A quick story before we start

A quick story before we start


May 6, 2010


The Connecticut air is cold and damp. The trader moves in silence. He steps quietly through the pitch-black darkness of his Victorian McMansion and toward the door. As he disarms the home security system, the BEEP BEEP BEEP of the keypad code he enters is impossibly loud in the quiet of the pre-dawn morning. He steps out of the house, closes and locks the door, and hops into his car.

As he rolls down the driveway and into the foggy morning, he inserts a Deadmau5 CD and blasts it at high volume in an effort to wake up and get pumped for another day of trading. But this will not just be another day of trading. This will be one of the most insane trading days of his career.

It has been a frustrating year so far. The Eurozone Crisis has been smoldering for months but the trader’s attempts to sell the euro have been met with massive countertrend rallies as the Fed embarks on another round of USD-negative quantitative easing (QE). They call EURUSD a collision of two garbage trucks. The trader struggles to steer clear of the wreckage.

His strongest view recently has been lower USDJPY. There is risk aversion popping up all over the place as markets worry about a domino effect where Greece crashes out of the Eurozone, followed by Spain, Portugal, Ireland and then finally Italy. Everyone is bearish stocks as the S&P 500 rally from 666 in March 2009 to 1050 now is seen as a mirage; the side effect of a money printing magic trick performed by central bankers. Totally unsustainable.

EURUSD opened the year at 1.4500 and now trades sub-1.25 so the short trade is hard to stomach. Even when you know it’s the right thing to do, it takes a lot of courage to sell something down >15%. So the trader has shifted his attention to USDJPY and he expects it to go substantially lower as global risk aversion remains elevated and safe haven currencies like the yen should find demand.

USDJPY has been inexplicably well-bid given recent risk aversion and the Fed “money printing”. It just rallied from 90 to 94 on air over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, the best leading indicator for USDJPY is always US bond yields and they have been plummeting for a month. USDJPY looks completely wrong.

The trader stares at the following chart, which shows US 10-year bond yields and USDJPY. The black bars are USDJPY and the dotted line shows US bond yields. Note they usually follow in lockstep. The divergence is a strong signal to the trader that he should be short USDJPY.

USDJPY vs. US 10-year rates November 2009 to May 5, 2010A quick story before we start - 1

The chart covers the period up to May 5. This story takes place May 6.

Chart courtesy of Refinitiv.

If you look in the top right corner, you can see that USDJPY is a bit off the highs, but not much. Two days in a row, the high has been 94.99 and USDJPY is now bouncing aimlessly around 93.80 as he rolls into the hedge fund parking lot. It is still early so there are only three Porsche 911s in the lot right now. More will arrive later.

This USDJPY trade has been tiring and painful as the trader got short at 94.00 with a stop loss at 95.05 and those two daily highs mean he has come within a hair (6 pips, or 0.064%) of getting stopped out, two days in a row. Holding on to a trade like this is exhausting as his fight-or-flight stress system remains activated for long stretches. Cortisol overload.

Now, he can relax a bit and let things play out. His target is 91.00. Average daily range has been about 1 yen (100 pips) lately so he figures we might get there in the next week or so.

10:45 AM

It has been a boring morning with USDJPY in a tight range. The sun comes out and it’s almost shorts weather outside so the trader decides to go for a run before lunch. Less than a mile into his run, he gets his first indication that this is not a random, ordinary day. His Blackberry rings. Bank sales on the line to tell him that USDJPY has just dumped 100 points in 15 minutes. Trading 92.80 now… Odd. He turns around and sprints back to the office, Spidey-sense tingling.

By the time he grabs a quick shower and returns to the desk, USDJPY is 91.50. He is short $100 million USDJPY so that puts his profit (aka P&L or profit and loss) around +$2.8 million on the day. That’s more P&L than this trader typically makes in an excellent month. A huge haul. He scans the headlines and Bloomberg chats and finds no good explanation for what is going on. The stock market is down, but not enough to explain the move in USDJPY. This makes no sense. When a trade shows a big profit that makes no sense, he likes to cover it and move on.

The trader buys 100 million USDJPY at 91.50. He is back to flat with no position and nearly 3 bucks of P&L in the bank.

