Does Risk Management Really Matter When Trading?

Last updated on April 20th, 2020

risk management and position sizing for your trading careerWhy should you bother with risk management in your trading career?

Because focusing on risk management can be a complete game changer to your portfolio especially when it applies to position sizing.

The numbers do not lie; Fail to respect risk % and position sizing and you will have a short lived trading career.

For those of you that have been trading for a while, you may already understand how vital managing your risk is.  For the new trader, this is something you must understand long before you worry about mastering any trading system or, more importantly, placing your very first trade.

Even experienced traders should be constantly refreshing the basics and in this article, I am going to cover:

  • Why you should focus on risk management
  • How you can lessen the impact of losing streaks and draw downs
  • 3 steps to ensure proper risk management

After fully understanding those, we are going to get practical with two important things you can do to enhance your chance of success:

    1. How to calculate your position size
    2. The simple step you can take so you never forget about risk


Risk Management Is Your First Job

The definition of risk is the probability of losing money or trading capital. In the context of a trader’s activities, this refers to the probability of having losing trades and losing money as a result.

The more risk, the greater the potential reward. This is something that is true in many endeavors.

A basic financial principle is that the more risk taken, the greater the potential for reward. Taking this principle to its extreme, however, has been the downfall of many inexperienced traders.

On the other hand, not taking enough risk will keep you as a trader from trading at a level that will generate significant profit.

The point here is that there needs to be a balance.

The primary goal of trading is to protect the capital. While it might seem that the first goal should be to make a profit and that is what our mind naturally moves to, simply focusing on the profits or returns may cause us traders to take unnecessary risk.

The fact is, without enough money or trading capital, a trader is bankrupt, and that’s an ugly word. The point we need to drive home here is that trading capital is the lifeblood of your trading business.


One Risk Size Does Not Fit All

As traders, we all have different risk tolerances. When we go through the examples on position sizing, we’ll show you a couple of different levels of risk that you may want to assume. But hopefully, we’ll also show you what the implications of that greater risk can be.

Once the trading account has been depleted, it can take a lot of time and a lot of stress to start over. And yes, this is a negative look at trading, but believe me, if you don’t take care of risk management, you can get into a downward spiral that causes you to just compound the problem by taking on more and more risk.

Trading is all about your probability of survival. You need to implement and use proper risk management if you want to stay in this trading business for the long haul.


Losing Streaks Are A Fact Of Trading

This is a very revealing table. What we have here is, on the first column, the trading system win percentage.  The win percentage in this system is essentially the percentage of trades that are winning trades versus the percentage of trades that are losing trades.

risk management can help you survive
This is a table of probabilities that was developed by Dr. Van Tharp

A good system will typically fall somewhere in the 60% to 80% range. If you’re winning 60% of the time and losing 40% of the time, and assuming that the size of your winning trades is similar to the size of your losing trades, you will end up making money.

This is not dissimilar from what the casinos do.

The casinos have maybe a 3% or 4% statistical probability edge in their gambling and they’ve built Las Vegas on that 3% to 4%. So having a 10% edge, a 60% win rate, is actually quite good. Many systems that I am familiar with, that I’ve traded, fall in that 65% to 70% range.

Now let’s just look at one of these rows, the 65% win rate.

The columns give us the different probabilities for losing streaks. Now notice, with a 65% win rate, you have a 100% probability, meaning there is a certainty that you will have three losing trades in a row, it’s unavoidable, and you have a 50% chance that you will have four losing trades in a row.

These are losing streaks, losing trades in a row.

Furthermore, you have about a 10% probability that you will experience a six to seven trade losing streak and a 1% probability that you will experience an eight to nine trade losing streak. The maximum – there is really no maximum, but this is like the 99.9% probability, you could get as many as 13 losing trades in a row.


Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Come In A Random Distribution

We all like to think that if we have a system with a 65% win rate, that that means that for every three trades we take, two of them will be winners and one of them will be a loser.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

Winning trades and losing trades tend to come in clusters. So, you might have a series of ten trades of which eight or nine are winning trades, and you only have one or two losers. But then that will be followed by a series of ten trades where maybe six or seven of those trades are losing trades and only four or three are winning trades. Winners and losers come in clusters and this is understandable if you think about the different types of trading systems.

We have trending systems that will make money when we are in a trend, and if it’s a strong enough trend, we will have many winning trades in a row. However, when price reverses or starts to move in a channel, a trending system will have a higher proportion of losing trades.

Similarly, a channeling or reversal system or fading system, as it’s also called, will do very well when price is going sideways and moving in a channel. However, when price breaks out and starts trending, a channeling system can run into serious trouble. And because markets move in waves from trending to consolidating or sideways and then again from sideways moves to trending moves, because of the nature of the markets, it’s natural that winners and losers should come in clusters.

Now consider the 1% probability factor in the table, having eight or nine losing trades in a row.

huge losing streak
1% chance of 8-9 losing trades in a row

If you consider that you’re trading 250 days a year, that means that once or twice during the year, you will likely see one of these eight to nine trade losing streaks and you have to be prepared for it. Your system is still 65% profitable, but you have to prepare for the shock of having a long losing streak and you have to be able to trade through it, you have to be able to survive it.


