This article will go over the main strategies day traders use that I’ve been exposed to. Each strategy or style has pros and cons. What I’ll leave out are strategies you couldn’t do from home. For example, I know of one firm that ran an open outcry FX desk for USD/THB – and FX market-making firm that on a busy day could push through a billion dollars – but, unless you know of a dozen banks to have on the line all day – I’d say that’s not something you can do from home. Here are a few futures trading strategies that day traders use!
The “In Play” Game
“In Play” is where I started with Order Flow. And it was a long time ago, too - but the technique is still valid in futures trading strategies. The game focused on the equities markets. It doesn’t matter which one, but the US has the best opportunities.
The game works like this each day. Some of the 15,000+ stocks on the US Markets would be “In Play” - because of one or more of the following:
- Quarterly earnings announcements during “earnings seasons” - some of these occur in the evening and some in the morning. But not during regular market hours. Throughout the quarter, companies typically estimate earnings, and then they will either beat/miss or be in line with these estimates.
- Upgrades/Downgrades. Like Goldman Sachs says, the prospects for specific equity are better, often with a price target.
- Company-specific news. For example, a product recall, a new government contract - anything that would impact revenues.
- Marco news. Like interest rate increases would impact companies with a high debt load. Steel price increases might impact construction companies. Oil prices impacting logistics and retail companies.
So each day, you do some research and compile a list of stocks you think will be in play. You aren’t using the same tools that professionals use, but sites like Briefing.com certainly give you an excellent place to start each morning.
You will likely need an account that allows you to play the pre-market session. Because often the moves are over by the regular open at 9:30 am EST. This is a more risky session to trade as it’s less liquid, but that’s where this game plays out.
- This set of techniques combines finding a “real-world driver” for price changes with order flow reading techniques to confirm a move is underway.
- Trades are mostly momentum style trading; it’s not predicting highs or lows. It’s looking for a reaction and riding it.
- There are very few days where there’s nothing “in play” - unlike single-market techniques, where you might be twiddling your thumbs on some days.
- Typically (well, in my case), 50% of the stocks in your watch list will not be movers. Some will be moved in pre-market. Typically “In-play” traders use scanners to find movers that aren’t in their list, and often by the time the scanner picks them up - those moves are over. This can be a little frustrating.
- Each day you will be trading different stocks that others are trading every day. This isn’t a huge disadvantage, but you will be hopping around between stocks with different volatility profiles, which adds to the learning curve.
- The earnings we all get at about the same time. Big firms have an information edge over the retailer - they get better and more extensive data, but that’s mostly for one-off news. Then again, they have a size disadvantage too - you can trade 1000 shares and make decent money, they need to trade much more, which is (of course) what you are looking to piggyback.
My own experience with this - I felt I was putting a lot of time into research. While I was doing this, a friend got a job as a researcher for a prop trader that was trading boutique hedge fund money. He was one of 4 researchers working full time for that trader. They had a lot of stats about how the stocks reacted to events.
For example, some companies have a habit of under-estimating earnings and then “Surprise” - they beat them at the announcement date. For some of these stocks, the market’s reaction is pretty predictable. You’ll notice that the beat and the price moves a certain way.
If you have an accounting background and understand the relationship between cash-flow, P&L and balance sheet items, you are in a better position to trade these techniques. You’ll be able to sniff out prominent games to boost P&L, which most won’t spot.
So accountants, company owners, COOs, CEOs, CFOs are comfortable handling some information that helps understand how the market will react. Saying that though - it’s not mandatory; it just helps.
Spread trading is one of the best futures trading strategies because it covers many different types of trading. It’s not my area of expertise, but it is widespread and can be done in many markets. I will keep it simple, so spreaders - don’t tell me I missed a gamma here, a yield curve there or a butterfly wherever.
Spreading is about related instruments. An easy one to understand is Crude calendar spreads. Crude oil futures expire each month, so there’s a contract each month. When you buy a crude oil contract, you commit to buying essential oil at expiry. So you could be buying January oil, March oil, April oil etc., today. And their prices are different
The prices are different for several reasons, and 2 of those are interest rates (because if you buy oil in 6 months time today, you need to account for the interest over those six months) and storage costs - because if you brought oil today to use in 6 months - you’d need to store it somewhere.
Storage and cost of borrowing.
