This post contains a curated list of lessons from Reminiscences of a Stock Operator using passages from the original source. For more information on the book, please read my post Why You Should Read Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. If you do not want to read the roughly 250 page book, however, I have condensed the book into a curated collection of passages from the source material. Emphasis was on selecting passages from the book relevant to today’s traders, investors, and speculators.
The following is a list of curated themes or lessons from the book. Clicking on any of them will link to a curated selection of passages.
- Test your intuition and ideas by seeing how market prices react.
- Historical examples, case studies, and cycles are relevant to understanding today’s events and the range of future outcomes. Remember historical precedents. Human nature does not change.
- Identify your mistakes as and use them as opportunities to improve. Be a student of the markets.
- Cultivate your own views, trust your instincts, and do not listen to tips.
- Trade execution and market microstructure matter.
- Having a view on one particular security necessarily involves having a view on overall market conditions.
- Focus on capturing the main movements in a stock rather than the short-term fluctuations.
- Avoid trying to time the precise moment of market tops and bottoms.
- Stocks that cross a round figure tend to continue trending in that direction and can be bought once they cross that particular figure.
- Determine the line of least resistance of a stock by analyzing historical movements and trading ranges. Do not try to anticipate what the next big movement will be until the line of least resistance is identified.
- Exiting a large position in an illiquid security is difficult, and you can only exit the position easily when the market can absorb your full position.
- Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit.
- Observation, experience, memory and mathematics these are what the successful trader must depend on.
- When entering a position, the way the market behaves is an excellent guide for an operator to follow.
Below you will find the curated selection of passages that expand on each lesson.
1. Test your intuition and ideas by seeing how market prices react.
I noticed that in advances as well as declines, stock prices were apt to show certain habits, so to speak. There was no end of parallel cases and these made precedents to guide me. I was only fourteen, but after I had taken hundreds of observations in my mind I found myself testing their accuracy, comparing the behavior of stocks to-day with other days. It was not long before I was anticipating movements in prices. My only guide, as I say, was their past performances. I carried the “dope sheets” in my mind. I looked for stock prices to run on form. I had “clocked” them. You know what I mean. You can spot, for instance, where the buying is only a trifle better than the selling. A battle goes on in the stock market and the tape is your telescope. You can depend upon it
seven out of ten cases.
2. Historical examples, case studies, and cycles are relevant to understanding today’s events and the range of future outcomes. Remember historical precedents. Human nature does not change.
Another lesson I learned early is that there is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market to-day has happened before and will happen again. I’ve never forgotten that. I suppose I really manage to remember when and how it happened. The fact that I remember that way is my way of capitalizing experience.
That is, the stockmarket winnings during 1915 were more widely distributed than in any other boom in the history of Wall Street. That the public did not turn all their paper profits into good hard cash or that they did not long keep what profits they actually took was merely history repeating itself. Nowhere does history indulge in repetitions so often or so uniformly as in Wall Street. When you read contemporary accounts of booms or panics the one thing that strikes you most forcibly is how little either stock speculation or stock speculators to-day differ from yesterday. The game does not change and neither does human nature.
I am profoundly interested in all phases of my business, and of course I learn from the experience of others as well as from my own. But it is very difficult to learn how to manipulate stocks to-day from such yarns as are told of an afternoon in the brokers’ offices after the close. Most of the tricks, devices and expedients of bygone days are obsolete and futile; or illegal and impracticable. Stock Exchange rules and conditions have changed, and the story even the accurately detailed story of what Daniel Drew or Jacob Little or Jay Gould could do fifty or seventy-five years ago is scarcely worth listening to. The manipulator to-day has no more need to consider what they did and how they did it than a cadet at West Point need study archery as practiced by the ancients in order to increase his working knowledge of ballistics.
On the other hand there is profit in studying the human factors the ease with which human beings believe what it pleases them to believe; and how they allow themselves – indeed, urge themselves -to be influenced by their cupidity or by the dollar-cost of the average man’s carelessness. Fear and hope remain the same; therefore the study of the psychology of speculators is as valuable as it ever was. Weapons change, but strategy remains strategy, on the New York Stock Exchange as on the battlefield. I think the clearest summing up of the whole thing was expressed by Thomas F. Woodlock when he declared: “The principles of successful stock speculation are based on the supposition that people will continue in the future to make the mistakes that they have made in the past.”
