Saturday, November 30, 2013
How To Make Dough
The creator of thinkorswim and tastytrade has created a new visual trading platform. We signed on for the beta test.
Tom Sosnoff can’t seem to sit still. The creator of the thinkorswim trading platform and the tastytrade Web-based financial video network is now testing a new visual trading platform called dough. The Electronic Investor signed on as one of several thousand tire kickers and recently had a chance to review the site. Here are our thoughts.
Dough acts as an analytical platform, helping you find profitable trades. It has six modules: a trading panel, a monitor of other traders, portfolio analysis, the Grid (which tracks stocks), an activity summary, and a trading journal. The interface guides you through constructing a trade, and is designed to show you the effect a trade will have on your portfolio. “We designed dough to put the fun and the challenge back into finance. Regardless of age and domain experience, dough engages through investible content,” says Sosnoff.
The interface looks like an iPad app in portrait mode. Buttons along the top of the screen let you choose from a variety of options strategies; setting up a stock trade is also possible. You can design a strategy yourself by dragging and dropping icons shaped like shields, which represent stocks, calls, or puts. Options are displayed with strike prices on the horizontal axis, and expiration dates along the vertical axis. As you build an order, one of dough’s key features comes into play: the probability of profit. You can adjust the order by, say, widening the spread on this screen, and the updated probability is displayed. Once you have an order you’d like to execute, pressing the Confirm button generates a text description.
The dough platform also connects to the live broadcast of tastytrade, as well as instructional videos about trading called doughtv. A group of traders (including Sosnoff) is displayed on the opening screen; you can follow one or more of them and see exactly what they’re trading. Each trader’s current return on capital and probability of profit is prominently displayed.
The Grid is a series of color-coded tiles that help you monitor the stocks in which you’re interested. You can add symbols to the Grid and manage a variety of watch lists. Each tile displays the current price, whether the most recent tick was up or down, and the net change in value for the day. The color of the tile—green for rising prices and red for declining ones—allows you to track your stocks.
There’s a circle in the middle of each tile that represents the stock’s volatility compared with its historical range. A nearly full circle indicates that volatility is high, which means that the stock’s price could change dramatically in a short period of time. A nearly empty circle means that its value is not expected to fluctuate wildly but rather shift gradually over time. Dough recommends that you look for stocks at the extremes of their volatility range to get the most out of price changes; the display lets you quickly scan for nearly full or nearly empty circles.
THE TRADING JOURNAL is a slick way to monitor your ideas and orders, and lets you store screen shots of your trades along with market data.
If you have a TD Ameritrade brokerage account, you can execute trades from dough; if you trade elsewhere, you can enter your trades manually. You can open a TD Ameritrade account from within dough and receive commission-free trades for 60 days. (TD Ameritrade purchased Sosnoff’s thinkorswim electronic brokerage in 2009, and the two retain close ties.) There could be other broker links in the future. Dough will be free once it’s fully up and running.
A recent show on tastytrade, which broadcasts eight hours of live programming every weekday beginning at 7 a.m. Central (the firm is based in Chicago), features Sosnoff’s daughter, Case, the business team’s director of Website development. She hosts Where Do I Start?—an entertaining way to learn about trading strategies as she peppers her father with questions that range from technical tips to musings about his sanity.
Case also represents dough’s target audience—who are tech savvy but still learning about investing. With its highly visual, almost gamelike, interface, dough could be the sort of tool that brings in newly minted options traders.
We found it to be a well-designed application that provides several unique tools. You can weigh in with your own beta test at dough.com.
Published in Barron’s, November 24, 2013.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
How Fast Is Your Online Broker?
In light of the troubles with Obamacare’s Website, it seemed like a good time to send 12 online brokers in for a performance checkup.
Health-care officials responsible for the Website of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, could take a lesson or two from online brokers.
Given the inundation of reports about healthcare.gov’s tardiness, it seemed like a good time to call in Compuware APM Benchmarks, which provides online performance data, to give 12 online-broker sites a six-month checkup. Compuware ranked the firms in order of speed for placing a trade and the time it takes to load the site’s home page. This differs from Barron’s annual ranking, which assesses quality of the overall trading experience; our normal review looks at direct-access brokers as well as Web-based brokers.
