Trading and speculation in the financial markets is an appealing endeavor for many people. And so it is for me. But the percentage of people that find success is rather small. 95% of traders reportedly drop out of the game as losers. One of the most popular trading strategies is trend following. Arguably it is also one of the most successful (to learn more about trend following and how some of the richest traders on this planet milk money read Michael Covel’s excellent book Trend Following (Amazon Link)). So why is trend trading so hard?
What Is Trend Following?
Before answering why trading a trend is so difficult we first have to define what it is. So let us break it apart. The term consists of two words, “trend” and “following”. Let’s look at the first one.
So to be able to follow a trend we have to know what a trend is. It is one of those terms that intuitively makes sense but taking a closer look the devil is in the details. A trend is a sustained movement of prices in one direction, either up or down. Yes, we can all agree. But when does a trend start and when does it end? As with so many things in trading there is no one definite answer. A trend is pretty much anything that you define to be a trend. You can look at highs and lows, you can use the inclination of moving averages, you can use moving average crossovers, you can utilize trendlines or whatever else is out there. None of these tools is going to give you a satisfactory result in all circumstances. Because honestly the market does not care about your definition of a trend. It will always create moves and price action which will fake you out because your definition of a trend has been violated.
The second term is “following”. The meaning of this is that when you apply a trend following strategy you will always be looking to trade in the direction of a trend that has already been established. The basic tenet of trend following is that a market will continue to move in the direction it is already heading. Well, that is not quite correct. As traders we are not actually assuming or making predictions. All we do is find trade setups that give us a favorable reward to risk ratio. (That is the tenet all trading strategies have in common by the way.) So trend followers find favorable setups in the continuation of trends. As a consequence a trend follower will never be the first to enter a trend manifesting in the markets. A trend follower will never buy the bottom or sell the top. In this sense, trend following is a reactionary strategy.
Entries Are Counterintuitive
So trend following means your strategy will never allow you to buy market bottoms or sell market tops. But what does our brain tell us we have to do to make money in the market? Exactly, it wants us to buy at a low price and sell at a high price. And the lower the price of an instrument falls the higher it can rise later the more money we will make with less risk. Right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. In trading it is all about reward to risk. It does not matter whether we buy low and sell high and make 500 pips or whether we buy high and sell a little higher and make only 100 pips only to watch the market rise another 100 or 200. All we have to consider is the reward/risk ratio (and our winning percentage, see my post about why trading strategies work). The trend following trade which takes 100 pips of “the meat in the middle” with a 33 pip stop-loss is superior to the trade grabbing 500 pips with a risk of 250 pips. As simple as that. But this is against what human nature and our brain want us to do!!! You always think you are late. And you will always look stupid if a trade does not work out, because your brain sees that the trend had started way earlier and you were just late with your entry. You would have made money had you entered the trend earlier. So there you go, this is one of the top reasons why trend trading is tough as hell.
The other top reason why trend trading is hard is that for any definition of a trend you will have contradictory data. If you are like me at least. Whenever I trade I do my due diligence and analyse markets top down. I look at monthly charts all the way down to 15 minute charts if need be. The nature of charts is that whichever instrument you look at in 99% of the cases you will find contradictory trends depending on which time frame you look at. Here is an example of cable ($GBPUSD):
What is the trend? My (arbitrary) definition of a trend is the 89 period exponential moving average and looking at these charts the answer to the question is “it depends”. We have a monthly downtrend, a weekly transition from down to up, a strong daily uptrend, same for the 4h, the 1h is choppy sideways and the 15 min has fallen strongly to establish a downtrend. So again, you can let this contradictory information paralyze you or you take a stand, follow your rules and look stupid when your trade goes sour. Why look stupid? Let say I trade the uptrend on the 4h for a trend continuation and get stopped out then my brain will see the 15 min and tell my what an idiot I was to enter long. The 15 min trend was clearly down!!!
Oh yeah, you might decide to wait until all timeframes line up in the same direction. This is of course possible, but unless you want to wait for record breaking markets like the $SPX500 or bitcoin each time you trade you will have to make some compromise with the circumstances.
There you have it, those are my top two reasons why trend following is so damn difficult! And at the same time that explains why trading against the trend, buying a falling market or selling a rising market is so appealing. Because in those cases, all timeframes are aligned to give the same signal. What looks oversold on the monthly and weekly will definitely look oversold on the daily, 4h and 1h. That comforts our brain and lures us into counter trend positions that are often the wrong decision. And it animates us to double down when prices falls even further because what was oversold before us then mega-oversold, right? But a weak market is usually weak for very good reasons and no one knows when the decline will stop. It might go to zero and destroy your capital. The only protection that traders have is to know when their idea is wrong and get out of the trade, at the risk of looking stupid when the market turns right back in its original direction.
Even though the rules we define for ourselves are arbitrary they are the only option we have. If you have no rules you will sooner or later have no money because you take the mother of all losses and get margin called.
I hope this is useful. What are your thoughts on trend following and this article? Please let me know in the comments below.