by Regina Guinn
Get the information you need to evaluate stock trading software
In today's market, investors are wondering if they should even buy stocks and if they can make money. The answer to both is "yes." Stock market trading is a wonderful opportunity now, with prices lower and volatility higher than in many years. Stock trading online has never been more popular.
Automated trading platforms, robotic trading programs, online day trading systems--there are many terms used to describe the stock trading systems that can help you to make a stock investment and to grow your money. Review the criteria below and understand your own personal preferences by talking with other stock traders. Identify the facts you need to compare programs. You'll need a good understanding of the automated trading tools' features and costs before you make a decision.
Many types of companies offer stock trading advice and stock trading strategies. They run the gamut from educational programs that aim to teach you how to trade, to a list of recommended stocks to buy and sell at certain triggers, to brokerage firm proprietary software. With such a variety, how do you choose? This article will guide you through the features and benefits of the programs that are available for online stock trading. Many of the programs are geared towards "day traders," who technically open long positions (buy) or short positions (sell short) and close these positions the same day. Not everyone who uses these programs closes out their positions by the end of the trading day--sometimes they hold their positions for days, weeks or months. We'll call this "active trading." Sometimes this is also referred to as "swing trading."
The essential features of a stock trading program include a data feed for stock quotes and indicators, stock charts or charting capability of major indicators, current balance and positions and an order entry system. The order entry system should allow stop (loss) orders, stop limit orders and trailing stops. A trailing stop limit is similar to the stop (loss), except its loss will be measured from the stocks highest point achieved. The preferred method would be to keep the trigger prices in stealth mode, not viewable by the market makers, rather than as actual orders. Also see Orders in Stealth Mode. Most automated trading platforms should include a watch list of the stocks to potentially trade based on the parameters the stock trader has entered.
Exchange Traded Funds (ETF's) can be part of an efficient trading strategy. These are mutual funds that are traded intraday on the stock exchanges, unlike traditional mutual funds that are a basket of securities priced at the close of the market. Online stock trading systems should also include trading capabilities for ETFs.
Other features to look for include safety measures that stock traders may take, such as establishing a profit goal--the minimum price increase a trader would expect a stock to gain before closing their position. Also highly desirable is a form of profit protection for your investments, which is the reduced profit goal. After the stock reaches its profit goal and continues to rise, the stock trading software should wait and let the profit increase. If the stock price decreases or pulls back, the online trading program should close the position and lock the profit. This pullback value should not have any effect before the profit goal is reached and is intended to improve stock performance. More sophisticated auto trading programs will also offer the percentage gain from stock trader's entry price, and the trader can also specify a minimum amount in case the percentage gained is too low.
Check the features and ask questions
Number of Technical Indicators - There are literally hundreds of indicators that stock traders can use to determine which stocks to buy and sell and when. The most robust programs will offer hundreds of indicators for technical analysis, such as Bollinger Bands, and some will even include indicators for Candlestick Chart formations. Robotic programs use these indicators to set conditions under which online investing will occur.
Complexity - Automated stock trading programs vary greatly in ease of use. Some online stock trading systems do require actual programming expertise. Others are simply point and click. Check out the online demo to see that it fits your level of comfort before making a commitment. Talk to others who are currently using the auto trading websites and check out their online communities for more comments. Also see Online Trading Community.
Number of Long and Short Strategies Per Account - Due to the size of the online trading platform, there may be a limit to the number of strategies that you can have loaded on each account. If you want to run, say two long trading strategies, then you may need two accounts. Also confirm if you have enough memory on your computer for two or more accounts. Also see System Requirements. Experienced active traders may run two or more live long and short strategies, while having additional accounts for strategies that they are testing in a simulator mode. Also see Ability to Simulate Strategies In Real Time Before Running Live.
Recommended Additional Features - The best automated stock trading platforms will include additional features that active traders will find invaluable once they have begun automated trading.
Additional strategy and order entry features include the ability to add to a position as a stock goes up, or as the stock declines, as well as a minimum purchase interval that the stock price should drop before it begins purchasing additional shares. A maximum bid/ask range will also be helpful, as the size of the spread can directly impact a swing trader's ability to make profitable trades.