Scottrade, TD Ameritrade, and Fidelity were the winners for speed in executing a script that places an order. Lagging were Firstrade, TradeKing, and Vanguard. Compuware considers a time of five seconds or fewer to be outstanding; the industry average was 7.74 seconds in this assessment. The fastest order-generation time was 2.84 seconds, measured at Scottrade, while Firstrade’s response time was a leisurely 30.8 seconds.
Fidelity’s home page loads the fastest, followed by e*Trade and optionsXpress. Firstrade and Vanguard are low on the list, as are Scottrade and TD Ameritrade, despite their fast order-entry systems.
It’s not surprising to see Fidelity’s name atop these lists, as it has been investing heavily to make its Website faster and easier to use. “Fidelity’s Web team measures resource consumption of components, processes and latency at measurable points in the systems, and we identify application bottlenecks to improve application performance,” says Richard Blunck, an executive vice president for digital distribution. Fidelity, he says, avoids any change unless it improves performance.
Some of those that finished lower on the rankings made note of possible impediments. Don Montanaro, TradeKing’s CEO, says security technology designed to thwart network attacks can slow systems, or a script can get hung up waiting for a trading password. And firms such as Vanguard likely haven’t made Web speed a big priority, because they emphasize long-term investments and low costs.
COMPUWARE MEASURED THE DAILY technical performance of the Websites and averaged the results over six months, from April through September 2013. Tests were run from 12 geographically dispersed data centers across multiple network providers within the U.S. at regular 30- or 60-minute intervals each business day. The results shown in the two tables below indicate the Websites’ performance over time.
Compuware uses three metrics: Response time measures how long it takes to load a page, in seconds (lower is better); availability assesses by percent how often the site is able to complete a transaction (the closer to 100% the better); and consistency tracks how the response time varies over many visits, shown in seconds (lower is better). The consistency figure is simply the standard deviation, a statistical measure. Compuware collates the three metrics into an overall ranking. Simply put, a Website must do well on all metrics to achieve a high ranking.
Technical performance is very important to active online traders, who want to use every second to get the best price or to exit a collapsing position. Compuware surveys showed that 65% of consumers who have bought or sold a stock online have experienced a problem during a peak period, and 44% of them would switch to a competitor if not satisfied with their current provider’s Website. Speed and reliability are key components of customer satisfaction.
Steven Dykstra, senior product manager for Compuware, says brokerage Websites have much better technical performance than their counterparts at other businesses it tracks, such as retail, media, and travel outfits. It’s clear that Fidelity and Scottrade have invested in online performance.
The average availability of the 12 Websites is quite high, though Compuware notes that the site with the lowest availability, Firstrade, was unavailable 1.1% of the time, or four days a year. The firm didn’t respond to calls for comment.
“While most brokerages seem to have figured out how to make home pages fast, a few really lag on investors’ ability to complete a simple transaction,” says Dykstra.
Compuware sent the Obama administration its own “get well” recommendations after reviewing healthcare.gov: Health officials should follow many of the standard practices of online brokers, such as compressing images to save on network bandwidth, and speeding up execution by trimming the number of elements in use on a page. Speed and availability make customers—and constituents—happy.
And Now for the Winners
Scottrade can generate an order in under three seconds, with TD Ameritrade and Fidelity not far behind. On the opposite end is Firstrade, whose system takes nearly 31 seconds. Fidelity opens to its home page in about a half-second; Firstrade is much faster here, but still last.
