Knowledge Is Power
A Review of My Experience with the
Investools is a registered trademark. Investools is an affiliate of TD Ameritrade, Inc.
ThinkOrSwim is a registered trademark. ThinkOrSwim is an affiliate of TD Ameritrade.
The Investor Foundation Workshop is an educational offering of Investools.
First things first:
Lets identify the players:
- Do I think Investools is a rip-off or scam ? NO
- Do I think the Investor Foundation Workshop is a rip-off ? Read on
- Investools - An educational organization with a nice Web-based stock screening tool called the Investor Toolbox. Investools was a subsidiary of the ThinkOrSwim Group because, as you'll see below, one of the founders of ThinkOrSwim, Tom Sosnoff, has a passion for educating retail investors.
- ThinkOrSwim (TOS) - A brokerage firm that developed an incredibly powerful, very sophisticated analysis and trading platform built for options traders (but good for stock traders as well).
- TD Ameritrade (TDA) - A discount brokerage firm that was the result of a 2006 merger between the discount brokerage firms of TD Waterhouse and Ameritrade. In 2009
TD Ameritradeacquired the previously-combined Investools/ThinkOrSwim organization.
The logic behind
TD Ameritradeacquiring the Investools/ThinkOrSwim organization is that educated traders stay in the game longer and place more trades. And I suppose it doesn't hurt that there's big money to be made in trader and investor eduation.
I want to state right off that I'm a more-than-satisfied
TD Ameritradecustomer. I think the fact that you can call for assistance 24/7 and get someone in the US or go to a local office and talk to someone in person is important. I am VERY happy that they give their customers the ThinkOrSwim platform to use for free and I really like their training Webcasts, many of which are conducted by Investools personnel.In mid-2010 TDA e-mailed me about two free, consecutive, one-day workshops they were conducting in my area, the "Trading Strategies for Todays Market" workshop and the "Risk-Defined Options Strategies" workshop held Friday and Saturday respectively at local hotels. I fully expected to get a sales pitch for something at these free workshops. In this day of Webinars they're not going to pay for hotel conference room space and staff travel expenses just to be nice.I also want to state that neither I or any friends or family have any interest, financial or otherwise, in Investools, ThinkorSwim, TD Ameritrade,or TastyTrade (reviewed later).
There were two basic sales pitches during these two free workshops:
- one for Investools training opportunities where they give you a brief taste of the Investor Toolbox, a Web-based stock and sector screening tool.
- one to get you to move any accounts you have with other institutions to TDA.
Prior to attending the workshops I'd been studying options for some time and dabbled with a few trades but the fact is that you can have all the fancy options strategies in the world but if you don't base them on the correct underlying stock or index they're not going to work. You need to be able evaluate stocks and market trends for options plays. That's why I was happy to see the Investor Toolbox offered during the Investools sales pitch. Even better was the fact that it only cost $29/month to access it (which is cheap compared to most other similar offerings I've looked into).
But before you can access the Investor Toolbox you need to take their "Investor Foundation Workshop" for $299 to learn how to use it. Given that the $299 included 6 months access to the Toolbox ($174 value) I planned to sign up for it. However, given that I was going to be attending the second workshop the next day I just took the application home with me the first day so I could do some researching. Doing some Googling I was shocked to find out that the Investor Foundation Workshop used to cost $2,999! Whether the $299 and $2,999 versions of the workshops are the same, I have my doubts (see below).
When you sign up for the Investor Foundation Workshop you have the option of taking the course on line or live the following Friday and Saturday at a different hotel ballroom. What's not clearly pointed out is that you can do both. Sign up for the live class and, in my case, take the on-line version before the first live class session. When you fill out and hand in the application and your $299 fee you are given a login ID and password that you can use to access and play around with the Investor Toolbox and take the on-line version of the course.