3. Identify your mistakes as and use them as opportunities to improve. Be a student of the markets.
Well, it wasn’t six months before I was broke. I was a pretty active trader and had a sort of reputation as a winner. I guess my commissions amounted to something. I ran up my account quite a little, but, of course, in the end I lost. I played carefully; but I had to lose. I’ll tell you the reason: it was my remarkable success in the bucket shops! I could beat the game my way only in a bucket shop; where I was betting on fluctuations. My tape reading had to do with that exclusively. When I bought the price was there on the quotation board, right in front of me. Even before I bought I knew exactly the price I’d have to pay for my stock. And I always could sell on the instant. I could scalp successfully, because I could move like lightning. I could follow up my luck or cut my loss in a second. Sometimes, for instance, I was certain a stock would move at least a point. Well, I didn’t have to hog it, I could put up a point margin and double my money in a jiffy; or I’d take half a point. On one or two hundred shares a day, that wouldn’t be bad at the end of the month, what? The practical trouble with that arrangement, of course, was that even if the bucket shop had the resources to stand a big steady loss, they wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t have a customer around the place who had the bad taste to win all the time.
At all events, what was a perfect system for trading in bucket shops didn’t work in Fullerton’s office. There I was actually buying and selling stocks. The price of Sugar on the tape might be 105 and I could see a three-point drop coming. As a matter of fact, at the very moment the ticker was printing 105 on the tape the real price on the floor of the Exchange might be 104 or 103. By the time my order to sell a thousand shares got to Fullerton’s floor man to execute, the price might be still lower. I couldn’t tell at what price I had put out my thousand shares until I got a report from the clerk. When I surely would have made three thousand on the same transaction in a bucket shop I might not make a cent in a Stock Exchange house. Of course, I have taken an extreme case, but the fact remains that in A. R. Fullerton’s office the tape always talked ancient history to me, as far as my system of trading went, and I didn’t realise it.
That is how I came back to Wall Street for a third attempt. I had been studying, of course, trying to locate the exact trouble with my system that had been responsible for my defeats in A. R. Fullerton & Co.’s office. I was twenty when I made my first ten thousand, and I lost that. But I knew how and why because I traded out of season all the time; because when I couldn’t play according to my system, which was based on study and experience, I went in and gambled. I hoped to win, instead of knowing that I ought to win on form. When I was about twenty-two I ran up my stake to fifty thousand dollars; I lost it on May ninth. But I knew exactly why and how. It was the laggard tape and the unprecedented violence of the movements that awful day. But I didn’t know why I had lost after my return from St. Louis or after the May ninth panic. I had theories that is, remedies for some of the faults that I thought I found in my play. But I needed actual practice. There is nothing like losing all you have in the world for teaching you what not to do. And when you know what not to do in order not to lose money, you begin to learn what to do in order to win. Did you get that? You begin to learn!
I had to go further back than an hour in my studies of the market which was something I
never would have learned to do in the biggest bucket shop in the world. I interested
myself in trade reports and railroad earnings and financial and commercial statistics. Of
course I loved to trade heavily and they called me the Boy Plunger; but I also liked to
study the moves. I never thought that anything was irksome if it helped me to trade more
intelligently. Before I can solve a problem I must state it to myself. When I think I have
found the solution I must prove I am right. I know of only one way to prove it; and that
is, with my own money.
The recognition of our own mistakes should not benefit us any more than the study of our successes. But there is a natural tendency in all men to avoid punishment. When you associate certain mistakes with a licking, you do not hanker for a second dose, and, of course, all stock-market mistakes wound you in two tender spots your pocketbook and your vanity. But I will tell you something curious : A stock speculator sometimes makes mistakes and knows that he is making them. And after he makes them he will ask himself why he made them; and after thinking over it cold-bloodedly a long time after the pain of punishment is over he may learn how he came to make them, and when, and at what particular point of his trade ; but not why. And then he simply calls himself names and lets it go at that.
Of course, if a man is both wise and lucky, he will not make the same mistake twice. But he will make any one of the ten thousand brothers or cousins of the original. The Mistake family is so large that there is always one of them around when you want to see what you can do in the fool-play line.
