off the pressures of the day.