Some of the more commonly day-traded financial instruments are stocks, stock options, currencies, and a host of futures contracts such as equity index futures, interest rate futures, and commodity futures.
Day trading used to be the preserve of financial firms and professional investors and speculators. Many day traders are bank or investment firm employees working as specialists in equity investment and fund management. However, with the advent of electronic trading and margin trading, day trading has become increasingly popular among casual, at home traders.
Some day traders focus on very short-term trading within the trading day, in which a trade may last just a few minutes. Day traders may buy and sell many times in a trading day and may receive trading fee discounts from their broker for trading volume.
Some day traders focus only on price momentum, others on technical patterns, and still others on an unlimited number of strategies they feel can be profitable.
Day traders exit positions before the market closes to avoid any and all unmanageable risks --- negative price gaps (differences between the previous day's close and the next day's open price) at the open --- overnight price movements against the position held. Day traders, like all traders, have their rules.
Other traders believe they should let the profits run, so it is acceptable to stay with a position after the market closes.
Day traders sometimes borrow money to trade. This is called margin trading. Since margin interests are typically only charged on overnight balances, there is no cost to the day trader for the margin benefit.
Because of the high profits (and losses) that day trading makes possible, these traders are sometimes portrayed as "bandits" or "gamblers" by other investors. Some individuals, however, make a consistent living from day trading.
Nevertheless day trading can be very risky, especially if any of the following is present while trading:
The common use of buying on margin (using borrowed funds) amplifies gains and losses, such that substantial losses or gains can occur in a very short period of time. In addition, brokers usually allow bigger margins for day traders. Where overnight margins required to hold a stock position are normally 50% of the stock's value, many brokers allow pattern day trader accounts to use levels as low as 25% for intraday purchases. This means a day trader with the legal minimum $25,000 in his account can buy $100,000 worth of stock during the day, as long as half of those positions are exited before the market close. Because of the high risk of margin use, and of other day trading practices, a day trader will often have to exit a losing position very quickly, in order to prevent a greater, unacceptable loss, or even a disastrous loss, much larger than his original investment, or even larger than his total assets.
One of the first steps to make day trading of shares potentially profitable was the change in the commission scheme. In 1975, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made fixed commission rates illegal, giving rise to discount brokers offering much reduced commission rates.
ECNs and exchanges are usually known to traders by a three- or four-letter designators, which identify the ECN or exchange on Level II stock screens. The first of these was Instinet (or "inet"), which was founded in 1969 as a way for major institutions to bypass the increasingly cumbersome and expensive NYSE, also allowing them to trade during hours when the exchanges were closed. Early ECNs such as Instinet were very unfriendly to small investors, because they tended to give large institutions better prices than were available to the public. This resulted in a fragmented and sometimes illiquid market.
The next important step in facilitating day trading was the founding in 1971 of NASDAQ --- a virtual stock exchange on which orders were transmitted electronically. Moving from paper share certificates and written share registers to "dematerialized" shares, computerized trading and registration required not only extensive changes to legislation but also the development of the necessary technology: online and real time systems rather than batch; electronic communications rather than the postal service, telex or the physical shipment of computer tapes, and the development of secure cryptographic algorithms.
These developments heralded the appearance of "market makers": the NASDAQ equivalent of a NYSE specialist. A market maker has an inventory of stocks to buy and sell, and simultaneously offers to buy and sell the same stock. Obviously, it will offer to sell stock at a higher price than the price at which it offers to buy. This difference is known as the "spread". It is of no importance to the market-maker whether the price of a stock goes up or down, as it has enough stock and capital to constantly buy for less than it sells. Today there are about 500 firms who participate as market-makers on ECNs, each generally making a market in four to forty different stocks. Without any legal obligations, market-makers were free to offer smaller spreads on ECNs than on the NASDAQ. A small investor might have to pay a $0.25 spread (e.g. he might have to pay $10.50 to buy a share of stock but could only get $10.25 for selling it), while an institution would only pay a $0.05 spread (buying at $10.40 and selling at $10.35).
In 1997, the SEC adopted "Order Handling Rules" which required market-makers to publish their best bid and ask on the NASDAQ. Another reform made during this period was the "Small Order Execution System", or "SOES", which required market makers to buy or sell, immediately, small orders (up to 1000 shares) at the MM's listed bid or ask. A defect in the system gave rise to arbitrage by a small group of traders known as the "SOES bandits", who made fortunes buying and selling small orders to market makers.
The existing ECNs began to offer their services to small investors. New brokerage firms which specialized in serving online traders who wanted to trade on the ECNs emerged. New ECNs also arose, most importantly Archipelago ("arca") and Island ("isld"). Archipelago eventually became a stock exchange and in 2005 was purchased by the NYSE. (At this time, the NYSE has proposed merging Archipelago with itself, although some resistance has arisen from NYSE members.) Commissions plummeted. To give an extreme example (trading 1000 shares of Google), an online trader in 2005 might have bought $300,000 of stock at a commission of about $10, compared to the $3,000 commission the trader would have paid in 1974. Moreover, the trader was able in 2005 to buy the stock almost instantly and got it at a cheaper price.
