I met a man who I will call John while out for dinner years ago. John asked me what I did for a living. My answer sparked him to tell me that his friend was retiring the following year and would have the majority of his life savings suddenly coming available. His friend, John said, would do whatever John advised him to do with the money. He asked me about our performance and was pleased with the track record. He asked what our minimum investment was and said maybe he’d like to “start with that” so he could “see how I did.” I asked John what he’d do with the rest of it and he said, “I’m going to trade that myself.” John had no experience trading besides a “play account” he kept at a discount broker that he traded “ever so often,” and as he put it, “had had very mixed results with.”
I must pause for a second to state that as Chief Investment Officer, I think about investment returns a lot, while our team of Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) professionals thinks a lot more about individual client circumstances and how investments impact those clients’ decisions. Both roles are important, though admittedly the role of a CFP® professional matters to you much more on a day-to-day basis. I say this to point out that John was focused exclusively on returns, which is a lot like focusing on what car to buy (investment returns) without considering what kind of terrain you’re going to be driving on (planning).
I know what you’re thinking… On the one hand, John thought he needed to see how an advisor who can show years of actual and uninterrupted performance numbers “does.” Yet on the other hand, he trusted someone (himself) with no track record, experience, or training to use the rest of his friend’s life savings as an experiment. This isn’t sound logic, to put it gently. But alas, the conversation turned to football, and now so does this post.
Take it from a guy whose football career at Brown University was ended prematurely thanks to a severe concussion: big hits can’t only be game-changers, but career changers.
To tell this story well, I have to tell you a little about a portion of my career. I made my name as a defensive end by setting a couple of Alabama high school state records for quarterback sacks in a season and in a career, coming close to breaking a couple of state records for tackles, and being named 1st Team All-State two consecutive years. A Senior Team Captain, I led the #1 ranked defensive in the state of Alabama to a school record for most wins in a season.
The role of a defensive end, or “D-End,” is very important to my story, but I can’t speak of that role without first addressing the quarterback. Everyone knows the quarterback, or “the QB.” He’s usually a team hero, and successful teams almost always have a top quarterback. The QB is the head of the offense whose job it is to execute a game plan and distribute the ball to his teammates in order to score. Deservingly so, this position gets more attention than any other because no other player has as many opportunities to influence the outcome of the game.
Enter the D-End: the anti-quarterback. The job of the D-End can essentially be summed up as this: intimidate, pressure, harass and physically assault the opposing quarterback to the maximum extent allowed by the rules. Cause as much damage to the offense as possible, but most importantly, get to the QB. The D-End’s mantra is simple: cut the head off the offense and it can’t survive. One big hit on the QB can silence his fans, discourage his teammates, and “get in the QB’s head” so he can’t focus. No QB can make plays while lying on his back, thus the most coveted statistic by a D-End is therefore “the sack.” A sack is the action of tackling the QB behind the line of scrimmage on a play on which he is trying to throw a pass. Sacks keep passes from happening. If passes can’t happen, then teams must very predictably always run. The more violently you can sack the QB, the more emotional impact the play has on the game. In summary: sack him as hard and as often as possible.
Sacks are big plays that get a lot of attention because they can ruin entire game plans and cause offenses to have to dedicate more resources to stopping the player who is getting the sacks. This makes the offense more predictable. Here, begins the lesson on trading…
For the sake of my analogy, trades are like football plays. Most people concentrate on the big trade. Big trades are thrilling and fun to talk about — just like a quarterback throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass! When it comes to trading, everyone wants to be the star quarterback. The trouble is, throwing touchdowns against pros isn’t easy.
My propensity to hit the QB with remarkable brutality while making a play of great significance ensured that offenses gave me a lot of attention for emotional and tactical reasons. But my team’s defense wasn’t #1 because I made more sacks than anyone in state history. I was a role player just like every player on my team, and every role was as important as mine. A player who makes big plays is nothing without his teammates. Coming into the game, opponents said, “We know we have to stop Wilson.” They focused on what they knew — meaning my defense always knew what they weren’t focusing on. They began the game by double- or triple-teaming me, or running away from me. This not only made them predictable, but it also freed up my team’s other valuable resources. While they were afraid of me knocking out their QB, my talented teammates easily anticipated their moves, and with our freed up resources, we stopped them.