4. Cultivate your own views, trust your instincts, and do not listen to tips.
A man must believe in himself and his judgment if he expects to make a living at this game. That is why I don’t believe in tips. If I buy stocks on Smith’s tip I must sell those same stocks on Smith’s tip. I am depending on him. Suppose Smith is away on a holiday when the selling time comes around? No, sir, nobody can make big money on what someone else tells him to do. I know from experience that nobody can give me a tip or a series of tips that will make more money for me than my own judgment. It took me five years to learn to play the game intelligently enough to make big money when I was right.
5. Trade execution and market microstructure matter.
The market fairly boiled, as I had expected. The transactions were enormous and the fluctuations unprecedented in extent. I put in a lot of selling orders at the market. When I saw the opening prices I had a fit, the breaks were so awful. My brokers were on the job. They were as competent and conscientious as any; but by the time they executed my orders the stocks had broken twenty points more. The tape was way behind the market and reports were slow in coming in by reason of the awful rush of business. When I found out that the stocks I had ordered sold when the tape said the price was, say, 100 and they got mine off at 80, making a total decline of thirty or forty points from the previous night’s close, it seemed to me that I was putting out shorts at a level that made the stocks I sold the very bargains I had planned to buy. The market was not going to drop right through to China. So I decided instantly to cover my shorts and go long. My brokers bought; not at the level that had made me turn, but at the prices prevailing in the Stock Exchange when their floor man got my orders. They paid an average of fifteen points more than I had figured on. A loss of thirty-five points in one day was more than anybody could stand.
The ticker beat me by lagging so far behind the market. I was accustomed to regarding the tape as the best little friend I had because I bet according to what it told me. But this time the tape double-crossed me. The divergence between the printed and the actual prices undid me. It was the sublimation of my previous unsuccess, the selfsame thing that had beaten me before. It seems so obvious now that tape reading is not enough, irrespective of the brokers’ execution, that I wonder why I didn’t then see both my trouble and the remedy for it.
One day I was in a hotel lobby, talking to some fellows I knew, who were pretty steady traders. Everybody was talking stock market. I made the remark that nobody could beat the game on account of the rotten execution he got from his brokers, especially when he traded at the market, as I did.
A fellow piped up and asked me what particular brokers I meant. I said, “The best in the land,” and he asked who might they be. I could see he wasn’t going to believe I ever dealt with first-class houses. But I said, “I mean, any member of the New York Stock Exchange. It isn’t that they are crooked or careless, but when a man gives an order to buy at the market he never knows what that stock is going to cost him until he gets a report from the brokers. There are more moves of one or two points than of ten or fifteen. But the outside trader can’t catch the small rises or drops because of the execution. I’d rather trade in a bucket shop any day in the week, if they’d only let a fellow trade big.”
Well, I made up my mind that I couldn’t afford to have the normal rate of increase of my stake impaired by crooks’ tricks, so I decided to teach them a lesson. I picked out some stock that after having been a speculative favorite had become inactive. Water-logged. If I had taken one that never had been active they would have suspected my play. I gave out buying orders on this stock to my five bucketeering brokers. When the orders were taken and they were waiting for the next quotation to come out on the tape I sent in an order through my Stock Exchange house to sell a hundred shares of that particular stock at the market. I urgently asked for quick action. Well, you can imagine what happened when the selling order got to the floor of the Exchange; a dull inactive stock that a commission house with out-of-town connections wanted to sell in a hurry. Somebody got cheap stock. But the transaction as it would be printed on the tape was the price that I would pay on my five buying orders. I was long on balance four hundred shares of that stock at a low figure. The wire house asked me what I’d heard, and I said I had a tip on it. Just before the close of the market I sent an order to my reputable house to buy back that hundred shares, and not waste any time; that I didn’t want to be short under any circumstances; and I didn’t care what they paid. So they wired to New York and the order to buy that hundred quick resulted in a sharp advance. I of course had put in selling orders for the five hundred shares that my friends had bucketed. It worked very satisfactorily.
6. Having a view on one particular security necessarily involves having a view on overall market conditions.
The average ticker hound or, as they used to call him, tape-worm goes wrong, I suspect, as much from over-specialization as from anything else. It means a highly expensive inelasticity. After all, the game of speculation isn’t all mathematics or set rules, however rigid the main laws may be. Even in my tape reading something enters that is more than mere arithmetic. There is what I call the behavior of a stock, actions that enable you to judge whether or not it is going to proceed in accordance with the precedents that your observation has noted. If a stock doesn’t act right don’t touch it; because, being unable to tell precisely what is wrong, you cannot tell which way it is going. No diagnosis, no prognosis. No prognosis, no profit.
