So kiddo, you fancy your chances as a trader? Maybe you’re a fresh faced grad with an analytical mind, straight out of your PhD in Astrophysics? Perhaps you’re a mathematically inclined accountant who trades CFD’s in her spare time or places the odd spread bet on the FTSE 100?
Almost every week the Evening Standard runs a story about how a group of traders just dropped 50k on bottles of champagne in the latest top Mayfair club, fresh from a bonus bonanza. Perhaps they sorted sub-prime securities at just the right moment, or invented the credit derivative. Or maybe they were just lucky – a rising tide lifts all boats after all. And quantitative easing has given the average trader a lot of cheap liquidity to play with.
After all, it seems so easy. Once you’ve seen one trading floor (capacity anywhere up to 1,000 people) and realised that each of the top 20 banks have at least one (the norm is to have two separate Equities and Fixed Income floors), you’ve done the arithmetic and realised that a lot of people are trading every day in the City and in top hedge funds. The odds at getting a foot in the door can’t be that bad can they?
Well just remember that every trade has two sides. When Nick Leeson blew up Barings, the trader on the other side of the trade, Eric Mindich, was Goldman’s youngest ever partner at the time, and has since set up his own hedge fund, Eton Park. He also pioneered merger arbitrage (if you need to look that one up you’re probably further away from a successful career in trading than most of the others reading this piece, which is already pretty far). Take an honest look in the mirror – which of the two do you imagine yourself closest to?
Here are just of the few skills you’ll need to be an even mediocre trader:
Quick-thinking – you’ll need to be able to make lighting fast decisions, under a lot of pressure, in the middle of a loud, angry trading floor. And if markets are choppy and you just lost half of your year to date P&L in your previous three trades, can you keep a cool head and trade yourself out of that without blowing up?
Managing conflicting (and very sociopathic) personalities; when the head of Pan-European sales calls you into a corner office and balls you out for shorting the stock he’s been pumping to all his clients, what will you do? Add to that the fact that you know he can ruin your career, so influential is he in the bank. And that he’s an ex-triathlete (alpha types tend to do well in banks), two metres tall with halitosis, a mean squint and a bulging vein running down his forehead.
Getting up early. It might sound flippant or easy to do but can you really roll out of bed every day at 5.30AM? if you’ve ever travelled to work on the tube at that time you’ll know how unnatural it feels, surrounded by others who have to get up at the same ungodly hour (McDonalds burger flippers, nurses, TFL employees..). And if it’s Thursday and your brokers have taken you out the night before and you got in at 3.30AM, do you think your boss will care when you can’t see your trading screens during the morning call three hours later? Hell no.
Clearly there’s a lot more to being a successful trader than the above, but you can have those three for starters. Now call me in two years and tell me if you’re back to auditing Plc’s, or you’ve retired to the Hamptons.
The author is a trader who takes exception to the assumption that his life is easy.