Day Trading Futures: Risk Averse need not Apply

Risk in Day Trading FuturesTraders are often lured to into the futures markets with a fascination for day trading. 

The thought of buying and selling leveraged contracts without overnight risk is appealing to many, but underestimated by most.  As a retail commodity broker, I have had the pleasure, and the pain, of watching futures day traders attempt to profit through strategies ranging from scalping, to "position" intra-day trading, which spans several hours.  

My observations of the futures markets have led me to the conclusion that day trading is perhaps one of the most difficult strategies to successfully employ.  However, for those that have the perseverance to dedicate themselves to the practice, contain the natural ability to eliminate emotions, and have enough experience under their belt, day trading in the futures market might be one of the most potentially lucrative forms of commodity market speculation. 

The term day trading can be used to describe an unlimited number of futures trading strategies and approaches that involve buying and selling a commodity contract in the same trading session.   Many are system based, meaning that trading signals are executed according to specific technical analysis set ups; others incorporate a trader's instinct.  The approach that you take in the futures markets should be dependent on your personality and risk tolerances; not necessarily what has worked for somebody else.  Let's face it; there are only about twenty to thirty commonly used technical oscillators available in most trading platforms.  If there were absolute magic to any of them more people would have discovered the Holy Grail to futures trading.  Rather than expecting a technical indicator or a computer generated oscillator to do the work for you, I believe it to be more productive to properly educate yourself to the risks and the rewards of the commodity markets.  This includes the less technical, and thus less talked about, aspects of day trading.  

Futures Day Trading is Mental

I believe that becoming a successful day trader in the futures markets come down to instinct and the ability to control emotion.  If you have ever been involved in athletics, you have probably heard the adage that performance is 95% mental and only 5% physical.  I have found this to be true in trading as well, although instead of being physical trading is technical.  Quite simply, it isn't which technical analysis oscillators and indicators you use, it is how you use them.  Perhaps more importantly, how you deal with fear and greed that comes with risk exposure in the commodity markets as you are charting your futures trades.  Here are a few day trading tips that may aid in the mental preparation.


 

Know the Futures Market Volatility and Accept the Consequences

You often hear futures traders talk about their need for volatility.   It is a common perception among the trading community that higher volatility is equivalent to higher opportunity, and therefore profit potential.  Call me a "girl", but I happen to be a contrarian when it comes to this point of view.  Sure, if the markets are moving there is an increased chance for you to catch a large move and make history in your trading account.   However, there is another side to the story; let's not forget that if the market goes against your futures trade you could be put in an agonizing position.  Also, if you are a trader that insists on using stop loss orders, increased levels of futures market volatility translates into amplified odds of being stopped out prematurely. 

I am not suggesting that you avoid the futures markets during times of explosive trade; however, you must fully understand the consequences and be willing to accept the inflated risk of trading accordingly. 

In my opinion, the most convenient way of measuring commodity market volatility is through the use of Bollinger Bands.  The bands allow a trader to visualize the explosion and contraction of market volatility with similar movements in the bands.  Simply put, as the Bollinger bands get wider, the volatility and market risk is also on the rise.  Conversely, tighter Bollinger bands suggest relatively lower levels of volatility.  Please note that I didn't say lower levels of day trading risk; this was intentional. 

emini S&P 500 volatility

Figure 1: E-mini S&P 500 Futures - Traders can visualize futures market volatility through the use of Bollinger Bands.  It is a good idea to do so on a daily chart to get the big picture of market volatility. 

Narrow bands indicate that futures market volatility is relatively low, but if the contraction is excessive enough it may signal an extraordinary spike in price is imminent.  Markets go through times of quiet trade, but such times are often followed by large and sudden increases in instability.  As you can imagine, being in the futures market at such times could be similar to winning the lottery or they could mean financial peril.  Before executing a futures day trade in a fast moving market, or one that is trading quietly, you must be aware of market tendencies to properly assess the risk of initiating a futures day trade.  Being conscious of all of the potential outcomes of your futures day trade may prevent panic liquidation or the infamous deer in the headlights failure to act. 

Commodity Trader's Tool Box

Technology has provided traders with an abundance of readily available information at their fingertips.   Accordingly, I strongly believe that traders should properly understand and utilize the resources available to them.  It doesn't make sense to pick a single indicator or oscillator and expect it to tell you the whole story; instead it should be viewed as a piece to the puzzle.  With that said, it can often be counterproductive to bog yourself down with too much information or guidance; this is often referred to as analysis paralysis. 

