A nine-to-five job may give a better return than trying your luck at day trading

New York — Thinking of packing it all in and embarking on a career trading stocks from a commission-free brokerage account? Good luck with that, says recent research.

Academics from Brazil looked at people doing short-term trades in iBovespa contracts and found that of 1,551 retail traders, just 1.1% posted higher average net returns than the Brazilian minimum wage in a bit more than a year. About 0.5% of the traders, who were tracked for 300 sessions, earned more than the average Brazilian bank teller.          

The study, which accords with other findings on the inadvisability of market timing, focuses on trading that’s distant in time and place from the Robinhood craze — futures trading by Brazilian individuals, as opposed to stock picking in the US, though its authors say the gist could have wide application.

Written by Fernando Chague and Bruno Giovannetti of the Sao Paulo School of Economics and Rodrigo De-Losso of the University of Sao Paulo, the paper said “it is virtually impossible for individuals to day trade for a living”.

Do-it-yourself investing has boomed amid the coronavirus pandemic and, to be sure, many newly minted traders have fared remarkably well — so far. A Goldman Sachs Group portfolio of stocks popular among individuals has soared 78% since March 23’s lows, dusting the S&P 500’s 51% climb.

But while gains have come easy in one of the swiftest stock market recoveries on record, Chague says the paper, which tracked traders active in the years from 2013 to 2017, offers reason for scepticism.

“You can get lucky and perform well enough in a few days, but over time it becomes increasingly difficult,” he said. “Most of them, they lost money.”

Day traders are a growing force in equity markets after the coronavirus pandemic left millions at home with little to do. Retail-friendly brokerages have seen record account openings, with no-fee trading apps such as Robinhood making the market more accessible than ever.

While an individual investor may not have as much heft as institutions, they’re showing up in size. Retail traders are now the second-largest cohort in US equity markets, commanding 19.5% of share trading, according to Bloomberg Intelligence data.

While market-makers and high-frequency traders still account for the most trading with 43.5%, the retail segment is a larger presence than quantitative investors, hedge funds, traditional long-only participants and bank-affiliated traders.

Traditional money managers are watching the retail trading renaissance with a wary eye. Megacap tech stocks — a retail fan favourite — have boosted day-trading portfolios in recent months as investors pile into stay-at-home trades. But over a longer time frame, even above-average professional stock pickers are lucky to get more than 60% of their decisions correct, according to Gradient Investments.

“It makes you a little nervous when you see all this retail money or people that are buying stocks and all of a sudden making 20%, 30%, 40% in a matter of days and weeks and thinking it’s that easy,” said Gradient portfolio manager Keith Gangl.

“What ends up happening is more and more people try that and all of a sudden, too many people are trying to do that and it becomes unsuccessful and they end up losing a lot of money.”


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