Quick, what do you think is the number one way that most retail traders define success in their trading? While some might say “profits,” I think that the real answer for most people is “winning percentage.”
A high winning percentage appeals to everyone, because it’s a metric that everyone understands, just like a high batting average in baseball. We’re used to being measured in “percentage of success” whether it’s your credit score, your grade point average, or even the social credit score in China. A high score based on these metrics always gives one a feeling of pride and confidence.
But in trading, a high win rate might be the worst thing that you can shoot for. I realize that this sounds counter-intuitive, but if you stick around the profession of trading long enough, you’ll find that most things about it are unnatural and your “default response” from your earlier life experience is most likely costing you dearly.
Why then is shooting for a high win percentage a bad thing? Look, there’s nothing wrong with HAVING a high win rate, but TRYING to attain a high winning percentage will likely harm your profitability and your account balance. This is because there is a temptation to go for the easy wins, those low-hanging fruit trades where you can just grab a couple of sats and notch a win in your belt. But if you are going for those quick, small wins that drive up your winning percentage, there’s no doubt that your losers, when they occur, will be much larger than any winning trade, and will erase those profits in one stroke.
The way that most people go for a high win percentage is to take small profits when they’re available, and drive up their numbers. But the losses will always be larger in that scenario, even if they’re infrequent. In trading, we call this “eating like a bird, and crapping like an elephant.”
It’s what every retail trader does, it feels natural to go for that high winning rate, but it will absolutely work against you accumulating profits.
So what should you do? It might surprise you that professional traders are doing the exact opposite of the retail approach. They are using a concept called Asymmetric Risk/Reward. A professional investor will define a small amount of risk in order to make a disproportionately larger reward. Conversely, retail investors use asymmetric risk/reward, however they’re doing it in the opposite manner. They’re defining a large amount of risk to make a disproportionately smaller reward, and that’s all in the name of racking up a high win percentage. But one group makes a lot of money, and the other overwhelmingly loses money.
Let’s study the professional approach a little bit more and see how this works. Is it simply a matter of defining a small stop loss and blowing out your profit target to 5 or 6 times the stop amount? Well, yes and no. Creating the asymmetric risk/reward structure is important, but it’s also HOW and WHEN to set up your trade so that you’re creating the opportunity for a big “win” that’s perhaps even more important.
There are several ways that I can illustrate this, but perhaps the clearest way to prove this is through the HXRO gaming site where people are betting on whether Bitcoin will rise or fall over the next five minutes. Think about it, the probability of win or loss is about 50%, and for those of you that think that you can slap some oscillators on your chart to increase your win rate, I can prove to you that the win rate has nothing to do with your ability to create profits on this site.
The asymmetric risk/reward is created in HXRO when you are going against the grain of everyone else. In this particular “card,” you can see that 518 traders thought that the price would go higher (moon), and only 278 thought it would go lower (rekt) – nearly 2:1 to the bullish side- so the payoff is about double for those that win if the price ends up lower in the next 5 minutes. The reason for this bull/bear disparity is usually (in this case) because there is a short-term rally in place, but in this case the “rekt” or bearish side won the card by a significant margin and their reward was double their risk. Going against the “crowd,” in this case, gave the bears a short-term risk/reward edge.
Does a high winning percent pay? Let’s look at the HXRO leaderboard and loserboards. Let’s look at the leaderboard first; note that most have about a 50% win rate, with the leader actually losing more than half the time.
And now compare that against the top ten losers, who for the most part, are winning a higher percentage of games than their winning counterparts.
Can you see that the selection of trade has a huge impact on creating asymmetric rewards? In this case the winners are waiting for the RIGHT SETUPS while the losers are just trying to score wins, even if those wins pay out very little. It seems logical, at first, to go after as many wins as possible….but chances are, unless they are the RIGHT winning trades, then you are likely to lose over time.
Now you might be saying, “Oh, that’s HXRO, that’s just a scam site, I have no interest in that. Show me something that applies to real trading!” OK, fair enough. I’ll show you a setup that I use to create maximum asymmetry on the setup. It’s what I call a “trap” setup and fits nicely into my Fractal Energy trading system.
Let’s say that Bitcoin is in a longer-timeframe uptrend. During that uptrend, we’ll see pullbacks all the time, and the longer that the pullback goes, the more emboldened that the bears get. Just like in the HXRO card that we just looked at, the majority of traders are all going to flip in one direction the longer that a pullback goes on, as they don’t want to miss it. But don’t forget that the longer trend is still up, so at some point we normally see the larger trend assert control again, even if it’s just a bounce.
What I normally look for, and in this case it’s a 12 minute chart, is that the price shows a series of lower highs and lower lows to indicate a short-term downtrend. At some point, to reverse the trend back to the upside again to align with the larger timeframe, the price will have to print a higher low, and then follow that up with a higher high. The bears that got in too late will be forced to cover, and the move will normally be very sharp. I can set my risk to be just under the recent lows, and set my profit targets for some multiple of that to the upside.
I should mention that this can be a difficult trade to spot correctly as you are trading counter-trend on an intermediate timeframe, but you’re actually trying to take the trade with the longer timeframe trend. With a win rate of about 50% and a target that is usually several multiples of the risk, this fits the definition of asymmetric risk/reward.
So why don’t more retail traders take trades like this? There are several reasons. First, it takes some skill to identify when an intermediate counter-trend is about to revert to the main trend. Second, these trades never feel very good to enter because your’re going against the crowd. And lastly, it can be fatiguing to hold in there against every voice in your head to take quick profits off the table before it reverses and gives back your paper profits.
One of the old maxims in trading is “you’ll never go broke taking a profit,” however they couldn’t be more wrong. The key to profits and long-term success in this business is to do what others either cannot or will not do, and part of that is to seek asymmetry in your setups.