The next morning I arrived for the second free (Options Strategies) workshop with check in hand and signed up for the $299 Investor Foundation Workshop. What I found "interesting" was that at the Options Strategies workshop they didn't offer the $299 option right away. They only offered a more expensive course targeting option traders (and prospective options traders). Only after they had gotten all the applications they were going to get for the more expensive course did they offer the cheaper Investor Foundation workshop. I thought that was kind of sleezy behavior.
All in all I think the two free seminars were well worth the time, although I would not recommend the Options Strategies workshop until one understands options because they move through the information quickly (to leave time for the sales pitches).
Investor Foundation Workshop
During the following week I went through most of the 7 steps using the on-line version of the Investor Foundation Workshop including taking the 10-question quizzes at the end of each step. The material is good, giving a good foundation in the use of the Investor Toolbox and covering some principals of fundamental and technical analysis. I was anxious to get to the live class to get an instructors slant on the material.
Friday arrived and I got there early to get a spot in the front and before lunch I was disillusioned. How was the live version of the Investor Foundation Workshop? In a word:
I expect to get a sales pitch at a free workshop. But to get one after another after another at a workshop that I paid money to attend is incredibly sleezy. And I do mean one after another after another. I would conservatively estimate that 40% of the workshop time was filled with out-right sales pitches for more advanced Investools offerings (going up to $23,000) and, in some cases, the same TDA sales pitches given the at the free workshops the week earlier.
When Investools sends you an e-mail reminder about the workshop they include a link to a PDF of the course syllabus. According to the syllabus, 5 of the 7 steps in Investools "formula" are to be covered the first day. This isn't unbalanced given that more time is spent on technical analysis (Step 6). In my class we only got through Step 3 the first day due to all the sales pitches. Even worse was the fact that, because all the sales pitches left less time for the course material, the instructor moved so fast you couldn't get a question in edge-wise. This was perhaps the most disappointing thing to me. The whole point of a live classroom is interaction with an instructor. This was more like watching a video.
Above I said that 40% of the class time was filled with "out-right sales pitches". Another 15 to 20% was lost to a more subliminal sales tactic. The instructor would say he's going to cover something a little more "advanced" just for a few minutes like he was giving us some extra stuff. What he would present is some advanced, multi-legged options trade or some advanced chart pattern and show how you could use them to make money and then start talking about how much you need the Investools advanced technical analysis course or their advanced options course. Even "breakout sessions" were nothing more than telling you how much you need their advanced training.
The result? You pay $299 for a two-day course in which only 5 to 6 hours total is actually devoted to presenting course material. In my case the instructor whipped through Steps 4 through 7 the second day so quickly that I would've been totally lost had I not taken the on-line version first. I think the instructor was aware of this as he did take time to take more questions the second day.
Perhaps the most disgusting thing is the missed opportunities. They say starting out the first day that the single most important thing is having a trading plan. But they're so busy trying to get you to buy something they never go into it further or help you develop one (but you're instructed to work on one in nearly every step of the on-line course). Of the 10 biggest mistakes investors make, 7 of them were never even covered in my live course. It seems to me that these two topics would be the most critical to the investors who would be taking this course.
Given that you pay $299 whether you attend the live sessions or not, the only cost of attending them (over doing the on-line version only) is your time. Whether it's worth it is something only you can decide. There is a benefit to a live setting. Others may ask questions that never occurred to you. You may even want to hear a sales pitch about their advanced course offerings. But the relentless nature of the sales pitches taking away from valuable class time is a sleezy way to treat paying students. Near the end of the second day they even offered a scaled-down "apprentice" program to try and squeeze out a few more registrations out of those who hadn't signed up for any advanced training, again taking away from course material presentation time.
I don't know if this is how the Investor Foundation Workshop was always presented, but if I had paid the $2,999 instead of $299 I would have asked for my money back. Hopefully
TD Ameritradewill at least reduce the sleeziness of these workshops. The heavy-handed nature of these sales tactics did just the opposite, it turned me off of further Investools training. If they had presented it once, maybe twice (once each day for 15 to 30 minutes), in a professional manner instead of acting like used car salesman maybe I would've signed up for further training. Given that most self-directed retail investors are educated professionals I was surprised by their short-sighted unprofessional tactics.
