A Conversation with Ralph Potter

Ralph Potter is an ex-Green Beret, the American equivalent of the British Special Forces. For the past forty years, he has been an active trader and broker on the world sugar market and has mentored many of the sugar market’s most successful traders.

I met Ralph at his local pub in Surrey, England and asked him how he got into the sugar business.

I got into the sugar club by accident. I had returned from the Vietnam War and was attending the University of Illinois. I had some money to invest. My grandfather was a farmer, and when I was a boy, I used to go with him to talk to farmers about the price of corn. I learned at an early age that the price would go up and down.

While at university, I seconded myself to a small grain and feed merchant. I first noticed them because their parking lot was full of Cadillacs, Mercedes, and Porches – and even an AC Cobra. That was in 1971, a very auspicious time to learn to trade grains. They paid me something but not much. I worked with a rag in one hand and some chalk in the other: a girl would call out the prices from the telex ticker tape, and I would erase the old price and mark up the new price on the board.

The room was half the size of a tennis court with eight desks. At each desk was a grain merchant with an assistant, all on several phones to various clients, farmers, elevator operators, chick feed buyers, that sort of stuff. It was mainly for corn, soymeal, and beans. They taught me a method I have used for 44 years, with a few improvements. The heart of the method is technical analysis and management of the position.

After a few months, I was short of two soybean oil contracts. At the weekend, I went out to play soccer, and frost was all over the ground – it was 9th September. That cost me half of my trading account. It was an expensive lesson.

I met a guy in a bar who had inherited $8,000 from his grandmother. He bought copper. His trading account went from $8,000 to $60,000. Remember that at that time, you could buy a house for $14,000. He ended up with a debit of $4,000. He had no system of money management. That was a lesson I learned from someone else’s bad habit.

When I left College, I ended up at Merrill Lynch as a registered commodity broker, but I struggled to get clients in the grains. I was too young; it felt that you had to be at least ninety to be respected in the grain markets!

By some accident, I ended up with ADM’s sugar account; no one else in the office wanted it. I knew nothing about sugar, but ADM gave me a chance. Once I had one sugar client, I concentrated on the sugar market and found it easier to win other big sugar clients.

What lessons did you learn at that time?

Being in the military taught me two things. First, a bad plan poorly executed is better than no plan. Second, you should only commit reserves to exploit and consolidate victory, never to salvage defeat. Another way of saying that is, “Don’t throw good money after bad.”

I once asked a friend how he traded. He replied that he tossed a coin to decide whether to buy or sell.

“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s your trading system?”

“Yes,” he replied, “but I also have a rule never to take a losing position home overnight.”

It’s not the trigger that gets you into the market that’s important. It’s about managing that position once you have put it on.

There is a famous story about a speculator at EF Hutton who got his trading recommendations through a Coke bottle wrapped in tin foil; a coat hanger acted as an aerial that he claimed picked up trading recommendations from outer space. Of course, everyone ridiculed him.

At that time, people didn’t have screens, so they would come to their broker’s office and sit and watch the prices on the clacking electronic quote boards at the front of the room. When they wanted to trade, they would walk up to the order clerk and hand them their order on a slip of paper.

Most of these people lost money, but this guy had been trading for several years and was a rare success. He would receive a signal from his Coke bottle to, say, buy corn. He would lord it over everyone else if he were winning on his position. He enjoyed that. The net result was that he would let his profits run and not snatch them. But when he was losing, the others ridiculed him so much that he quickly exited any losing positions.

When a winning position gave back a certain percentage, he would quickly get out for the same reasons. So, money management worked even for a crazy person – someone who received trading signals from outer space.

Can you briefly explain how you trade?

I don’t want to explain it in detail, but it is all about managing the position and taking the whipsaws. A whipsaw is when the market moves through a specific price point. You put on a trade, but the market reverses again, and you must reverse that position. It is the way floor traders used to trade.

Most people try to trade in a way to avoid whipsaws. The average trader would rather lose money than get whipsawed. I embrace whipsaws. It is like trying to be a boxer without getting punched. No one likes getting hit, but you must let your opponent strike you on your forearms, shoulders, or gloves – a glancing blow. You avoid being smacked on the head but take the more minor hits.

