Working on Exit Skills

[dc]O[/dc]ne of the challenges developing traders face is learning to manage positions effectively. Think about it for a minute—how many books do you know that show patterns and setups for trade entry? Now, how many do you know that focus on position management? We probably put too much emphasis on entry techniques, when much of our edge as traders comes from the decisions we make in managing positions.

I’m going to suggest an exercise that everyone can do to work on position management, but let me first share a few thoughts. Position management means several things: limiting the risk on your initial entry, taking partial profits (and losses, if you do that, though I present a very compelling case for not booking partial losses [edit: a type said “profits” in the first version of this blog entry] in my book, The Art & Science of Technical Analysis), looking for spots to add, and getting out entirely when the edge is gone out of the trade. Especially for newer traders, this is extremely difficult because of the emotional issues involved. One solution is to spend some time focusing only on the exits.

Many professional traders work in teams. In fact, when I was at the NYMEX, Mark Fisher went so far as to say that nearly every long-term successful trader he knew, on or off the floor, worked with a partner or a team. (Ari Kiev devotes quite a bit of space in Trading to Win to the importance of teamwork.) I worked closely with another trader for a few years, and we developed a technique that worked very well for us: whichever one of us generated the entry idea and got into the trade, the other one was responsible for getting out of it. Many times, a trader is very attached to an idea by the time we actually execute the trade because a lot of analysis and thought has already gone into it. You have visualized several scenarios and possible ways the trade might play out, and it is very easy to justify overstaying your welcome, or getting stubborn in a trade. If you are only responsible for the exit, you have no emotional attachment to the trade, and can see much more clearly. It’s a lot easier to read the market and to make decisions.

Linda Raschke and Andrew Lo created a similar experience for a number of traders in Linda’s chatroom in the early 2000’s. Several times during the trading day, Linda would call out a trade. If you were participating in this study, you were obligated to take the trade, but you could manage it however you saw fit. You could even get out immediately (usually for a tick or two loss), but you had to take the trade. Many traders participating in the study were surprised to find that they were remarkably profitable on the set of trades even though many of the entries were truly random. The message is simple—exit techniques and position management skills have as much or more to do with profitability than entries.

So, how can you work on developing these skills? I would suggest something like this. Now, because you’re dealing with psychological issues, papertrading is probably not very effective. I’d recommend doing this exercise with real money and actual positions. I’m going to make a separate set of suggestions for daytraders and intermediate term traders, but you can adapt the concept to your own situation.

  • Pick one specific instrument (stock, futures contract or currency pair) that you are already familiar with and know reasonably well. Plan to trade it on smaller size than you usually would. If you trade an equal-risk position sizing plan (more on this later), perhaps do this exercise on 10% of your usual 1X risk. If you are the kind of trader who usually trades a fixed size, perhaps trade 10% – 20% of that size on each trade. You do not want to nervous doing this, but you do want to experience the emotions involves with having real risk in the market.
  • It probably makes sense to be aware of reports that could have a major impact on the instrument you’re trading and avoid them. Know your market.
  • There are two parts to generating the random entries: a trigger for whether or not you take a trade at all, and a decision whether to go long or short. If you are a daytrader, perhaps check for a possibly entry every hour. If you are a position trader, check every day.
    • You can decide how often you want to trade, on average, and then rig a system that will generate that trade frequency. For instance, let’s say you’re a daytrader who wants to check every hour the stock market is open, and you want to take, on average, two trades a day. In this case, you need something that gives you an entry 1/3 of the time, so perhaps roll a six-sided die and take an entry if it’s a 1 or a 2. If you have basic programming or Excel skills, it’s pretty easy to do something with a random number generator instead of rolling physical die.
    • For the long/short decision, either bake that into your first filter (for instance, the guy rolling the six-sided die could go long on a 1 and short on a 2), or flip a coin after you have the yes/no on the entry.
  • The only other rule is you must take the trade indicated immediately and without question. Don’t think, and don’t hesitate. If you want to get out right away, still do the entry and immediately execute the exit. Otherwise, manage the trade appropriately.

This is a worthwhile exercise, and it might be a good idea to budget a certain amount of risk to it over a period of a few weeks to months. Remember, the whole point of this exercise is to remove any emotion associated with the entry or trade idea. How can you be attached to a trade you generated through a flip of a coin or a roll of a die? Exactly, you cannot, so now you can focus all of your attention on trade management and learning to respond to the message of the market as patterns unfold.


Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Markus

    I have split my trading in 2 parts: rules based but disecretionary entry and purely mechanical trade mgmt. My stats showed me that this way I am much more profitable and the reasons for it might have been described in your blog post. Perhaps this would also be a worhwile experiment: test a mechanical exit strategy with discretionary entries?

    1. Colin

      What’s mechanical trade mgmt?

  2. Aaron Liu

    this sir, would be my favorite post of all times.

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