ECNs are in constant flux. New ones are formed, while existing ones are bought or merged. As of the end of 2006, the most important ECNs to the individual trader were:
This combination of factors has made day trading in stocks and stock derivatives (such as ETFs) possible. The low commission rates allow an individual or small firm to make a large number of trades during a single day. The liquidity and small spreads provided by ECNs allow an individual to make near-instantaneous trades and to get favorable pricing. High-volume issues such as Intel or Microsoft generally have a spread of only $0.01, so the price only needs to move a few pennies for the trader to cover his commission costs and show a profit.
The ability for individuals to day trade coincided with the extreme bull market in technological issues from 1997 to early 2000, known as the Dot-com bubble. From 1997 to 2000, the NASDAQ rose from 1200 to 5000. Many naive investors with little market experience made huge profits buying these stocks in the morning and selling them in the afternoon, at 400% margin rates.
Adding to the day-trading frenzy were the enormous profits made by the "SOES bandits" who, unlike the new day traders, were highly-experienced professional traders able to exploit the arbitrage opportunity created by SOES.)
In March, 2000, this bubble burst, and a large number of less-experienced day traders began to lose money as fast, or faster, than they had made during the buying frenzy. The NASDAQ crashed from 5000 back to 1200; many of the less-experienced traders went broke, although a small minority of traders made fortunes shorting the market all the way down.
Some of these approaches require shorting stocks instead of buying them normally: the trader borrows stock from his broker and sells the borrowed stock, hoping that the price will fall and he will be able to purchase the shares at a lower price. There are several technical problems with short sales --- the broker may not have shares to lend in a specific issue, some short sales can only be made if the stock price or bid has just risen (known as an "uptick"), and the broker can call for the return of its shares at any time. Some of these restrictions (in particular the uptick rule) don't apply to trades of stocks that are actually shares of an exchange-traded fund (ETF).
The Securities and Exchange Commission removed the uptick requirement for short sales on July 6, 2007.
Trend following, a strategy used in all trading time-frames, assumes that financial instruments which have been rising steadily will continue to rise, and vice versa with falling. The trend follower buys an instrument which has been rising, or short-sells a falling one, in the expectation that the trend will continue.
Contrarian investing is a market timing strategy used in all trading time-frames. It assumes that financial instruments which have been rising steadily will reverse and start to fall, and vice versa with falling. The contrarian trader buys an instrument which has been falling, or short-sells a rising one, in the expectation that the trend will change.
Range trading is a trading style in which stocks are watched that have either been rising off a support price or falling off a resistance price. That is, every time the stock hits a high, it falls back to the low, and vice versa. Such a stock is said to be "trading in a range", which is the opposite of trending. The range trader therefore buys the stock at or near the low price, and sells (and possibly short sells) at the high. A related approach to range trading is looking for moves outside of an established range, called a breakout (price moves up) or a breakdown (price moves down), and assume that once the range has been broken prices will continue in that direction for some time.
Scalping originally referred to spread trading. Scalping is a trading style where small price gaps created by the bid-ask spread are exploited. It normally involves establishing and liquidating a position quickly, usually within minutes or even seconds.
Scalping highly liquid instruments for off the floor day traders involves taking quick profits while minimizing risk (loss exposure). It applies technical analysis concepts such as over/under-bought, support and resistance zones as well as trendline, trading channel to enter the market at key points and take quick profits from small moves. The basic idea of scalping is to exploit the inefficiency of the market when volatility increases and the trading range expands.
Rebate Trading is an equity trading style that uses ECN rebates as a primary source of profit and revenue, considering the payment structure of ECN paying per share. Traders maximize their returns by trading low priced, high volume stocks. This enables them to trade more shares and have more liquidity with a set amount of capital.
News playing is primarily the realm of the day trader. The basic strategy is to buy a stock which has just announced good news, or short sell on bad news. Such events provide enormous volatility in a stock and therefore the greatest chance for quick profits (or losses). Determining whether news is "good" or "bad" must be determined by the price action of the stock, because the market reaction may not match the tone of the news itself. The most common cause for this is when rumors or estimates of the event (like those issued by market and industry analysts) were already circulated before the official release, and prices have already moved in anticipation---the news is already priced in the stock.
A fast Internet connection, such as broadband, is essential for day trading.
As for the calculation method, some use pro-rata to calculate commissions and charges, where each tier of volumes charge different commissions. Other brokers use a flat-rate, where all commissions charges are based on which volume threshold one reaches.
The ask prices are immediate execution (market) prices for quick buyers (ask takers) while bid prices are for quick sellers (bid takers). If a trade is executed at quoted prices, closing the trade immediately without queuing would not cause a loss because the bid price is always less than the ask price at any point in time.
The bid-ask spread is two sides of the same coin. The spread can be viewed as trading bonuses or costs according to different parties and different strategies. On one hand, traders who do NOT wish to queue their order, instead paying the market price, pay the spreads (costs). On the other hand, traders who wish to queue and wait for execution receive the spreads (bonuses). Some day trading strategies attempt to capture the spread as additional, or even the only, profits for successful trades.
In addition to the raw market data, some traders purchase more advanced data feeds that include historical data and features such as scanning large numbers of stocks in the live market for unusual activity. Complicated analysis and charting software are other popular additions. These types of systems can cost from tens to hundreds of dollars per month to access.
Day trading is considered a risky trading style, and regulations require brokerage firms to ask whether the clients understand the risks of day trading and whether they have prior trading experience before entering the market.