It is a very old thing, this of noting the behavior of a stock and studying its past performances. When I first came to New York there was a broker’s office where a Frenchman used to talk about his chart. At first I thought he was a sort of pet freak kept by the firm because they were good-natured. Then I learned that he was a persuasive and most impressive talker. He said that the only thing that didn’t lie because it simply couldn’t was mathematics. By means of his curves he could forecast market movements. Also he could analyse them, and tell, for instance, why Keene did the right thing in his famous Atchison preferred bull manipulation, and later why he went wrong in his Southern Pacific pool. At various times one or another of the professional traders tried the Frenchman’s system and then went back to their old unscientific methods of making a living. Their hit-or-miss system was cheaper, they said. I heard that the Frenchman said Keene admitted that the chart was 100 per cent right but claimed that the method was too slow for practical use in an active market. Then there was one office where a chart of the daily movement of prices was kept. It showed at a glance just what each stock had done for months. By comparing individual curves with the general market curve and keeping in mind certain rules the customers could tell whether the stock on which they got an unscientific tip to buy was fairly entitled to a rise. They used the chart as a sort of complementary tipster. To-day there are scores of commission houses where you find trading charts. They come ready-made from the offices of statistical experts and include not only stocks but commodities.
“I should say that a chart helps those who can read it or rather who can assimilate what they read. The average chart reader, however, is apt to become obsessed with the notion that the dips and peaks and primary and secondary movements are all there is to stock speculation. If he pushes his confidence to its logical limit he is bound to go broke. There is an extremely able man, a former partner of a well-known Stock Exchange house, who is really a trained mathematician. He is a graduate of a famous technical school. He devised charts based upon a very careful and minute study of the behaviour of prices in many markets stocks, bonds, grain, cotton, money, and so on. He went back years and years and traced the correlations and seasonal movements oh, everything. He used his charts in his stock trading for years. What he really did was to take advantage of some highly intelligent averaging. They tell me he won regularly until the World War knocked all precedents into a cocked hat. I heard that he and his large following lost millions before they desisted. But not even a world war can keep the stock market from being a bull market when conditions are bullish, or a bear market when conditions are bearish. And all a man needs to know to make money is to appraise conditions.
7. Focus on capturing the main movements in a stock rather than the short-term fluctuations.
I think it was a long step forward in my trading education when I realized at last that when old Mr. Partridge kept on telling the other customers, “Well, you know this is a bull market!” he really meant to tell them that the big money was not in the individual fluctuations but in the main movements that is, not in reading the tape but in sizing up the entire market and its trend.
And right here let me say one thing: After spending many years in Wall Street and after making and losing millions of dollars I want to tell you this: It never was my thinking that made the big money for me. It always was my sitting. Got that? My sitting tight! It is no trick at all to be right on the market. You always find lots of early bulls in bull markets and early bears in bear markets. I’ve known many men who were right at exactly the right time, and began buying or selling stocks when prices were at the very level which should show the greatest profit. And their experience invariably matched mine that is, they made no real money out of it. Men who can both be right and sit tight are uncommon. I found it one of the hardest things to learn. But it is only after a stock operator has firmly grasped this that he can make big money. It is literally true that millions come easier to a trader after he knows how to trade than hundreds did in the days of his ignorance.
The reason is that a man may see straight and clearly and yet become impatient or doubtful when the market takes its time about doing as he figured it must do. That is why so many men in Wall Street, who are not at all in the sucker class, not even in the third grade, nevertheless lose money. The market does not beat them. They beat themselves, because though they have brains they cannot sit tight. Old Turkey was dead right in doing and saying what he did. He had not only the courage of his convictions but the intelligent patience to sit tight.
Disregarding the big swing and trying to jump in and out was fatal to me. Nobody can catch all the fluctuations. In a bull market your game is to buy and hold until you believe that the bull market is near its end. To do this you must study general conditions and not tips or special factors affecting individual stocks. Then get out of all your stocks; get out for keeps! Wait until you see or if you prefer, until you think you see the turn of the market; the beginning of a reversal of general conditions. You have to use your brains and your vision to do this; otherwise my advice would be as idiotic as to tell you to buy cheap and sell dear. One of the most helpful things that anybody can learn is to give up trying to catch the last eighth or the first. These two are the most expensive eighths in the world. They have cost stock traders, in the aggregate, enough millions of dollars to build a concrete highway across the continent.