It's truly a shame they chose to present Investools training in this manner because, after watching TDA training videos conducted by Investools instructors and coaches, it's obvious they care about what they do and are good at it. And if watching videos and following other traders in Dough (see below) isn't enough for you and you're looking for one-on-one coaching then Investools is a good alternative.
The Investor Foundation Workshop aside, I do enjoy the Investor Toolbox. It filled a stock screening hole for me and at $29/month I will likely be with them for quite some time to come. And there's no need to use the Prophet Charts on the Investools Web site to do any technical analysis because you can use the TOS (ThinkOrSwim) platform to do that (if you're a
TD Ameritradecustomer). With recent upgrades to TOS, even the Investools Market Forecast Graph and Phase 1 and Phase 2 information is available in Prophet Charts in TOS.
If you do find yourself signing up for the live Investor Foundation Workshop, do yourself a huge favor and go through the on-line version of the course before the live version starts. In going through the on line version you may come up with questions that you can ask the instructor (during breaks).
TastyTrade - The Best Options Trading Education and It's FREE
Lucky for us (retail traders) when one of the creators of ThinkorSwim, Tom Sosnoff, sold to
TD Ameritradehe didn't take his money and go buy a tropical island. He started TastyTrade. (I have no idea how he comes up with his product names.) TastyTrade is a network in the media sense of the word. From their Website they stream eight hours of live programming every weekday (starting at 7 amCentral Time) and every minute of it is focused on educating retail traders primarily on how to trade options, with some coverage of futures. There are no fees to watch the programming and the archives of past programs are also available for free viewing. Tom Sosnoff is the star of most of the programs and he, along with the person who was in charge of trader education at ThinkorSwim, Tony Batista (call him "Bat"), delivers content that not only educates but, through in-depth research performed by their sizable research staff, shows why what they are saying is supported by the facts of the markets.
The day's programs are replayed in the evening and can also be viewed on demand at any time that day or night by clicking on the individual show's icon under the main video window. Daily features such as Good Trade Bad Trade and Market Measures are for those familier with options trading. They even have a weekly show called Strategies For Your IRA that features trades that are allowed in a traditional or Roth IRA account.
(TD Ameritradeallows options trading in IRA accounts.) For those new to options trading check out the Step Up To Optionsseries with Rachel Fox and programs in the WDIS (Where Do I Start) series in the archives under the "Shows"link.
Not only does TastyTrade stream live video content every day, they also created a new Web-based options trading platform (what else would you expect from the creator of ThinkorSwim) that is targeted more at beginning options traders called Dough. Dough is more visually oriented than ThinkorSwim and allows you to follow the trades placed by a number of different TastyTrade staffers so you can see how they do it (under the "Follow" icon). There is also a series of video tutorials that take you from the basics of options through trading strategies (under the "Doughjo" icon).
And if all that isn't enough, TastyTrade and Dough are not only free but they can actually save you a lot of money in commissions. If you use the TastyTrade or Dough Websites to open an account with
TD Ameritrade(light blue ellipses on the above screen shots) you'll get a reduced options commission rate that is far below TDA's normal options commission schedule. This can really add up over time to some serious savings (especially when you "trade often").
The TastyTrade methodology for those who are learning to trade options or with small account balances (under $25K) involves not buying, but selling, Call options because you make money if the market goes down, goes sideways, or even goes up but not by a lot. The methodology has three simple facets:Note that you can now open a
TD Ameritrademargin account through TastyTrade or Dough without funding it right away. This would allow you to download and install the ThinkorSwim software and use the "PaperMoney" (trade simulation) function in it to practice placing options trades, aka "paper trade." (TDA requires a $2,000 balance to start placing real options trades.) Having an account would also give you access to TDA's many educational videos, some of which are available on their Web site while others are streamed live in the ThinkOrSwim platform.