In my opinion, it is a good idea to pick three or four tools that fit your needs and personality.  For example, if you are an aggressive trader with a high tolerance for risk you may opt for a quick oscillator such as the Fast Stochastics.  If you are a slower paced individual, the MACD may better suit your needs as it is a much slower moving indication of trend reversals. 

It is important to note that after you have entered a trade you shouldn't change the oscillator that you are watching simply because the original isn't telling you what you want to hear, or in this case see.  This can be a tempting practice for traders that are caught in an adversely moving market and are in search of a reason to stay in the trade for fear of taking a loss. 


 

Mental "Stop Loss"

As you are probably aware, a stop order (AKA stop loss) is an order requesting to be filled at the market should the named price be hit. A trader long a futures contract may place and stop order below the futures price to mitigate the risk of an adverse price move.  Likewise a trader holding a short futures position may place a buy stop above the current market price as a risk management tool against a possible rally.  Once executed, the trader would be flat the market at or near the named price. 

Most traders or trading mentors will tell you that you should always use stops; I am not most.  I argue that experienced and disciplined traders may be better off without the use of live stop orders and believe that mental stops may be a better alternative.  Supporting my assumption is the theory that  the dollar amount of the risk on any given trade is conceivably higher through the use of mental stops as opposed to actual working stop orders but the risk in the long rung may be less through the reduction of untimely exits.

The concept of a mental stop is simply picking out a price level at which it is fair to say that your position may have been an incorrect speculation and manually exiting the market once your pre-determined price is hit.  Using mental stops as opposed to placing an actual stop loss order may prevent the natural ebb and flow of the market from stopping you out at what ultimately becomes premature. 

I am sure that you have all fallen victim to the stop order that was triggered to exit your trade only moments before the market reversed course and left you behind.   Not only is this a frustrating place to be, but it often has an adverse impact on trading psychology going forward.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be uncommon for inexperienced traders to behave somewhat recklessly in an attempt to get their money back from the very market that took it from them.  It is easy to give in to this mentality, but doing so will almost always end negatively. 

The use of mental stops requires a considerable amount of discipline and may not be appropriate for all traders and strategies.  If you have a consistent problem controlling your emotions (we all fall victim to fear and greed at some point), stop orders are a must.  Without them you may be put into a position in which a single losing trade can wipe out weeks or months of hard work, or worse put you out of the trading business forever. 

Even those that have an adequate ability to stay calm during unfavorable market moves may find losses pile up in violent market conditions.  For example, there are times in which it is very difficult to exit a position once the named price is hit without considerable financial suffering.  If you are not mentally capable of accepting this possibility, placing outright stop orders may be a better alternative for you despite its limitations.  Remember, if successful trading is largely determined by the mental capabilities of a trader it is imperative that you know yourself well enough to steer clear of situations that may lead you to behave emotionally as opposed to rationally.   

 

emini nasdaq futures

Figure 2: Mini Russell 2000 future - Stop loss orders are a great way to minimize futures market exposure, but I believe them to be a great source of frustration as well.  If you are disciplined it may be better to work without stop loss orders.


 

Be Creative with Options on Futures

It is no secret that more retail traders lose money than not in the realm of futures and option trading.  I have observed that day traders could face even more dismal odds of success.  However, don't let this deter you from participating in the commodity markets, instead use it as your incentive to be different.  If a majority of people are day trading futures contracts unproductively, perhaps you should be interested in trading strategies that are a bit out of the norm.  

Buy Futures Options Instead of using Stop Loss Orders

During the last few days of the life of a commodity option they time value, and thus the premium, of the instrument has often eroded to affordable levels.  If this is the case, it is sometimes possible to simply purchase a call or put option as an alternative to placing a stop loss order.  This strategy can also be viable in option markets that have more frequent expiration dates; particularly the weekly options written on the stock indices and grains. Keep in mind, however, that during times of excessive volatility even options with little time to expiration can remain too expensive to make them a viable substitute for stop loss orders.  In other words, using long call and put options instead of stop loss orders to limit risk of a futures trade is only situationally beneficial.    

In essence, the purchased futures option creates a synthetic trade in which the day trade risk is limited to the amount paid for the option plus any difference in the entry price of the futures contract and the strike price of the option.   This is because the futures option will act as an insurance policy against the futures price moving above the strike price of the long call or below the strike price of a long put.  Beyond the strike price of the option, losses in the futures contract are offset with gains in the option at expiration. 