Another thing I noticed in studying my plays in Fullerton’s office after I began to trade less unintelligently was that my initial operations seldom showed me a loss. That naturally made me decide to start big. It gave me confidence in my own judgment before I allowed it to be vitiated by the advice of others or even by my own impatience at times. Without faith in his own judgment no man can go very far in this game. That is about all I have learned to study general conditions, to take a position and stick to it. I can wait without a twinge of impatience. I can see a setback without being shaken, knowing that it is only temporary. I have been short one hundred thousand shares and I have seen a big rally coming. I have figured and figured correctly that such a rally as I felt was inevitable, and even wholesome, would make a difference of one million dollars in my paper profits. And I nevertheless have stood pat and seen half my paper profit wiped out, without once considering the advisability of covering my shorts to put them out again on the rally. I knew that if I did I might lose my position and with it the certainty of a big killing. It is the big swing that makes the big money for you.
If I learned all this so slowly it was because I learned by my mistakes, and some time always elapses between making a mistake and realizing it, and more time between realizing it and exactly determining it. But at the same time I was faring pretty comfortably and was very young, so that I made up in other ways. Most of my winnings were still made in part through my tape reading because the kind of markets we were having lent themselves fairly well to my method. I was not losing either as often or as irritatingly as in the beginning of my New York experiences. It wasn’t anything to be proud of, when you think that I had been broke three times in less than two years. And as I told you, being broke is a very efficient educational agency.
I never hesitate to tell a man that I am bullish or bearish. But I do not tell people to buy or sell any particular stock. In a bear market all stocks go down and in a bull market they go up. I don’t mean of course that in a bear market caused by a war, ammunition shares do not go up. I speak in a general sense. But the average man doesn’t wish to be told that it is a bull or a bear market. What he desires is to be told specifically which particular stock to buy or sell. He wants to get something for nothing. He does not wish to work. He doesn’t even wish to have to think. It is too much bother to have to count the money that he picks up from the ground.
Well, I wasn’t that lazy, but I found it easier to think of individual stocks than of the general market and therefore of individual fluctuations rather than of general movements. I had to change and I did.
Tape reading was an important part of the game; so was beginning at the right time; so was sticking to your position. But my greatest discovery was that a man must study general conditions, to size them so as to be able to anticipate probabilities. In short, I had learned that I had to work for my money. I was no longer betting blindly or concerned with mastering the techniques of the game, but with earning my successes by hard study and clear thinking. I also had found out that nobody was immune from the danger of making sucker plays. And for a sucker play a man gets sucker pay; for the paymaster is on the job and never loses the pay envelope that is coming to you.
8. Avoid trying to time the precise moment of market tops and bottoms.
I didn’t wait to determine whether or not the time was right for plunging on the bear side. On the one occasion when I should have invoked the aid of my tape-reading I didn’t do it. That is how I came to learn that even when one is properly bearish at the very beginning of a bear market it is well not to begin selling in bulk until there is no danger of the engine back-firing.
9. Stocks that cross a round figure tend to continue trending in that direction and can be bought once they cross that particular figure.
The first thing I saw on the quotation board was that Anaconda was on the point of crossing 300. It had been going up by leaps and bounds and there was apparently an aggressive bull party in it. It was an old trading theory of mine that when a stock crosses 100 or 200 or 300 for the first time the price does not stop at the even figure but goes a good deal higher, so that if you buy it as soon as it crosses the line it is almost certain to show you a profit. Timid people don’t like to buy a stock at a new high record. But I had the history of such movements to guide me.
10. Determine the line of least resistance of a stock by analyzing historical movements and trading ranges. Do not try to anticipate what the next big movement will be until the line of least resistance is identified.
Eventually something happens that increases the power of either the upward or the downward force and the point of greatest resistance moves up or down that is, the buying at 130 will for the first time be stronger than the selling, or the selling at 120 be stronger than the buying. The price will break through the old barrier or movement-limit and go on. As a rule, there is always a crowd of traders who are short at 120 because it looked so weak, or long at 130 because it looked so strong, and, when the market goes against them they are forced, after a while, either to change their minds and turn or to close out, In either event they help to define even more clearly the price line of least resistance. Thus the intelligent trader who has patiently waited to determine this line will enlist the aid of fundamental trade conditions and also of the force of the trading of that part of the community that happened to guess wrong and must now rectify mistakes. Such corrections tend to push prices along the line of least resistance.