Facet No. 1 - Sell $1-wide Call spreads on stocks or ETFs that have:
a) a price between $15 and $50 (stocks above $50 typically don't have dollar-increment strikes in their options chain)
b) a "Current IV Percentile" above 50 (also called "IV Rank," you can find this volatility statistic on the ThinkorSwim or their Dough platform)
and the options themselves should be:
c) "penny-increment" options meaning bid-ask spreads of 1 to 3 cents which indicates sufficient liquidity
d) around 45 days to expiration to "give yourself time to be right" (meaning if a trade goes bad it will have time to turn around)
e) have about a 70% probability of expiring out-of-the-money (another stat available on the ThinkorSwim and Dough platforms)
Facet No. 2 - While most trading books advise you to let your winners run and manage your losers, TastyTrade's research shows that, given the "defined risk" nature of options trades, you should do just the opposite. Manage winners, not losers, meaning if you get a decent profit (50% to 75% of max profit) close the trade but give losers time to turn around, which is why you choose around 45 days to expiration. (How many times have you gotten out of a losing trade only to discover it would have been a winner if you had just stayed in it? And, mysteriously, we always seem to exit the trade at the exact worst price point as if the underlying was just waiting for us to get out before turning around.)
Facet No. 3 - Above all else, TRADE SMALL AND TRADE OFTEN.
TRADE SMALL using single-contract spreads on dollar-wide strikes so your losing trades don't lose you that much.
TRADE OFTEN so the higher number of occurrences gets the "law of large numbers" mathematical theory to work in your favor. Have a lot of trades on at any given time as your account balance allows making sure not to have more than half your account value at risk at any given time (now you see why those reduced commissions can really rack up the savings).
Your long-run odds of success are much better if you routinely risk $70 on each of ten trades rather than $700 on one trade.
Note that we're not talking about big-money trading here. In order to make big money you have to take big risks and it's just a matter of time before traders who take big risks blow out their accounts. Starting out we're talking about making $15 to $30 on a winning trade. But with these small wins comes small risk which allows you to stay in the game long enough (read "years") to figure out how to trade consistently. If you can't consistently make money trading a $2,000 account you're not going to have any long-term success trading a $100,000 account. You'll just lose more.For example, you sell $1-wide Call spreads that expire in 45 days collecting 30 cents ($30) which gives you 70 cents ($70) of risk on each trade. Having half of a $2,000 account at risk means you can have $1,000/$70 or 14 trades on at a time. When your
"P/L Open"(profit since opening the trade) is up $15 to $25 close the position and go on to the next trade. Note that this illustrates the "defined risk" aspect of options trading. In the absolute worst-case scenario, no matter what the price of the underlying stock, ETF or index goes to, your max loss is limited to $70 on the trade.
Real World: As I write this the market has been going down so the VIX has gone up to 21 (higher volatility makes option prices go up so you collect more money when you sell options). In ThinkorSwim I ran a scan of the "Penny Increment Options" group (to ensure liquidity) for options that have a Current IV Percentile (a volatility indicator) of 50 or higher and whose underlying stocks closed between $15 and $50 (for dollar-increment strikes). Micron Technology (ticker MU) comes up in the scan results with a Current IV Percentile of 59 and a closing price near $28. Checking MU's option chain I see the 30 Call option that expires 40 days from today has a 68% probability of expiring out of the money and I can sell the 40-day-out 30/31 Call spread for 29 cents ($29) giving me 71 cents ($71) in risk. Given that the semiconductor sector has fallen out of favor lately, and the fact that the market has been weak overall, I like my chances that MU won't get back above $30 in the next 40 days. And if it does snap back in the near term, I'll have nearly 40 days for it to fade back down.
