John W. Henry: Retired Trend Following Trader

Wisdom from John W. Henry:

I don’t believe that I am the only person who cannot predict future prices. No one consistently can predict anything, especially investors. Prices, not investors, predict the future. Despite this, investors hope or believe that they can predict the future, or someone else can. A lot of them look to you to predict what the next macroeconomic cycle will be. We rely on the fact that other investors are convinced that they can predict the future, and I believe that’s where our profits come from. I believe it’s that simple… when I was designing what turned out to be a trend following system…[that] approach–a mechanical and mathematical system–has not really changed at all. Yet the system continues to be successful today, even though there has been virtually no change to it over the last 18 years.

From The New Investment Superstars:

If one theme summarizes Henry’s philosophy, it is the knowledge that one cannot predict anything. Henry is a long-term follower. His philosophy is based on the premise that market prices, rather than market fundamentals, are the key aggregation of information needed to make investment decisions. He says, The markets are people’s expectations, and these [sic] investing expectations manifest themselves as price trends. We live in an uncertain world. One cannot predict the future of anything. In an uncertain world, identifying and following trends may be the only reasonable investment approach over the long term. Henry feels that a mechanical approach has more value since no scientific approach or solid testing can be applied to discretionary trading. Henry says that when he first researched the markets in the 1970s, he was looking for a methodology that would work through many market conditions. His research showed that long-term approaches work best over decades. There is an overwhelming desire to act in the face of adverse market moves. Usually it is termed ‘avoiding volatility’ with the assumption that volatility is bad. However, I found avoiding volatility really inhibits the ability to stay with the long-term trend. The desire to have close stops to preserve open trade equity has tremendous costs over decades. Long-term systems do not avoid volatility, they patiently sit through it. This reduces the occurrence of being forced out of a position that is in the middle of a long-term major move.

Q&A With John W. Henry

Q. How did you get started in money management, and what advice could you give to someone who would be interested in following in your footsteps?
A. How did I get started? I was hedging crops for farmland that I owned in a couple of states. I just seemed to do fairly well trading by the seat of my pants. It was a broker at Reynolds Securities in those days that asked me if I would manage money for farmers, because I seemed to do so well in the grain markets. That is sort of how it all started. I said no to hedging for farmers. I spent five years working on some ideas I had for trading, and one thing led to another. I came up with a [trend following] philosophy.

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