It sounds very easy to say that all you have to do is to watch the tape, establish your resistance points and be ready to trade along the line of least resistance as soon as you have determined it. But in actual practice a man has to guard against many things, and most of all against himself that is, against human nature. That is the reason why I say that the man who is right always has two forces working in his favor basic conditions and the men who are wrong.
This experience has been the experience of so many traders so many times that I can give this rule: In a narrow market, when prices are not getting anywhere to speak of but move within a narrow range, there is no sense in trying to anticipate what the next big movement is going to be up or down. The thing to do is to watch the market, read the tape to determine the limits of the get-nowhere prices, and make up your mind that you will not take an interest until the price breaks through the limit in either direction. A speculator must concern himself with making money out of the market and not with insisting that the tape must agree with him. Never argue with it or ask it for reasons or explanations. Stock-market postmortems don’t pay dividends.
What I have told you gives you the essence of my trading system as based on studying the tape. I merely learn the way prices are most probably going to move. I check up my own trading by additional tests, to determine the psychological moment. I do that by watching the way the price acts after I begin.
It is surprising how many experienced traders there are who look incredulous when I tell them that when I buy stocks for a rise I like to pay top prices and when I sell I must sell low or not at all. It would not be so difficult to make money if a trader always stuck to his speculative guns that is, waited for the line of least resistance to define itself and began buying only when the tape said up or selling only when it said down. He should accumulate his line on the way up. Let him buy one-fifth of his full line. If that does not show him a profit he must not increase his holdings because he has obviously begun wrong; he is wrong temporarily and there is no profit in being wrong at any time. The same tape that said UP did not necessarily lie merely because it is now saying NOT YET.
The speculator’s chief enemies are always boring from within. It is inseparable from human nature to hope and to fear. In speculation when the market goes against you you hope that every day will be the last day and you lose more than you should had you not listened to hope to the same ally that is so potent a success-bringer to empire builders and pioneers, big and little. And when the market goes your way you become fearful that the next day will take away your profit, and you get out too soon. Fear keeps you from making as much money as you ought to. The successful trader has to fight these two deep-seated instincts. He has to reverse what you might call his natural impulses. Instead of hoping he must fear; instead of fearing he must hope. He must fear that his loss may develop into a much bigger loss, and hope that his profit may become a big profit. It is absolutely wrong to gamble in stocks the way the average man does.
11. Exiting a large position in an illiquid security is difficult, and you can only exit the position easily when the market can absorb your full position.
Without it I wouldn’t have had a market big enough to unload in. That is one trouble about trading on a large scale. You cannot sneak out as you can when you pike along. You cannot always sell out when you wish or when you think it wise. You have to get out when you can; when you have a market that will absorb your entire line. Failure to grasp the opportunity to get out may cost you millions. You cannot hesitate. If you do you are lost. Neither can you try stunts like running up the price on the bears by means of competitive buying, for you may thereby reduce the absorbing capacity. And I want to tell you that perceiving your opportunity is not as easy as it sounds. A man must be on the lookout so alertly that when his chance sticks in its head at his door he must grab it.
12. Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit.
Always sell what shows you a loss and keep what shows you a profit. That was so
obviously the wise thing to do and was so well known to me that even now I marvel at
myself for doing the reverse.
13. Observation, experience, memory and mathematics these are what the successful trader must depend on.
The training of a stock trader is like a medical education. The physician has to spend long years learning anatomy, physiology, materia medica and collateral subjects by the dozen. He learns the theory and then proceeds to devote his life to the practice. He observes and classifies all sorts of pathological phenomena. He learns to diagnose. If his diagnosis is correct and that depends upon the accuracy of his observation he ought to do pretty well in his prognosis, always keeping in mind, of course, that human fallibility and the utterly unforeseen will keep him from scoring 100 per cent of bull’s-eyes. And then, as he gains in experience, he learns not only to do the right thing but to do it instantly, so that many people will think he does it instinctively. It really isn’t automatism. It is that he has diagnosed the case according to his observations of such cases during a period of many years; and, naturally, after he has diagnosed it, he can only treat it in the way that experience has taught him is the proper treatment. You can transmit knowledge that is, your particular collection of card-indexed facts but not your experience. A man may know what to do and lose money if he doesn’t do it quickly enough.