Can You Recover From A String Of Losing Trades?

Now that we understand the probabilities of a losing streak, we must now understand how much money we need to make back to recover from our losses (our draw down).

draw down recovery
Risk management is vital to withstanding draw down

Imagine that your trading account is down 5%, that’s not something inconceivable, that happens quite often. In order to get back to your starting point, in order to recover what you have lost, you need to make 5.3%.

Here are some examples:

  • You started out with $10,000 and your account dropped down to $9,500, you’ll need to make 5.3% over that $9,500 to get back to $10,000.
  • If your account draws down 10%, you need to make 11% on the remaining account to get back to where you were.

Both of these are very manageable numbers.  It may take days or weeks to recover but no longer.

However, consider now if your account is drawn down by 25%, now you need to make 33%, the remaining account has to grow by a third in order to get back to where you were.

Or worse yet, if your account is drawn down to 50%, you need to double the size of your remaining account in order to get back to where you were.

Pretty terrifying, isn’t it?

So, how do these two tables fit together? Let’s go back to the losing streak table and let’s consider the 1% probability where you can have 8-9 losing trades in a row.

Now yes, 1% is a very low probability. But again, you’re trading 250 days a year, so I would suggest that that 1% probability factor is going to hit you once, maybe twice, during the year. For those one or two occasions where you have a losing streak of eight to nine trades, your account has to be able to survive.

Let’s consider a scenario where on every trade, you are risking 5% of your account. When you get this eight to nine trade losing streak, if on every trade you are risking 5% of your account, your account — and I’m simplifying by not compounding, but your account will go down as much as 40%!

And if your account has gone down 40%, you need to make 67% on the remaining balance to get back to where you were. Now bear in mind, this might happen to you once or twice a year. So, once or twice a year, your account could get cut nearly in half and you will have to make two-thirds return on the remaining account to get back to where you were.

On the other hand, consider the scenario where you’re risking 1% on every trade. Now when you get an eight to nine trade losing streak — and let’s round it up, let’s say a 10-trade losing streak. Now, you’re losing 10%.

How much do you need to gain on the remaining account to recover?

You only need to recover 11% and that is very doable on a solid system, especially when you consider that losers and winners come in clusters. So if you’ve just gone through a series of 1% probability losing streak, odds are that this will be followed by a strong series of winners, and drawing down 10% on your account is eminently survivable.


What Is Effective Risk Management?

To understand this and keep ourselves in position to recover from the losing streaks we are sure to have, we need to factor in three items.

1. Risk Per Trade

This was hinted at when we talked about losing streaks and how much you were risking during the losing streaks.  You know that the more you risk per trade, the more chances you will have a draw down that is hard to recover from especially if you hit the 1% losing streak probability.

2. Daily Or Weekly Circuit Breaker

As a trader, you have to decide how much money you are willing to lose in total to stop trading during a specific time frame such as weekly or daily trading activity.

You will find that there are days and weeks when the markets are simply not cooperating. You might be in an environment that is completely news-driven, where no trend can take a hold, where the market chops around erratically. On those days, if you’re following your system and your trade plan, you will possibly get some pretty heavy losses.

You should always have in mind a number for a daily and a weekly circuit breaker and that number is the maximum amount of money that you are willing to lose before stopping trading. You may go back to that probabilities table and decide that 10% of your account is as much as you’re willing to lose in any one day. Or you may be more conservative and only be willing to lose 5% on your account on any one day and that could happen if you get five losing trades in a row.

You need to look at this in terms of recover-ability. Set the circuit breaker large enough so that it can accommodate the normal fluctuations of winning and losing trades that occur within a day or whatever your time period is, but it needs to be small enough so that you can recover from it.

As an example, if you’re down 10% of your account in one day, that’s obviously not good and obviously not fun but you know that you can recover relatively easy. You need to recover 11% to get back to where you were. So, have in mind the daily and weekly circuit breaker.

3. Maximum Draw Down You Are Willing To Take

How much of a hit are you willing to handle before you stop and reassess your entire trading system and plan?

You might not get large losers every day, but you may find that over a period of weeks, your account is gradually decreasing, slowly but surely decreasing. At which point do you then decide that your plan or your system is no longer working? You need to have in mind a maximum draw down level for your total account that will signal to you that

  1. You have to redo your homework,
  2. You must redo your analysis,
  3. It’s time to take a fresh look at your trading system & consider changes to it,
  4. Consider changes to the instruments you are trading,
  5. Consider changes to the time frames you are trading.

This will in all likelihood be a relatively large number, perhaps a third of your account. If your account has drawn down by a third from its peak value, then that is a pretty strong indication that something is not working. It could be something in the environment, something fundamental, maybe a fundamental change in the markets that you are trading, or it could simply be that your trading system is not very adaptable and has not been able to function properly in the current environment.

If that happens, reassess your trading plan and your system.

So for proper risk management ask yourself, how much are you willing to risk on each and every trade, how large of a loss am I willing to take on any single day or week, and how much of a loss will I accept before reassessing my trading system and plan.