Of course, our opponents didn’t accept this state of defeat. Losing play, by little losing play, they realized it was what they didn’t plan for that was eroding their chance of victory. Losing trade, by little losing trade, they scrambled to fill the holes they had opened themselves by keying on what they knew and assuming nothing else would get in their way. In the period of maximum chaos and frustration that resulted from little losses, the thing they were most worried about could sneak in. At the worst possible time for them, I’d have the opportunity to deliver the knockout punch that would wreck their entire game, and sometimes even their season.
It’s been a long time since I planted a shoulder into anyone’s side. I turned pro in something else, and my new teammates — my partners — wear slacks instead of cleats. Don’t let that fool you though: “there is no “friendly game of stock market.” If you trade, you trade against pros — period. In addition to having natural talent, pro traders team up with other pros. They have the best equipment, coaching, facilities and preparation. They have dedicated their lives to their “sport” and put the better part of all their waking hours over the course of years toward it. Can you say the same?
Anyone deciding to trade for themselves must ask, “if trading was football, am I ready to strap it on as QB for an NFL team and have NFL D-Ends coming at me?” The irony is that after a little preparation, so many aspiring “trading QBs” think they can avoid that bone-jarring “big hit” from the D-End that ends careers or portfolios. Rookie mistake.
Suffering a hit like this causes some investors to fear investing altogether. They quit the game for a while and consequently miss opportunities for easy scores and easy wins, only to decide to enter the game again to play the harder games! On the other hand, some investors get lulled to sleep by the creampuff markets in which anyone can win, then get blindsided by a pro D-End in a hard market. Winning in all the easy games and then losing harder and more important games doesn’t make for a successful season — or retirement.
Making money is as fun as scoring touchdowns! Sure, we get to throw a fabulous touchdown pass, but most of the success is not from trying to make huge plays, but from trying to get 3-5 yards at a time. My “defense first” mentality influences my trading philosophy as Chief Investment Officer. I think about not giving up points more than I think about scoring points, yet scoring points is all part of the process. As I said before, trading is done against other traders. It’s head to head, and I’m shocked at how many aspiring traders don’t realize that. We all can’t win at once, so QBs who aren’t on my team have by default decided to line up against my team. I don’t intend that to sound mean; it’s just the game we all are forced to play if we want to have a secure and successful retirement. We are all in the game. Our choice is simply do we join a team of pros, or go against the pros all alone?
When it comes to trading, everyone doesn’t get a trophy — somebody wins and somebody loses. Undeveloped, untrained, unprepared, unequipped, inexperienced rookie trading QBs can survive in the easy games played in easy markets, and thus develop a false sense of confidence. When markets get tough, the scoring doesn’t come so easily. Then that rookie QB has to line up against a defense full of players who perform their very specialized roles very well, and a big-play D-End ready hit them in the mouth with a full head of steam. A pro trader can spot the trade of a rookie trader and take it out just like a pro D-End can spot a naive rookie QB and exploit him.
My advice is simple:
- Join a team. Understand the roles of your teammates so you know what to expect from which teammate. Expecting the wrong thing from a certain teammate will harm the outcome of the game as well as frustrate you and your team. You have a role on the team, so know your role and do it.
- Understand the game plan, philosophically. You don’t have to be able to run the offense; you just need to understand the philosophy of it.
- Understand how frequently the plan should be revisited. Too infrequently causes things to fall through the gaps. Too frequently distracts from the execution of the plan, keeps other objectives from being addressed, and wastes precious time. Have a serious talk with your advisor and ask him if you’re getting lazy or becoming overkill.
- Stay humble. What you know is never what hurts you. Always assume you have something to learn.
- Don’t ignore planning. What you plan for is not often what hurts you. So, more planning helps avoid more negatives.
- Enjoy the game. Do your job and trust your teammates to do theirs. There is life outside of investing — like enjoying a game of football!
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