Observation, experience, memory and mathematics these are what the successful trader must depend on. He must not only observe accurately but remember at all times what he has observed. He cannot bet on the unreasonable or on the unexpected, however strong his personal convictions may be about man’s unreasonableness or however certain he may feel that the unexpected happens very frequently. He must bet always on probabilities that is, try to anticipate them. Years of practice at the game, of constant study, of always remembering, enable the trader to act on the instant when the unexpected happens as well as when the expected comes to pass.
A man can have great mathematical ability and an unusual power of accurate observation and yet fail in speculation unless he also possesses the experience and the memory. And then, like the physician who keeps up with the advances of science, the wise trader never ceases to study general conditions, to keep track of developments everywhere that are likely to affect or influence the course of the various markets. After years at the game it becomes a habit to keep posted. He acts almost automatically. He acquires the invaluable professional attitude and that enables him to beat the game at times! This difference between the professional and the amateur or occasional trader cannot be over emphasised. I find, for instance, that memory and mathematics help me very much. Wall Street makes its money on a mathematical basis. I mean, it makes its money by dealing with facts and figures.
14. When entering a position, the way the market behaves is an excellent guide for an operator to follow.
Experience has taught me that the way a market behaves is an excellent guide for an operator to follow. It is like taking a patient’s temperature and pulse or noting the colour of the eyeballs and the coating of the tongue.
Now, ordinarily a man ought to be able to buy or sell a million bushels of wheat within a range of 1/4 cent. On this day when I sold the 250,000 bushels to test the market for timeliness, the price went down 1/4 cent. Then, since the reaction did not definitely tell me all I wished to know, I sold another quarter of a million bushels. I noticed that it was taken in driblets; that is, the buying was in lots of 10,000 or 15,000 bushels instead of being taken in two or three transactions which would have been the normal way. In addition to the homeopathic buying the price went down 1-1/4 cents on my selling. Now, I need not waste time pointing out that the way in which the market took my wheat and the disproportionate decline on my selling told me that there was no buying power there. Such being the case, what was the only thing to do? Of course, to sell a lot more. Following the dictates of experience may possibly fool you, now and then. But not following them invariably makes an ass of you. So I sold 2,000,000 bushels and the price went down some more. A few days later the market’s behaviour practically compelled me to sell an additional 2,000,000 bushels and the price declined further still; a few days later wheat started to break badly and slumped off 6 cents a bushel. And it didn’t stop there. It has been going down, with short-lived rallies.
Now, I didn’t follow a hunch. Nobody gave me a tip. It was my habitual or professional mental attitude toward the commodities markets that gave me the profit and that attitude came from my years at this business. I study because my business is to trade. The moment the tape told me that I was on the right track my business duty was to increase my line. I did. That is all there is to it.
I have found that experience is apt to be steady dividend payer in this game and that observation gives you the best tips of all. The behaviour of a certain stock is all you need at times. You observe it. Then experience shows you how to profit by variations from the usual, that is, from the probable. For example, we know that all stocks do not move one way together but that all the stocks of a group will move up in a bull market and down in a bear market. This is a commonplace of speculation. It is the commonest of all self-given tips and the commission houses are well aware of it and pass it on to any customer who has not thought of it himself; I mean, the advice to trade in those stocks which have lagged behind other stocks of the same group. Thus, if U. S. Steel goes up, it is logically assumed that it is only a matter of time when Crucible or Republic or Bethlehem will follow suit. Trade conditions and prospects should work alike with all stocks of a group and the prosperity should be shared by all. On the theory, corroborated by experience times without number, that every dog has his day in the market, the public will buy A. B. Steel because it has not advanced while C. D. Steel and X. Y. Steel have gone up.
I never buy a stock even in a bull market, if it doesn’t act as it ought to act in that kind of market. I have sometimes bought a stock during an undoubted bull market and found out that other stocks in the same group were not acting bullishly and I have sold out my stock. Why? Experience tells me that it is not wise to buck against what I may call the manifest group-tendency. I cannot expect to play certainties only. I must reckon on probabilities and anticipate them. An old broker once said to me: “If I am walking along a railroad track and I see a train coming toward me at sixty miles an hour, do I keep on walking on the ties? Friend, I sidestep. And I do not even pat myself on the back for being so wise and prudent.”
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