He sits there calmly and processes what has happened. He allows himself to feel happy, just for a second. He stuck to his plan and had the patience to sit with a decent-sized position for three days. He relaxes and basks in the satisfaction of a job well done.

Then… Some dumb voice in his brain says:

2.8 million dollars is an amazing day. But... Maybe I can make 5 million today?

And his hands, as if possessed by some mischievous or evil force, move slowly toward the BUY and SELL buttons. For no reason. And like a moron… He goes long USDJPY.

First, he buys $50 million at 91.50 and then another $50 million at 91.25. These are impulsive trades with no rationale. His planned stop loss is 90.85 but before he has time to input a stop loss order, he notices S&Ps lurch lower on a huge volume surge. He puts on his headset and fires up the S&P squawk to see what’s going on.

[If you want to hear the soundtrack to what happens next, Google “Flash crash stock market 2010 squawk” and select one of the YouTube replay videos]

The announcer’s voice is strained as he narrates an unexplained fall in stocks from 1150 to 1120. USDJPY skips through 91.00 and the trader’s P&L shrinks to $2.0 million. He tries to sell at 90.80 and whiffs. USDJPY is suddenly in freefall. 90.10 trades. 90.00 breaks. USDJPY has just dropped more than four percent in a few hours. A monster move. The trader’s eyes flick over to his P&L which has now shrunk back to six digits. Two-thirds of three days’ work, gone in 60 seconds.

And then… Stocks sell off hard out of nowhere. Like… REALLY HARD. The S&P squawk guy is losing it. Screaming. 1100 breaks in the S&P. 1080, 1070, 1060. USDJPY is a waterfall. The squawk loses his mind as he yells:

“We have some BIG paper sellers here… 7 evens are trading. 6 evens are trading! 5 EVENS ARE TRADING!!! New lows here…”

USDJPY breaks 89.00 and the trader has still sold only 23 million USD, leaving him stuck with a position of 77 million USD. It is a fast market, nearly impossible to transact. He picks up a phone to two different banks and neither one answers. He tries to hit the 88.60 and gets a reject notice from the aggregator. The price feed is stale and crossed now; it shows 89.00 / 88.10, which is not possible. The trader is now down on the day. In the red. His face is hot and feels red like his P&L. Urge to slam fist on desk is rising. The trader feels like he is falling, falling::::::::::::::::::::in cinematic slow-mo.

USDJPY stabilizes a bit even as the S&P squawk continues to go nuts.

“65 even offered! 60 trades… 60 even bid, this is the widest we have seen in years,” his voice cracks, he’s yelling like the announcer at Churchill Downs as the horses turn for the stretch.

“60s trading! 50s trading! 50 at 70 now! We are twenty wide!”

1060 trades in S&Ps now, down just about 10% today, on zero news. Nobody knows what the hell is going on and there is panic in the air. The squawk dude continues to scream. He is pouring gasoline on the trader’s agitation.

The trader’s P&L is now six figures in the red. Sadness. Anger. He is furious with himself because he had the right trade, waited patiently for almost three days for it to work, caught the move perfectly according to plan … And then flipped the other way on a whim, for no reason and gave everything and more back in half an hour. $2.8 million is a good month for this trader. He just made and lost that much in less than two hours.

I am an idiot. How did I get into this mess?

He needs to make a decision here and quick but he realizes that he is flooded. It is impossible to make a good trading decision when you’re flooded. He needs a second to clear his mind. He tears off the headphones, drops them on his desk, and stands up.

He walks over to the window and tries to find a moment of lucid calm. He has been through these emotional storms before and knows how to get back to shore. He stares over the waters of the Long Island Sound. Gradually, his heart rate lowers. Clarity slowly, slowwwwly returns. His lizard brain retreats and his rational mind takes over. He talks to himself:

It doesn’t matter how you got here. What are you going to do about it? 88.00 was the low in March. It’s a massive level. The panic is fading. USDJPY is down 700 points in two days and now bonds are reversing lower. This is the place to buy USDJPY, not sell.

He returns to his keyboard, puts his headphones back on. The squawk guy has stopped screaming. He is noticeably more composed. S&P futures have bottomed within a whisker of limit down. They are stable but have not rebounded significantly. The bid/offer is super wide so it’s hard to tell whether they are moving higher or just bouncing along the bottom.

