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Apprenticed Investor: Prepare for Battle

It is folly to imagine you can easily best the world's sharpest, best-equipped, fastest traders.

The purpose of "Apprenticed Investor" is to teach you to become better investors. Today's lesson is about having a healthy respect -- not fear, but respect -- for your opponents.

I am always surprised at how eager and confident new investors are, entering the fray with hardly any hesitation. The reason for this is fairly simple: Many investors have achieved some level of success in their chosen field. This is how they have amassed their investing capital, and their prior success breeds a healthy self-confidence.

Healthy, that is, in your chosen fields. In the capital markets, that self-confidence is dangerous, even reckless. People tend to forget that once they become investors, they have essentially started a brand-new career -- and started at the very bottom, too.

Transitioning from a newbie to an accomplished pro will present many challenges. The self-confidence that served you so well in your other endeavors can hurt you when trading. Just as 90% of people consider themselves above-average drivers, so too do many people believe they are above-average investors. For the majority of these folks, that belief can be naive -- and potentially self-destructive.

A question I ask people who want to become traders (or even pros who want to become fund managers) is this: Do you have the skill set, discipline, temperament, time horizon, strategy and capitalization to enter into the most competitive gladiator ring on planet Earth?

The market is a zero-sum game. You win, someone else loses, and vice versa. That's certainly true on individual trades, and it's nearly true on the market overall. The only thing that prevents all of investing from being a true zero-sum game is that, over time, the pie gets bigger. At least, it has in the U.S. for the past 100 years.

Competitive Juices Flowing

It's important to understand who your opponents are on the field of battle. Sports and war metaphors abound, because they are consistent with what you are going up against. Yes, you are up against Mr. Market, but your rivals are also other people buying and selling stocks. They, too, are looking to produce positive returns.

Charles Ellis, who oversees the $10 billion endowment fund at Yale University, once observed:

Watch a pro football game, and it's obvious the guys on the field are far faster, stronger and more willing to bear and inflict pain than you are. Surely you would say, 'I don't want to play against those guys!' Well, 90% of stock market volume is done by institutions, and half of that is done by the world's 50 largest investment firms, deeply committed, vastly well prepared -- the smartest sons of bitches in the world working their tails off all day long. You know what? I don't want to play against those guys either.

That's a brutal and, in my opinion, absolutely spot-on observation. The institutions Ellis refers to are mutual funds, hedge funds, charitable trusts, insiders, program traders -- and all of


professional traders and portfolio managers.

Want to know how fast these guys are? In his recent book,

Running Money

, Andy Kessler recalls a story about the run-up to the first Gulf War. Then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had flown to Geneva to meet with Tariq Aziz, his counterpart from Iraq, to see if a peaceable solution could be worked out: "Baker stepped out of the meeting and said, 'Regrettably...' Before he finished his sentence, oil prices spiked 30% and stock markets sold off," Kessler writes.

That's what you are up against.

Despite this daunting opposition, too many individuals step onto the field of battle with the pros with too little preparation. To carry the sports metaphor further, they end up receiving season-ending injuries to their investment and retirement accounts.

I frequently review these sorts of accounts. What I see causing most of the losses is simply an inadequate skill set. Some of the foolishness I see from the alleged pros is as bad as what the market "dabblers" have done. In the coming weeks, we will look at several things you can do to avoid the most common injuries.

Lawyers, Docs & Money

Consider this: If you have anything more than the simplest of tax forms, what do you do? You pay a professional to do your taxes. If you are accused of a felony, you get the best lawyer you can. Need heart surgery? You go to the very best hospital you can afford.

I put financial management right up there as a profession with medicine, law and accounting. Yet many people never even hesitate to take their hard-earned money, open an account and start trading.

Worse still is how nonchalantly these accounts get treated. Do you ask your friends at cocktail parties what's the best way to crack open a chest cavity, or which rib spreader they like best? No, you find the best heart man you can, and let him try to save your life.

It should be the same in the market, but it's not. People have committed months -- if not years -- of hard-earned income to investments based on cocktail party chatter, chat board rumors or astrologers. That's not what you call extensive due diligence. Idle rumor mongering in an online chat room is not the equivalent of hardcore, in-depth research.

I'm not suggesting that you should throw up your hands in desperation and hand over your accounts to the so-called pros. Rather, I want you to understand


what's involved and what you are facing before you plunk down your hard earned do-re-mi. It isn't that you cannot do it yourself -- my point is you darn well better get up to speed


you start doing it yourself.

I'm sure that some people will disregard all of this as self-interested blather. After all, my firm profits by having people pay us a fee to manage their money. And for many people, that's the best route. They are self-aware and realize they lack the time, discipline or interest to do it themselves. If you are reading this, I assume you want to do it yourself. This advice is to help you understand that you best get up to speed.

Still, even the most cynical amongst us must admit the following: It is outrageous folly to imagine that, in just a few hours a week, you can best the world's sharpest, best-equipped, fastest traders.

This is the not-so-secret problem with the online trading business model, i.e., why






are reportedly in merger talks. It's also why



set up its "trusted investor advisory." They all know the dirty little secret of the business: All too many frequent online traders eventually grind their assets away. (It also explains why E*Trade has diversified into banking, mortgages and other financial services.)

The most skilled and talented amateur traders eventually go pro (i.e., direct access), while many of the rest hack up their capital, sandpapering away their accounts through poor risk management and over-trading.

Knowledge vs. Wisdom

Just because someone hands you a bat doesn't mean you can hit a home run off of Roger Clemens (yes, another sports metaphor). The explosion of Web-based market data may have given everyone similar tools, but it did not grant them an equal ability to use those tools. There is a huge difference between information and knowledge, and between fact and wisdom.

I believe that many people can compete on the Gladiatorial trading fields. It requires hard work, discipline, intelligence and a willingness to learn things that are counter-intuitive. In coming columns, I hope to show you many of the tools you will need to succeed on that field of battle.

Barry Ritholtz is chief market strategist for Maxim Group, where his research and market analysis are used by the firm's portfolio managers and clients in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He also publishes The Big Picture, his macro perspectives on the economy and geopolitics, entertainment and technology industries, and is a member of the board of directors of, a streaming media software company. At the time of publication, Ritholtz had no position in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Ritholtz appreciates your feedback and invites you to send it to