If there are hundreds of indicators, as is the case with a robotic trader, see if the definitions of the indicators are readily available. The definition or formula for indicators may vary from one electronic trading platform to another, so be sure you understand them first.
Recommend you have a program that displays current Profit and Loss (P&L) on your open positions and the status of the rules on your watch list. For example, if a stock on the watch list hasn't traded, is there a feature where the trader can pull up the rules and indicators to see which one(s) is preventing the trade?
Some automated stock trading programs visually display the percentage of symbols up and down in each sector from the specified time frame to the current time so you can see how the market is turning. Does the platform include the ability to block certain symbols from trading? If you're running a long trading strategy, you won't want to be buying ETF's that short the market.
Day traders will want automated trading software that tracks and displays the number of day trades remaining. Day trading is regulated by the SEC, so it's important to understand if you will be day trading first. Review the requirements below in Minimum to Invest.
Orders in Stealth Mode - A standard feature of many trading software programs is the ability to enter limit, stop and stop limit orders. While it is important to have an exit strategy from your positions, telegraphing it to the institutional traders in the form of publicly viewed limits is not. It's a little like poker--whoever can see all the hands has the advantage. Instead, newer programs allow the user to enter these price points in the auto trader system, but trigger a market order when the conditions are met. This is one advantage of a truly robotic stock trading program.
Automatically Executes Your Trading Strategy Even While You're Away From Your Computer - Very few stock market trading systems can actually do this. For those that do, it's done based on the trader selecting technical indicators, comparison operators and numerical inputs that will activate opening, adding to, or closing stock positions. Essentially, it's a rules driven system. The trader can select from hundreds of historical indicators representing the stocks' previous conditions. The indicators should be updated daily using the latest data. Programs that can trade automatically are the cream of the online investing software crop. They take the emotion out of investing. Long time traders report that the simplest strategies, when left to run on their own for long periods perform best. The program should also have a manual override so the stock trader can manually place a trade as well. Specifically ask if the system has this capability. Many market themselves as “automated trading” but are not truly automated.
When the CoolTrade Automated Trader is running on its own, the
‘Go Have Fun’ message will appear.
Ability to Simulate Strategies In Real Time Before Running Live - Most traders would agree that they'd like to "test drive" a system before using it. Some programs allow this through "back-testing," in which the program uses past data to execute the trades and show you what they would have been. This is not always accurate, as there is much data needed to perform a thorough back-test and it's nearly impossible to replicate all the circumstances with just the historical data. In addition, how the system performed in a market last month or last year does not indicate how it will perform in the here and now. There are a few systems that allow the stock trader to simulate strategies, but this is done mostly with paper tickets, rather than through the platform. The best stock trading platform will let you practice stock trading using a live real-time data feed during market hours. This is the preferred method, as it gives traders a very realistic view of how their trading strategy is performing and the ability to feel the highs and lows of daily trading without investing real money. If you can simulate trades, you won't need to open an actual brokerage account until you go "live" with real money. Ask if there is a limit on how long you can run in the simulation mode.
Shows You How to Create A Stock Trading Strategy - There should be a step by step walk through to show novice traders how to create a trading strategy. Are there off-the-shelf strategies that are available for your use? Are there any fees involved or are they offered for free? Can you modify the off the shelf strategies? Note that firms should not be guaranteeing you a certain return. The best firms will have long and short stock trading strategies available at no charge and will allow the stock trader to create their own. Some firms will even allow you to copy strategies from a "friends" list. One size does not fit all. If the company doesn't tell you the details of the strategy or why they selected or recommend a certain stock, then it's not advisable to use it. You may overpaying for "proprietary" services and may be able to obtain free stock market tips and recommendations online that will perform comparably.
Tech Support and Customer Service - The best automated stock trading software firms have an extremely high "up-time" and are very rarely out of service. Check on the firm's record--how often have they had outages? The platform should be easy to install and should work with a variety of operating systems (Windows XP, Windows Vista, etc.). If you have questions, is there a knowledgeable and helpful staff to provide service? How quickly do they respond, if by email?