The premise of such a day trading strategy is to reduce the possibility of being prematurely stopped out of what would eventually become a profitable trade.  However, it is important to realize that using long options as a replacement for stop loss orders should only be done if the risk is affordable.  If the options are relatively expensive to purchase, the risk of loss will be too high; depending on the situation it might render this approach impractical. Keep in mind, the foundation of buying commodity options instead of placing stop orders is to limit risk of loss, not to increase it.  To reiterate, paying more for a protective futures option than you originally intended to risk on the day trade should be a red flag, and lead you to explore other alternatives.


 

Counter Trend Futures Trading

Based on observations made during my years of being a futures broker, it seems as though most day trading futures strategies are very simple; identify an intraday trend and "ride" it until it ends.  It sounds easy enough; but is it?  I will be the first to admit that day trading is not my forte.  Nevertheless, through the scrutiny of the futures trading practices of others, compliments of my profession as a futures broker, I strongly believe that intra-day trend trading is much more difficult than one would imagine. 

The problem with a futures market trend is it is only your "friend" until it ends.  By the time many trend trading methods provide confirmation to execute a futures trade, the market move has already been missed.   Psychologically, I have a difficult time buying a futures contract that has already risen considerably.  Likewise, selling a futures contract after it has already established a down-trend may simply be too late.  After all, the overall objective is to buy low and sell high.  Buying high and selling higher may work at times, but the common theory that commodity markets spend a majority of their time range-bound seems to work against intraday-trend trading in the long run. Only during times of exceptional market moves will it be possible for a futures day trader to ride a trend long enough to recoup what may have been lost on false signals and failed break-outs of the range. 

Patient day traders might find that they fare better by looking to take advantage of extreme intraday futures price moves in hopes of a temporary recovery to a more sustainable level.  Doing so may provide less profit potential and if done correctly less trading opportunities but may pose better odds of success.

Identify Extreme Futures Market Prices

Futures market prices have a tendency to overshoot realistic valuations, only to eventually come back to an equilibrium price.  Emotion plays a big factor in this phenomenon but the running of stop loss orders are also a primary driving force.  Traders often place sell stop orders under known areas of support and buy stop orders above known areas of resistance.  As you can imagine, there are often several stop loss orders placed on futures contracts with identical or similar prices.  Once these orders are triggered, a swift move in prices in the direction of the stop orders takes place but often has a difficult time sustaining itself.  Understanding that stop running can artificially move a market quicker, and in a larger magnitude, than what would have transpired without the stop orders, a trader could attempt to take advantage of the subsequent rebalancing in price. 

For example, an e-mini S&P trader may notice the market drop five handles in a very quick fashion with little fundamental news to drive the move.  This type of trade may be the result of a market that has simply triggered a batch of sell stops.  As the futures stop loss orders were filled, the buying didn't keep up with the selling and the futures price dropped accordingly.  However, if our assumption was correct and the move was based on sell stop execution, instead of fresh (legitimate) short selling, it is practical to believe that the futures market will rebound some, if not all, of the losses artificially sustained.  A futures day trader may look at this as an opportunity to buy the futures contract in an attempt to capitalize on a partial or full retracement of the drop. 

wheat futures stop running1

Figure 3 : Intraday Wheat Futures Chart - Extreme market moves followed by a retracement to an equilibrium level are common as stop loss orders are triggered creating large commodity price spikes.

Naturally, before entering a futures day trade some technical confirmation must be made.  After all, the theory that a market drop was the result of sell stop running was an assumption not a fact.  Overbought and oversold technical indicators such as Slow Stochastics, Relative Strength Index (RSI), and W%R (Williams Percent R), might be helpful in determining whether or not prices were pushed to a level extreme enough to encourage buying. 

Most of the available technical analysis oscillators were developed with the intention of identifying overbought and oversold conditions.  In their simplest forms, both overbought and oversold markets are the result of prices overshooting their equilibrium price.  

Most technical analysis indicators represent extreme prices relatively well.  Thus, traders looking to buy on dips may find them helpful, but shouldn't expect them to be fool proof by any means.  Computer generated oscillators are great tools but they aren't a guarantee.  They can tell you what the market has done, but only you will be able to translate that into what the market may do next. 


 

Conclusion

Although day trading in the futures markets is a challenge, there is likely a reason why so many active futures traders of all skill levels and sizes are attracted to the practice.  There are obvious market opportunities in intra-day trading and with enough patience, practice and fortitude you may become one of those that have achieved profitable long-term trading results.   However, there is also rationale as to why we don't all quit our jobs and day trade commodities for a living.  Despite what may be relatively conservative risk on a per trade basis and a lack of overnight event risk, day traders face substantial risk in the long-run through the possibility of several small losses.  If you aren't willing to commit yourself to the labor of futures day trading, I suggest that you consider less labor intensive strategies.