How Hard is it to Become the Michael Jordan of Trading?

I have been meaning to get to this interesting article Heidi N. Moore wrote over at Marketplace radio. “They Are Day Traders. Hear them Roar.” A terrific looking commercial for OpenTrader accompanies the article (video here).

The video is pretty slick. But as intriguing as it looks, it overstates what I believe is the true criticism of trading — not that its all luck, not that no one can beat the market — but rather, that the odds are very much stacked against you. The truth is it is really, really hard to do professionally.

I have always found that for newbie traders, a better analogy than a casino is the possibility becoming a professional athlete. Trading and athletics have many parallels. Both require a combination of natural skills, discipline, and very hard work. Both require an ability to deal with elements of randomness that is challenging in a competitive environment. At the NCAA level, just about any team can beat any other on any given afternoon. A lucky bounce, a bad call, a hot streak, and the underdog wins.

It is no coincidence that many trading desks are stacked with former college athletes.

I believe the odds of going on to be a professional athlete are similar to being a successful trader at the highest levels of the profession. The NCAA puts out a statistical analysis looking at the “Estimated Probability of Competing in Athletics Beyond the High School Interscholastic Level.” If you have some natural talent and work on your skills, you can probably compete at the High School junior varsity level. More skills, hard work, a little luck, and you make it to Varsity.

The talent pool gets much more competitive at the college level. The NCAA estimates approximately 3% of HS basketball players, and 6% of HS football and baseball players make an NCAA team.

If those number look daunting, the cut is far more challenging at the professional level. In basketball, only 1.2% of NCAA senior players get drafted by an NBA team. NFL drafts 1.7% of NCAA senior football players; Baseball holds the best odds, where 8.9% of NCAA baseball players will get drafted by a Major League Baseball club — but that includes minor league farm teams.

Lets crunch the numbers to put this into full context: A mere 0.03% of high school basketball players eventually get  drafted by an NBA team. Football, its 0.08%, and baseball its 0.44% (including farm teams).

Are the odds identical? Not precisely — there are many more people scratching out a decent living as semi-pro traders than there are semi-pro ball players earning enough to feed their families. And if you find you have a specific talent for it, and are willing to put in the long hours of work required, trading can be incredibly rewarding.

But the fantasy of being the next Michael Jordan, or in trading parlance, Steve Cohen? The odds are very very long against it . . .


Estimated Probability of Competing in Athletics Beyond the H.S. Interscholastic Level

Student-Athletes Men’s Basketball Women’s Basketball Football Baseball Men’s Ice Hockey Men’s Soccer
High School Student Athletes 540,207 439,550 1,109,278 472,644 36,475 391,839
High School Senior Student Athletes 154,345 125,586 316,937 135,041 10,421 111,954
NCAA Student Athletes 17,008 15,423 66,313 30,365 3,945 21,770
NCAA Freshman Roster Positions 4,859 4,407 18,947 8,676 1,127 6,220
NCAA Senior Student Athletes 3,780 3,427 14,736 6,748 877 4,838
NCAA Student Athletes Drafted 44 32 250 600 33 76
Percent High School to NCAA 3.1% 3.5% 6.0% 6.4% 10.8% 5.6%
Percent NCAA to Professional 1.2% 0.9% 1.7% 8.9% 3.8% 1.6%
Percent High School to Professional 0.03% 0.03% 0.08% 0.44% 0.32% 0.07%

Note: These percentages are based on estimated data and should be considered approximations of the actual percentages.
Source: NCAA

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