Practice Makes Perfect

STOCK OPTIONS ARE pure speculations…and the chance of loss is quite high. If you can’t afford to lose money on them, you shouldn’t bother buying them.

I firmly believe it is my job to be as blunt about that as possible. The potential rewards of options are very tempting, and anyone who forgets about the potential downsides is toast.

Unfortunately, those stark warnings also scare away people who could benefit from options. People who have built solid portfolios…and can easily afford to speculate a bit. They’re the complete opposite of traders who blindly rush in focused on the gains. Instead, they only see the potential losses…

That’s why I offer a simple suggestion — try options trading for yourself. With just a few minutes a day, you can learn how profitable options can be, without risking a single cent.

In the old days — as little as a decade ago — the best way to do this was by paper trading. As the name suggests, it doesn’t involve any real money…or even a broker.

Instead, you simply chose an option and kept track of it each day. With a few simple calculations, you could see how you would have done if you actually made the trade.

There are still plenty of good things to say about paper trading. For one thing, it forces you to work — tracking down prices and calculating potential profits. If you’re going to put that much time into an activity, you might be more inspired to do well. It’s a good trait to have if you ever decide to trade for real.

Still, the pen-and-paper method is a little outdated now. Today, lots of Web sites offer “virtual trading” — free computer programs that let you practice trading without putting any money at stake. Most require you set up an account…not an actual brokerage account, but a membership account — containing basic information like your age and interests.

Of course, some of these sites might use this information to try to sell you stuff. And with privacy concerns a big issue today, you might want to be careful with how much information you hand over. My advice is to stick with the programs on well-known trading sites. Obviously, they have a reputation to maintain, and they aren’t going to do anything to risk alienating a potential client.

When you sign up, you’ll get a username and password to get to your account. You’ll also get a small sum of virtual money to start trading with. (Beware of a site that offers to give you more fake money in exchange for real money. The point is to avoid spending ANY out-of-pocket cash.)

I must be honest, I haven’t signed up for many virtual trading accounts — so I can’t honestly compare and contrast them all for you. However, a colleague recently opened up a mock account on the Chicago Board Options Exchange (offered by Options Express)…so I can tell you all about that.

The CBOE virtual trading site starts you off with $5,000 in virtual money. You can use that fake money to simulate trading any of the securities the CBOE tracks — from stocks to options, even some futures.

The Web site does its best to make the trading as realistic as possible. Price quotes are based on the actual prices seen on the exchange. When you wish to buy something for your virtual account, you are given the same kind of choices that you’d face if you were actually buying a real security.

You can dictate limit and stop orders. You can make day orders or standing “good to cancelled” orders. You can even choose to write options or use covered calls.

After you make your virtual order, the software does the rest. If you placed a market order, the security is added to your virtual portfolio. If you used a limit order, the program won’t place your order until the real market hits your limit price.

Everything you need to know is spelled out for you — the program even levies a virtual commission charge on each of your trades.

After that, it’s just a matter of logging in to see how you’re doing. You can also set sell orders, even trailing stops.

Programs like this can be a very useful tool for gauging how well you’d do in the options market — making any lingering fears disappear.

Of course, there are some important differences between real investing and virtual investing that you need to keep in mind.

It’s a lot easier to trade when you’re not spending real money. But virtual trading is so lifelike, you might actually lose sight of that when you really start trading. This is especially true since actual trading will involve money you can afford to lose. If you’re not careful, it will all seem like a game…and in games, taking unnecessary risks is part of the fun.

The solution is to treat your virtual account as actual money. Don’t make crazy trades just because you can. Instead, only make trades you’d make in real life. It’s not only the best way to get a feel for how you’d actual do with options, but it’s also the easiest way to transition from virtual trading to real trading.

Once you see how much money you’re missing out on by not using real money, it won’t be long before you’ll want to try your hand at actually trading options.

Steve Sarnoff

May 11, 2007