The trader looks around the room and sees the panic and electricity levels have dropped. Not as many phones are ringing. Voices in the room are no longer frantic. He buys 50 million USDJPY at 88.85. And another 73 million at 88.95. Max long now, long $200 million USDJPY. But this time it’s thought out, not random, and he feels good about what he is doing. He feels confident but fully in control. He calmly thinks forward: USDJPY could easily rally to 92.50 from here. When you catch a turn like this, you can be greedy.

He leaves a stop loss for half his position (sell 100 million USDJPY at 87.94) and then sits back to let things play out. He has his plan and now he knows all he can do is watch and see if it works. There is one more frenetic whipsaw and USDJPY briefly prints to a low of 87.95. One pip from his 100 million USD stop loss. Amazing luck. Seconds later, stocks stabilize, and then it’s like everyone realizes all at once that whatever the heck just happened… It’s over.

USDJPY is paid at 88.70, then up through 89.50. It breaks 90.00 and as it hits 90.40, the trader flicks his eyes to the P&L. It is almost exactly back to the level where it peaked earlier: $2.8 million. He praises the trading gods and squares up. NICE!

Too bad he didn’t stick with his plan on the way back up, either. A few hours later, USDJPY hit the trader’s original target of 92.50.

Here’s the chart of USDJPY that day:

USDJPY May 3-7, 2010 (US stock market Flash Crash was May 6)

A quick story before we start - 2

The trader made a multitude of both good and bad decisions in the three hours around the 2010 Flash Crash. The trading described in this story is a microcosm of everything that can go right and wrong in trading. Traders make good, careful decisions and get rewarded, they make bad decisions and get punished … but then sometimes a good decision leads to a bad outcome … or a bad decision is rescued by good luck. Every trader is a steaming hot bowl of bias stew and must maintain self-awareness and lucidity behind the screens as the trading day oscillates between boredom and terror.

That story of the 2010 Flash Crash, just like this book, is all about the razor thin line that separates success and failure in trading. Alpha Trader is written to help you understand markets but also, more importantly, to help you better understand yourself as a trader. It is about great decisions and dumb mistakes. It is about how to be rational and why smart people do stupid things. All the time.

The book is written for traders at every skill level. I wrote it to be understood by noobs, but I also aimed to write something that will resonate with experienced trading professionals.

Alpha Traders are smart, rational, disciplined, flexible, patient, and aggressive… They have the endurance to handle unending ups, downs, hills, and valleys. They come in fired up each day to solve the ultimate puzzle and they get paid incredibly well if they succeed. Alpha Traders work hard (even when they don’t feel like it), seek to continuously improve, and love markets more than they love money.

Thank you for taking the time to read my book. I hope you find it entertaining and useful. I hope it helps you unlock your maximum trading potential.

By the way, I plan to publish future updates, fresh trading stories and new lessons, tactics and strategies, exclusively for readers of Alpha Trader. If you are interested, please sign up at brentdonnelly.com.



Brent Donnelly

Brent Donnelly

Brent Donnelly has been trading currencies since 1995 and is currently a senior FX trader at HSBC New York. He is the author of The Art of Currency Trading (Wiley, 2019). His new book: Alpha Trader: The Mindset, Methodology and Mathematics of Professional Trading hits the shelves in Q2 2021. He writes a widely-read and highly-respected macro and FX daily called AM/FX. Over the course of his career, he has been a market maker, trader, and senior manager at some of the top banks in foreign exchange.

Brent has extensive experience trading currencies, FX options, stock index futures, NASDAQ stocks, and commodities. Brent is a respected macro thinker with the unique perspective of a senior risk taker. He has been quoted by or featured in the Economist, Real Vision, Epsilon Theory, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, and CNBC.

Before joining HSBC, Brent was head of G10 Spot Trading at Citi New York and global head of G10 FX Trading at Nomura New York. He was also a portfolio manager at a major hedge fund in Connecticut for three years. He created and wrote a cartoon called ''Daft Planet,'' which aired on TV in Canada, and he dreams of one day winning the Man Booker Prize.