Commissions - Trading commissions can eat into your profits if you are not careful about choosing a plan that fits your needs. Commissions can vary greatly from broker to broker, depending on the number of shares traded, whether the shares are in round lots of 100, price of the shares traded and the number of trades you place each month. Stock traders may even want to have more than one account if they have a trading strategy that normally trades 100 shares lots and another that trades 1000 share lots. It pays to read the fine print.
Number of Broker Choices - If you have a proprietary brokerage software product, then you'll only be able to trade through that firm. The best online trading includes the lowest commissions for the typical trades for each strategy that you use. There are other programs whose software has been integrated into the order placing functionality at a variety of brokerage firms. Commissions will be one consideration in choosing a firm. Another is the margin rates. If you choose to have a margin account and borrow against the value of your securities to open more positions, you will be charged margin interest. Rates will vary by firm. Typically, firms with the lowest commissions won't pay you interest or offer a money market fund for your uninvested cash. This is how they keep their costs down. If you anticipate having extra cash that you won’t use for trading, you may want to keep it in another account where it can earn more. You should also check if there is a minimum to open an account or a minimum number of trades required.
Check the costs and support
Initial Fee and Monthly Fees - Ask is there is an initial fee to use the software package. Is it thousands of dollars? If so, find out what you are really getting. Much of what you can obtain from some of these programs can be found in inexpensive books or on the Internet for free. Is there also a monthly fee? If so, what does it cover? In reviewing online trading services, more expensive is not necessarily better. Some active investing services are less expensive because they have more subscribers.
Data Feed Fee - Does the program include real time data feeds for stock quotes and indicators? Is there an extra fee for this or is it included in the basic monthly fee? This is the biggest component cost in developing automated stock trading programs. Or, is the data delayed by 20 minutes? Is it only the end of day data? If so, even in a simulation, old data is not good data. Many brokerage firms offer free Level II quotes to qualified active traders who trade a specified number of trades each month.
Stock Charts Fee - How will you review the major indicators that you're using to make trading decisions? Some programs include stock charts with their fee, others charge a separate fee for it. Depending on the platform you choose, you may or may not need a charting package. Find out how much is it and how much you can customize the stock charts to track your favorite indicators.
Training Fee - Find out if there is a separate training fee. For programs that market themselves as financial educators, there will be a fee, sometimes hundreds or thousands of dollars, as this is how they make their money. The best automated stock trading software programs provide free training.
Training Formats - Is the training in the form of a live seminar? Webinar? Are there extra materials such as DVDs that you must buy to find out all the information advertised? Or, is live training available in the company's office?
Minimum to Invest - Brokerage firms have their own minimums but there are also account minimum balances required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for what it calls "pattern day traders." A day trade occurs when a trader opens and closes the same position in a margin account on the same day. A pattern day trader is any person who executes 4 or more day trades within 5 business days in a margin account, provided the number of day trades is more than 6% of the total trades in the account during that period. All pattern day traders must maintain a minimum of $25,000 in equity at all times. More information about these regulations is available at Day Trading Margin Requirements.
System Requirements - The more robust the trading system, the greater the memory requirements. Check this before you sign up or purchase a new computer. If you sign up for more than one account, will your machine have enough RAM to run both or will you need to purchase an extra computer or more memory? If you have a Mac, ask if the software works on Mac, as not all do. You may want to have one computer dedicated only to your automated stock trading programs and not run other word processing or spreadsheet programs.
Reports - The best automated stock trading software will include a reports function, that allows the stock trader to pull up trades by time frame, security, long vs short, open vs. closed and P&L. For truly active traders, this information is an easy way to track trading for tax purposes.
Trading Strategy Statistics - In addition to Reports, another great feature is strategy statistics. They will tell the serious stock trader the number of trades executed and break them down by profitable vs. unprofitable over various intervals. Reviewing the strategy accuracy increases the odds that a stock trader will be profitable.
Online Trading Community - Trading platform developers who are truly proud of their work welcome comments and questions from users. Take some time to read their stock trading forum and see what other stock traders are saying. There are even a few automated stock trading programs that will take requests for additional indicators from their users.
Take the right steps as you choose stock trading platform
Be wary of those who tell you that you must follow their stock trading system using only their tools. This is about you having control over your financial future. Experiment, talk to others and do research. You will find what works best for you.
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