This helps illustrate why liquidity is important (using the Penny Increment Options group as noted above). If the options on a particular underlying don't have a lot of people trading them they'll have a wide bid/ask differential. When you initially sell a Call spread you'd be more likely to have to sell at the (lower) bid price because there are not many buyers. And when you go to buy the position back to close it there won't be many sellers so you'd be more likely to have to pay the (higher) ask price. This selling low and buying high is called "slippage" and it is caused by illiquid options. If you sell a spread for $3 less than the mid-price and buy it back at $3 more than the mid-price you've lost $6 which is 30% of the 20 or so bucks you were hoping to make on the trade. So only sell spreads if the individual options have narrow bid/ask differentials (typically 1 to 4 cents).
So why do you want an IV rank above 50? That indicates that volatility (in the price of the underlying) is higher than normal and you're playing for a "reversion to the mean." The higher the volatility the higher the options prices are (due to Vega) so you collect more when selling Call spreads. The value of the options you sell will not dwindle away due only to eroding time value (Theta), but also due to falling (reverting) volatility (Vega). So selling options when volatility is high gets you two of the options greeks (Theta and Vega) working in your favor instead of just Theta alone.
MATH - The Other Reason To Manage Winners
If the mathematics of options dictates that you have a 70% chance of making $30 on a $1-wide spread trade then the other side of that trade is that you have a 30% chance of losing $70. This math also dictates that the loss from one losing trade will wipe out the gains from 2+ winning trades. As a result, if you let all your trades go to expiration over the long term you'll be lucky to end up even. Trading options by the numbers is, at best, a zero-sum game. Throw in commissions and over time you'll end up losing money trading options if you let everything go to expiration.
That's why you have to manage your winners. You have to get your percentage of winning trades above 70%. And because you'll be closing trades at less than max profit you'll have to get your winning percentage significantly above 70%. Now you see why anyone who says trading options is easy is delusional, and why it takes years to become a consistently successful options trader.
Even with all of the videos and the reduced commissions and the free trading platforms don't expect to be a successful trader any time soon. Those are just tools and just as it takes a craftsman years to learn how to get the most from his tools it takes years to find your trading style, to find what strategies and what underlyings work best for you. Be patient and trade and try different strategies and trade and try different underlyings and trade and trade and trade. Learn how the different options strategies act at different volatility levels (high and low IV ranks) and see how the different underlyings (indexs vs. ETFs vs. stocks) act under different market conditions.
A good second strategy to try after you've traded a fair number of vertical Call spreads
is the calendar spread. Calendars have slow price moves (low Gamma), typically will only cost
you a small debit, and even though they're a debit trade, they make money through time decay
just like vertical credit spreads do. While you want to sell verticals when volatilities are high
because it's a negative Vega strategy, you want to buy calendars when volatilities are low
because they have positive Vega (meaning you'll make more money if volatilities go back up).
Make no mistake, trading can get very disheartening at times, especially when the markets insist on moving up for long periods of time as they have been. (When you sell Call spreads you don't want the underlying to go up, and you sell Call spreads because they have higher prices and higher probabilities than comparable Put spreads.) You will have a lot of losing trades, especially in uptrending markets, but that's why you "trade small." Hang in there and keep trading and, very slowly, light bulbs will start to come on and things will start clicking and eventually markets will start flattening and you'll gradually start to make money on a more consistent basis.
The Best Trading Book
Trading In The Zone was recommended by a presenter during one of the free Investools workshops and it was probably the most valuable piece of information I gained by attending. It is the best trading book I've ever read. It isn't about strategy selection or chosing underlyings or analyzing charts or anything else you find in 99% of the books on trading. It's about how our preconceived notions and the behaviors we were raised with can actually sabotage our success as traders. It will help you see why you're making the mistakes you're making. It will help you see the markets from new perspective, a prespective every trader needs in order to succeed. There's a reason it's still one of the most highly-ranked trading books on Amazon even though it was released 15 yearsago. There's a reason that, of all of the thousands of trading books out there, the Investools presenter recommended this book.
Here's one of TastyTrade's YouTube videos on when and how to defend call credit spreads when they go against you.
Here's a helpful site if you don't even know what an option is:
OptionsEducation.org - The Web site of the Options Industry Council featuring videos on options from fundamentals to advanced strategies.
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