What does a stock trader actually do
The life of a trader is often glamorised by films such as The Wolf of Wallstreet and Margin Call – a view that is shared by many who have no direct experience with the wider investment industry. It is also true that different types of traders have very different workloads. Trading emerging markets is not the same as trading FTSE stocks or the forex markets.
Let’s start by defining what traders, broadly speaking actually are:
“Professionals in finance who buy and/or sell assets on the financial markets.”
These are people who usually have a background in finance, either through traditional education (think degrees in finance, accounting, economics, investment management etc) or through practical experience at companies working within financial services.
This is to say that the day-to-day activities of a trader is to either buy assets (such as stocks, futures, commodities) or to sell assets (such as stocks, forex, bonds). Two distinct roles in trading can be summed up in the Buy side, and the Sell side in terms of execution.
A broader categorisation would include participants within the financial markets who trade securities. This encompasses independent traders working from home to large multinational financial institutions which see billions of dollars a day flow from and to their order books.
The Buy Side
The Buy side is concerned with purchasing assets, and this generally involves taking orders from management or clients and then sending those orders to the broker to be executed. This role is being gradually replaced by technology, specifically automation and AI, and its hard to see a future for buy side traders 20 years from now. There is also a distinctly bad reputation associated with buy side traders, these are often just messengers, and have been known to treat brokers with incredible hostility and bitterness over recent years.
The Sell Side
Alternatively, the Sell side is just the opposite – these traders are only concerned with selling positions either the firm or the firms clients holds. Again technology is eliminating this role over time, and today both buy and sell side traders simply take message, and pass it along either electronically through an online platform or via telephone for the perhaps more traditional establishments.
Private Hedge fund managers
Many successful traders have gone on to start hedge funds with private companies and from private investors. This is a highly privileged position to be in, as hedge fund managers are in control of both the broad strategy for the investments and receives the greatest compensation should the strategy be profitable.
Private Portfolio Managers
Portfolio managers working at a private company (such as a large hedge fund) is again a much sought after position. Portfolio managers generally create a positive or negative selection portfolio, which allows them to implement their own strategy to make the best returns with the lease risk – although these parameters are often set outside the control of the individual portfolio manager. The same also exists within commercial banking, but it is usually more focused on creating a very balanced portfolio that exists to hedge risk as opposed to making real returns.
Analysts do the number crunching and quantitative prep work for the portfolio or hedge fund managers. This role involves applied finance and taking a close look at various assets fundamentals. This includes the balance sheet, income statement and cashflow statement for analysts looking at stocks. This is usually a relatively junior role, and those who are successful here tend to become traders, portfolio managers and eventually hedge fund managers over the course of a successful career.
There are still plenty of traders left at investment banks, despite the decline over the last few decades. As much as 90% of the time is spent dealing with clients such as Hedge and Pension Funds.
Investment Bank Traders
- As much as 90% of the time is spent dealing with clients such as Hedge and Pension Funds.
The trader is then Making Markets in Assets the clients want to buy/sell, such as stocks, currencies, commodities and bonds.
- The other 10% of time is Proprietary trading, utilising the banks large balance sheet to create a positive selection portfolio.
Market Makers (Agency)
Market making is the primary task of an investment trader (~80% of market making business)
Split into two sections:
- Agency Business – Client holds risk
- Risk business – Investment Bank holds risk
Investment Bank charges commission on these activities at a typical rate of 5 basis points or 0.05%
Example – Buy £10,000,000 of BP stock at £100 per share = 100,000 BP shares.
Commission for bank - £10,000,000 X 0.005 = £5,000
Risk free for bank – algorithm executes trades based on client orders
In terms of basis points, 100 = 1%
This type of trading can happen in two ways, the first where small investors at home use their own capital to trade for a direct gain or commercially where a firm uses its own capital to make trades to be the prime beneficially of the rewards should the trade go well. This is in contrast to how hedge funds would normally just earn a commission, by also utilising internal capital the firm is able to take larger risks, which tend to come with the larger rewards.
Here’s another interesting fact:
“Only 6% of candidates end up making it as a professional trader” (Business Insider, 2011)
This statement alone shows just how competitive the industry is, and to make a successful career is even harder, with only ~5% of traders ever making it to a managerial level.
Section 2 – How does 8 hours day break down?
Why you might want to be a stock trader
We meet a lot of traders, its what we do – and here are a few of the top reasons traders we spoke to continue to do what they do.
- Love the Game
Many traders are extremely fond of the game that is the financial markets. Day traders talk about the rush as fast-paced action that runs from 8am to 4pm 5 days a week. The same holds true for long-term traders, and while lacking the constant adrenaline of day trading the highs of closing a trade that’s been on-going for months is just as great a feeling – the analogy one trader used was whereas day traders get Christmas every day, long-term traders get all of their Christmases at once, 4-5 times a year.
- Financial Freedom
This is not just about the ability to make a living from trading and the financial markets, but from having the knowledge and understanding of the world of finance to make sound financial decisions, whether that be in deciding between a fixed or variable mortgage, or the best ways to allocate capital to save for school fees.
- Intellectual Challenge
There is undoubtedly both an intellectual and an emotional challenge in trading successfully. While it is said that day traders trade emotion, long term portfolio managers trade on intellect and sound financial decision making.
- Style & Expression
Traders all trade differently, from value investors to crypto speculators each trader develops a style and method of trading that fits their way of life and the perception they have of the world around them. If you are emotional in-tune with the wider world, then day trading can be exceptionally profitable. The same holds true for value investors like Warren Buffet, a trader who enjoys digesting and analysing reams of company reports to find what Buffet calls “Great companies at fair prices”.
This post has hopefully given you an understanding of the typical day in the life of a trader. If you feel your ready to take the next step towards a career in trading and finance, Horizon provides a comprehensive introductory course on Investing for Beginners.