Recently crude oil futures went to -$30 in price - simply because there was no more storage. So there’s a spread that’s quite understandable. This is real-world stuff that’s understandable. Go to interest rates, and it’s a bit more cerebral. But the concept is the same - you disagree with the disparity.
Pairs trading in equities takes two correlated stocks - for example, two bagel stores. If one goes up, then so should the other UNLESS (for example) one is being purchased by Amazon - in which case the correlation won’t hold. But in the absence of extenuating circumstances - if one goes up and the other doesn’t - you expect them to come back in line. You buy one, you sell the other, and when they come back in line - you make a profit. It does not matter how much they move up and down - only how much they move apart or back again.
Now - this is the simplest form of spread trading, involving 2 instruments. There are more complex versions - but you get the idea.
- Spread trading is a non-directional trading strategy - it doesn’t matter if markets are going up or down only if they go out of line.
- It is perceived as less risky as it’s all about to mean reversion trading.
- There is a higher fee (you have more than one trade on). There are prop firms out there that can break even or profit from your trading, even if you lose. Be wary. You don’t want to be in a firm where 95% are struggling but are doing great on fees.
This is a more intellectual, slightly nerdy way to trade. It’s also suitable for the risk-averse. If you have good math skills, you may find spread opportunities nobody else noticed. It’s also plentiful, and there are many tools out there to find correlated instruments - just sanity check what they give you and use that as a starting point.
Macro/Futures Day Trading
In a way - day trading futures isn’t that different from the first equities strategy we outlined. Just that you don’t have well over 15,000 instruments to see which is in play. The main instruments - US index futures, oil, gold etc. are in play most days.
So this becomes a specialist game - getting to know your markets, usually one at first, then expanding from there. Most people go to S&P500 Futures, but we find it better to find a market with a pace that suits you and grow from there. There’s lot’s of pure speculators on these markets, so if you put on your “market maker hat” and look for places where others will be out of position - that’s a good place to start.
What causes the most upset in this game is that it is quite technical a lot of the time. With the above 2 strategies, we were looking for “real world” things to drive the move to profit. Here we are in a purely speculatory environment with no news driving it. People, therefore, gravitate towards technical tools and guessing where the highs or lows are. This is a mistake that takes many out of the game.
Looking left on the chart isn’t a terrible thing - if we are in a place we’ve been stuck for ages, then expect to be stuck for a bit more and more fluid movement when we finally escape. The news drives intraday moves - but it’s not company-specific news. It’s bigger picture stuff like interest rates, employment numbers, wars, Brexit, Covid. The last 2 are great examples of “binary” news gifts that keep on giving - it’s better, it’s worse, no, it’s better again, oops, it’s worse - over and over again with every flip and flop giving you a fairly predictable outcome. So in order of magnitude, you get:
- News driven moves
- Speculation driven moves
Mush being the days where there’s not much on. Fortunately, the financial media does its best to drum up interest/pump up stories to give us good action. If you compare how Crude moves about covid lockdowns and how eBay moves about Crude prices, the latter in particular, but the former is much more generic and tradeable.
News driven markets give you a better confidence that a move may or may not be sustained. Speculation driven moves - like ranges or short term trends with uniform pullbacks on a market you watch every day give you more minor, more technical moves to exploit. This is the heart of what we do at Jigsaw, but of course, it has its pros and cons.
- The market becomes like a friend (sometimes the inappropriate but tolerated friend that gets a bit too touchy when drunk) - and you get a great feel for the moves.
- Macro news is a lot easier to digest - you don’t need to be an accountant to see this stuff. If oil goes up, then so do prices at the supermarket, and we have less money for luxuries.
- The non-news driven speculatory times are logical and, once mastered on one market, can be taken to others - you just need to allow time to become familiar with that market. Stop runs exist but will last a different amount of time.
- You are becoming master of a specific volatility profile - which you can seek elsewhere - most markets have brothers/sisters with similar characteristics.
- The busiest markets are in-play most days - that’s a massive time saving over techniques requiring you to locate markets for each trade.
- Too many people gravitate towards the busiest, most complex market (S&P500) when other markets might be better for them.
- Many Markets do have dead periods, for example, at Christmas and Summer Time - but then you should be taking a break too.
To me - this sort of trading is for the streetwise or those that don’t have time for research. It’s not about one set of techniques being better; it’s really about what’s better for you.
When I found that one of my competitors on the “In Play” game had four full-time researchers - I moved to macro day trading futures, where I feel the playing ground is more level. This concludes the best futures trading strategies.