Fastest to Generate an order
Average Average Average
Overall Response Availability Consistency
Rank Participant (seconds) (%) (seconds)
1 Scottrade 2.837 99.97% 1.435
2 TD Ameritrade 3.767 99.97 1.690
3 Fidelity 4.031 99.91 2.179
4 e*Trade 4.480 99.87 2.193
5 Charles Schwab 4.698 99.86 2.742
6 Merrill Lynch 5.582 99.84 2.858
7 Muriel Siebert 9.052 99.79 2.894
7 optionsXpress 9.063 99.71 3.048
9 Wells Fargo 12.015 99.61 3.759
10 Vanguard 14.844 99.47 4.504
11 TradeKing 15.143 99.23 4.891
12 Firstrade 30.796 98.87 5.245
Fastest to open its Home page
Overall Average Response Average Availability Average Consistency
Rank Participant (seconds) (%) (seconds)
1 Fidelity 0.545 99.96% 1.435
2 e*Trade 0.845 99.92 1.690
2 optionsXpress 1.342 99.92 2.179
4 Merrill Lynch 1.632 99.92 2.193
4 Wells Fargo 1.908 99.86 2.742
6 Charles Schwab 2.023 99.85 2.858
6 Muriel Siebert 2.836 99.84 2.894
8 TradeKing 3.029 99.84 3.048
9 Scottrade 3.756 99.83 3.759
10 Vanguard 3.869 99.78 4.504
11 TD Ameritrade 4.311 99.68 4.891
12 Firstrade 4.745 99.67 5.245
Source: Compuware APM Benchmarks
Published in Barron’s, November 11, 2013.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Majoring in Money
A couple of Websites are aimed at raising the financial acumen of high-school students. How much do I have to make to afford that lifestyle?
Like most people in my profession, I’m an advocate of financial literacy. I believe the 2007-08 financial crisis would have been avoided—or at least less severe—if more people had understood what kind of collateral was backing too many mortgages and financial instruments.
That’s one of the reasons I was intrigued by Moneythink (moneythink.org).
The company’s mission is the expansion of economic opportunity in the U.S. by developing financial-literacy programs for urban youth. The aim is to educate every teenager in how to navigate the financial challenges of adult life. Moneythink has set up a program in which college volunteers mentor local youth, teaching them how to make and manage money. Among the colleges involved are U.C. Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Rice.
The mentors teach their students about networking, budgeting, banking, investing, saving, and managing debt and government benefits. They work with small groups—at most five students—to encourage strong financial and career decision-making. Making use of pop culture to illustrate the upside of sound financial management and the downside of fiscal imprudence, the once-weekly sessions help students better understand the financial landscape so they can develop their own personal financial blueprint. It was created by Ted Gonder, Shashin Chokshi, and Greg Nance.
It’s a lofty aim, and financed by donors that include the Center for Financial Services Innovation and the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the Website is definitely worth a look.
The late Muriel Siebert and I often discussed the financial-literacy program she developed for high-school students. It became part of New York City’s high-school curriculum, and Siebert worked to expand it nationally. The Jump$tart Coalition (jumpstart.org) has a map on its Website that shows financial-literacy education requirements by state. Only four, Utah, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia, require at least a semester course devoted to personal finance. Twenty others, including New York, require personal-finance instruction to be incorporated into other subjects. The other 26 states have no requirements.
Jump$tart has a terrific library of financial-literacy resources, many of which are free to teachers and caregivers. It also conducts a biennial survey; unfortunately, when last conducted in 2010, it demonstrated that graduating high-school seniors continue to struggle with the basics of financial literacy.
If you’ve got high school- or college-age offspring in your household, it would be of great benefit to them—and to you—to run them through Jump$tart’s Reality Check, which you can find under the Resources tab. It’s a short questionnaire that will tell you how much you would have to make per hour to support the lifestyle desired without going into debt. It’s a real eye-opener.
I have some informal personal experience here. I’m currently volunteering with a terrific, local (to me) organization called 10 Books A Home (10booksahome.org). I have an hour-long tutoring session each week with a preschool child from an underprivileged family that does not speak English at home. We read, play, and converse in English, and I often throw in money-related items. My learner’s mother told me recently that her child is looking at prices at the grocery store and suggesting less-expensive items. There may be a way you can help promote literacy in your neighborhood.
PRODIGIO/TRADEMONSTER: Earlier this month, tradeMonster (trademonster.com) announced that it has partnered with mPower, publisher of Prodigio, an analytical platform that allows you to back-test a trading system. We raved about Prodigio when it was introduced by thinkorswim (thinkorswim.com) several years ago. But when TD Ameritrade bought thinkorswim, Prodigio wasn’t folded in, and it initially planned a partnership with OptionsHouse. That agreement has since dissolved.
Among Prodigio’s features are strategy back-testing, pivot studies, pairs-trading functionality, and a complete charting package. You set up a strategy scan using drag-and-drop technology. Prodigio is capable of helping a trader develop and test strategies, and then set them up to automatically trade for you. Anyone putting Prodigio to use needs a very high level of financial literacy.
Published in Barron’s, October 21, 2013.