Positing Sizing Example

Consider a $10,000 account and let’s look at several different risk scenarios. We’ll start with the scenario that says you’re willing to risk 2% per trade, so that would be $200 on each trade, or 3%, 4%, or 5%, and 5% has, of course, the largest risk, $500.

position sizing
Basic position sizing calculation for risk management

If you have a trading system, you should have done a back test on it, you should be able to demo trade your trading system, and your goal partly has to be to determine what the average risk for your system is. You determine this by looking at either your back test or looking at the record of demo trades that you’ve taken and calculate the average losing trade, that’s your average risk.

Let’s assume in our example that the average losing trade for your system is $200 per trade. What does that mean?

  • If you’re using a 2% risk maximum, $200, and your average losing trade is a $200-loss, then obviously that means that you can trade one contract or one share of whatever the instrument is. So if you trade one share and you have a losing trade, you’ve lost $200.
  • At the 3% risk level, that’s $300. In theory, you should be able to trade one and a half contracts or shares, however, you cannot buy one and a half contracts or shares, so you’ll round this down, so if you’re willing to risk 3% and your average loss is $200, then you’ll only trade one contract or share, so your risk is going to be less than 3%.
  • For a 4% account, you have an average risk of $200 per trade, you can risk up to $400, which means you can trade two contracts or two shares.
  • For the 5% risk where you can risk up to $500, you’ll also round it down. Since you cannot buy a fractional share of stock, you’ll simply buy two shares and risk $200 each for a total of $400.

We can actually express this as a formula to calculate how many shares or contracts you can trade:

position sizing calculation
Calculate your proper position size

So here we’re taking our example of the $10,000 account, assuming a 2% maximum risk per trade, and then we look at the average losing trade — and in this example, we’re looking at the futures for the Dow Industrials, and we’re saying that our average risk is 20 points on the Dow. Each point is worth $5, so that’s $100 average risk per trade.

By just doing this calculation, we determine that we can trade two contracts of the Dow Futures. The formula is simply to take your account size, multiply it by the risk percentage you’re willing to assume, and then divide it by the average loss, and if you have the average loss calculated in number of points or number of ticks then you just multiply that by the price per tick.

We talked earlier about 2% through 5% risk, so let’s for a moment refer back to the losing streak table.

huge losing streak
1% chance of 8-9 losing trades in a row

If you assume a maximum risk of 2% per trade and your system has a 65% win rate, then you have a 1% probability of having 8 to 9 losing trades in a row that means that your account could drop by 16% to 18%.

Now refer back to the recovery table.

Our draw down would fall somewhere between the 15% and 20% entries in the table, so we would have to recover between 17.6% and 25% to get our account back to where it was before the losing streak. Not great, but recoverable.  Any more than that it becomes very difficult to recover.

A rule of thumb  is to risk a maximum 2%, but if you can, risk only 1%. With a 1% risk, you can survive many storms.

The flip side of the 1% risk as mentioned earlier is that you will not be able to make as much money on each trade. If you’re only taking 1% risk then the sizing formula will tell you that you can only trade 1 contract, not 2. That’s the balancing act, you always have that balance between how much risk you are willing to assume versus how aggressively you want to pursue gains.

Failure to respect risk will kill you. I know it’s very tempting to place 5% of your account on a trade that looks fantastic, but believe me, you only need to have a few losses, each of which is 5% before your account is depleted enough that it becomes harder and, in time, impossible to trade.

Resist the temptation and focus on risk management.

If you have a solid system then when you look at your longer term capital plan for your account, for your trading business, you’ll see that it really doesn’t take all that much before you get to the point where you can pay the bills with your trading activity.


4 Steps To Being A Risk Manager

By now there should be no question about the importance of risk management.  The numbers do not lie and many traders have burned through their trading capital by taking a flippant attitude towards risk in their trading.

  1. Before you trade, decide how much you’re going to risk per trade. Are you going to risk 1% or 2%, 5%, 10% (at 10% you may as well give you money to charity right now, because I guarantee you your account will be depleted very quickly). The rule of thumb is no more than 2% and if at all possible, try to keep your risk per trade down to 1%.
  2. Determine your circuit breaker level. How much of a loss are you willing to take in any given day or any given week before you decide to stop trading for the remainder of the day or the remainder of the week. 10% is a number you can work with, maybe a little bit less. Don’t make it too small of a number because you will, during a normal day of trading, you will experience wins and losses and you don’t want to stop yourself from trading too soon or too often. And, of course, the flip side is don’t let it be too large where it becomes hard to recover from the loss.
  3. Determine the draw down size that will cause you to reassess your trading plan and your trading system. How far are you willing to let your account drop from peak before deciding that whatever you’re doing is not working and you need to do something different?
  4. Once you’ve made these risk management decisions, write it all down. I know, it’s going to be just three numbers that you’re easily capable of keeping in your head, but write it down in your log, in your trader log, write it in your journal, and write it on one of those nice yellow sticky notes and paste it on your monitor so that you will not forget.

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