What is the biggest mistake that traders make?

The biggest mistake traders make is snatching profits. There is a saying that no one ever went broke taking a profit, but that is a lie; people go broke snatching small profits that don’t offset their losses. People often grab profits expecting to return to the market again at a better price. They may do, but usually, the market runs away, and they either must chase it, or they don’t get back in.

The best thing to do if you have a winning position in the commodity markets is to take partial profits in a non-emotional manner. You reduce the size of your position, but you hold on to the core. Trimming, or reducing a position, provides you with a psychological way of holding on to your core trade.

What is a trader’s greatest enemy?

A trader’s greatest enemy is lack of discipline and succumbing to hubris – when you think you know more than the market because you have been lucky or succeeded in using your trading method.

The worst thing that can happen is when a trader thinks he knows something and disregards his rules. It can be when he has invested so much of his credibility – and so much of his personality – into putting on a trade, it makes it hard to exit. It’s hard to change your mind. That’s why you must have a risk point.

What makes a good trader?

The best traders are the ones who have unconventional vision and self-belief: to stick your neck out and have the guts to say, “I am going to commit my company’s money – or my investors’ money – to make this trade. It takes someone with exceptional self-belief. Most traders on a desk just want to keep their heads down.

But you must take the risk. You must have the guts to trade. You also must have an absolute disdain for the opinions of other people. You don’t have to tell everybody you think they are full of it; other people’s views mustn’t sway you.

To succeed in the markets, you must have a well-developed sense of fear: it will keep you in business longer than brilliance. Brilliance can desert you in critical moments. Some traders are naturals, but if nobody trains them properly, they blow themselves up and take everyone else with them.

You talk about risk management, but don’t you think that most companies have taken risk management too far?

No, I don’t. But I do think some companies have taken the process too far. Over recent years some of the more prominent trading companies have cashed in and gone public. As public companies, they find that they must comply with thousands of new regulations which can swamp the management.

Unfortunately, some companies no longer view a good trader as an asset. They consider them more as a liability – a risk. The creative guys get swamped with compliance, process, and management issues.

I could never work for a big company these days; I would be sacked within a year. There is a joke about an old trader interviewing for a job. “What do you think is your greatest weakness?” he was asked. “I’m too honest,” he answered. “I don’t think honesty is a weakness,” the interviewer replied. “I don’t give a damn what you think,” replied the unsuccessful candidate.

So, you have been happier as a sole trader?

I have traded significant positions for big trade houses and a couple of hedge funds, but I never aspired to be a multimillionaire. I don’t have the temperament or the drive. Every time I wanted something like a car or a yacht, I got it, but then I was happy with that.

The excess money I made I gave away to people who needed it more than me. I have enough money, even if my wife disagrees. I like being part of the sugar club, part of the team. That was – and is – more important to me.

What I enjoy now is teaching. I am happy to give something back to the sugar business; to teach young people about markets. I try to show them how to use technical tools and position management in combination with their fundamental trading strategies.

Remember, the trade houses’ primary role is efficiently moving food around.   If I can help them to do that profitably, then I am happy.

Do traders manipulate markets?

Good traders don’t need to manipulate markets; they can make money on their abilities. Weak traders may try to manipulate markets, but it seldom ever works, or if it works, it only works for a limited time. The ceiling quickly falls in on them.

But what if traders get together – could that give them the market power to do it?

Maybe for a while, but the price has a habit of going where it wants. You may stop it for a time, but you will never stop it for long. If you push prices up, extra supply will come out. If you push prices down, supply will dry up. Traders invariably lose money if they try and push prices away from where they should be. I have seen some big companies try and fail spectacularly.

It is difficult to manipulate a market. It is much easier to manipulate a government, but then you don’t have to be a trader to do that. Everyone can manipulate a government; it’s called democracy.

Thank you, Ralph, for your time and comments.

© Commodity Conversations® 2023

This interview is part of an occasional series I call “Classic Conversations” which was first published in my book The Sugar Casino, available on Amazon.

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