Market Legends, Stan Druckenmiller

Stanley Druckenmiller – “The Greatest Moneymaking Machine In History”

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Who is Stanley Druckenmiller?

Here is what hedge fund manager Scott Bessent says about Druckenmiller in the book “Inside the House of Money’

Stan may be the greatest moneymaking machine in history. He has Jim Roger’s analytical ability, George Soros’s trading ability, and the stomach of a riverboat gambler when it comes to placing his bets. His lack of volatility is unbelievable. I think he’s had something like five down quarters in 25 years and never a down year. The Quantum record from 1989 to 2000 is really his. The assets grew from $1 billion to $20 billion over that time and the performance never suffered. Soros’s record was made on a smaller amount of money at a time when there were fewer hedge funds to compete against.

Breaking the Bank of England was not a one-man job. Superlatives have gone entirely to Soros, but history has been unjust to the other genius behind the trade – Druckenmiller. Both, Soros and Druckenmiller played crucial roles and one could not have done it without the other. They were a dream-team of speculators.
Here’s is Scott Bessent again about the infamous Pound trade:

What is most interesting to me about the breaking of the pound was the combination of Stan Druckenmiller’s gamesmanship – Stan really understand risk and reward – and George’s ability to size trades. Make no mistake about it, shorting the pound was Stan Druckenmiller’s idea. Soros contribution was pushing him to take a gigantic position.

When people talk about the Breaking the Bank of England story, which netted a billion pounds to Soros, few remember the mention the risk parameters of the trade. His fund was up 12% for the year, when they decided to take the trade. Their pre-defined maximum risk was the entire year-to-date profit, but not more.   It takes huge balls of steel to make such a bet.
What is the philosophy behind Stanley Druckenmiller’s exceptional performance:

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1. Flexibility
The Friday before the 1987 crash, Druckenmiller goes from net short to 130% long. Here is his conversation with Jack Schwager in The New Market Wizards’ book:

– You’ve repeatedly indicated that you give a great deal of weight to technical input. With the market in a virtual free-fall at the time, didn’t the technical perspective make you apprehensive about the trade?
– A number of technical indicators suggested that the market was oversold at that juncture. Moreover, I thought that the huge price base near the 2,200 level would provide extremely strong support— at least temporarily. I figured that even if I were dead wrong, the market would not go below the 2,200 level on Monday morning. My plan was to give the long position a half-hour on Monday morning and to get out if the market failed to bounce.
Another important lesson to be drawn from this interview is that if you make a mistake, respond immediately! Druckenmiller made the incredible error of shifting from short to 130 percent long on the very day before the massive October 19, 1987, stock crash, yet he finished the month with a net gain. How? When he realized he was dead wrong, he liquidated his entire long position during the first hour of trading on October 19 and actually went short. Had he been less open-minded, defending his original position when confronted with contrary evidence, or had he procrastinated to see if the market would recover, he would have suffered a tremendous loss. Instead, he actually made a small profit. The ability to accept unpleasant truths (i.e., market action or events counter to one’s position) and respond decisively and without hesitation is the mark of a great trader.
Druckenmiller flipped the portfolio from short to long, a reversal that saved Quantum in 1999, but then hurt it a few months later in 2000. Druckenmiller finished 2000 up for the year. He went from down 12% in March to up 15% for the year in his own portfolio. If you remember, the Nasdaq dumped in March 2000 but then it almost made a marginal new high in September at which point he changed his mind again, went from net long to net short, and caught the whole move down from September to December 2000.
Stan is better at changing his mind that anybody I’ve ever seen. Maybe he stayed with it a little too long, but one of the great things about Stan is that he can and does turn on a dime. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, he changes his positions.

2. He understands and applies perfectly the concept of risk/reward and one of his main weapons is proper timing:

One of the things that I learned from Stan Druckenmiller is how to enter a trade. The great thing about Stan is that he can be wrong, but he rarely loses money because his entry point is so good.

3. The most important lessons from George Soros

I’ve learned many things from him, but perhaps the most significant is that it’s not whether you’re right or wrong that’s important, but how much money you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong. The few times that Soros has ever criticized me was when I was really right on a market and didn’t maximize the opportunity
Soros has taught me that when you have tremendous conviction on a trade, you have to go for the jugular. It takes courage to be a pig. It takes courage to ride a profit with huge leverage. As far as Soros is concerned, when you’re right on something, you can’t own enough.
It’s my philosophy, which has been reinforced by Mr. Soros, that when you earn the right to be aggressive, you should be aggressive. The years that you start off with a large gain are the times that you should go for it.
The way to build long-term returns is through preservation of capital and home runs. You can be far more aggressive when you’re making good profits. Many managers, once they’re up 30 or 40 percent, will book their year [i.e., trade very cautiously for the remainder of the year so as not to jeopardize the very good return that has already been realized]. The way to attain truly superior long-term returns is to grind it out until you’re up 30 or 40 percent, and then if you have the convictions, go for a 100 percent year. If you can put together a few near-100 percent years and avoid down years, then you can achieve really outstanding long-term returns.
Soros is also the best loss taker I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t care whether he wins or loses on a trade. If a trade doesn’t work, he’s confident enough about his ability to win on other trades that he can easily walk away from the position. There are a lot of shoes on the shelf; wear only the ones that fit. If you’re extremely confident, taking a loss doesn’t bother you.

4. Great defense wins championships

Druckenmiller’s entire trading style runs counter to the orthodoxy of fund management. There is no logical reason why an investor (or fund manager) should be nearly fully invested in equities at all times. If an investor’s analysis points to the probability of an impending bear market, he or she should move entirely to cash and possibly even a net short position.

5. About valuation and timing the market

I never use valuation to time the market. I use liquidity considerations and technical analysis for timing. Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction.
The catalyst is liquidity, and hopefully my technical analysis will pick it up.

6. About leverage:

You could be right on a market and still end up losing if you use excessive leverage.
One basic market truth (or, perhaps more accurately, one basic truth about human nature) is that you can’t win if you have to win. Druckenmiller’s plunge into T-bill futures in a desperate attempt to save his firm from financial ruin provides a classic example. Even though he bought T-bill futures within one week of their all-time low (you can’t pick a trade much better than that), he lost all his money. The very need to win poisoned the trade— in this instance, through grossly excessive leverage and a lack of planning. The market is a stern master that seldom tolerates the carelessness associated with trades born of desperation.

And a more recent quote from Druckenmiller, related to Soros’s advice “don’t try to play the game better, pay attention to when the game has changed”:

I really don’t care whether we go to $70 billion or $65 billion in September, … But if you tell me quantitative easing is going to be removed over 9 or 12 months, that is a big deal

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Courtesy of ST50,
Schwager, Jack D. (2009-10-13). The New Market Wizards: Conversations with America’s Top Traders. HarperBusiness. Kindle Edition.