Back on the trading scene

Times Staff Writer

As stocks soared in the 1990s, countless Wall Street wannabes became “day traders” -- quitting their jobs and making their living by trading stocks at a furious pace.

When the boom ended, so did the day-trading craze. But rising stock prices and new highs in major stock indexes have tickled investor interest, and aggressive trading by individuals is on its way back.

“There’s no other way to live,” said Robert Earl, a 52-year-old Long Beach man who began trading full time in 2004. “My friends think I gamble, but this is not gambling if you do your homework.”

Although trading activity doesn’t resemble the frenzy of the late 1990s, electronic stockbrokers such as Charles Schwab Corp. and E-Trade Financial Corp. point to a marked uptick in business.


Schwab, for example, averaged 242,300 trades a day in the first nine months of 2006. That was up 29% from the same period a year earlier, and a click above its 242,000 peak in 2000.

“There is certainly more activity, to the point where there is now more online investing going on than there was at the market peak,” said Bill Doyle, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Still, the trading scene is much different now than in the 1990s.

Back then, fewer people had high-speed Internet connections, leading to the establishment of day-trading shops stocked with rows of computer stations. Caffeine-fueled traders “scalped” a handful of stocks all day long, jumping in and out of shares repeatedly as stocks bounced like ping-pong balls. The goal was to notch dozens of small gains.

Stocks are much less volatile today, forcing traders to hold them for days or weeks to net sizable gains. And the wide availability of high-speed Internet has rendered day-trading centers obsolete.

Indeed, it is easier than ever for investors of all kinds to trade from home, not just those who hope to make a living from it.

Greg Beyer, for example, has a full-time job as an information-technology specialist, but the 39-year-old from McLean, Va., says he has stepped up his trading as the market has risen in the last few years.

“It certainly is a motivating factor in investing more,” said Beyer, who trades five to 10 times a month.

Among affluent investors with $1 million or more in assets, 18% traded stocks online in 2005, up from 13% in 1999, according to Forrester Research.

“More and more people are coming in and feeling comfortable trading online,” said Fuad Ahmed, chief executive of Success Trade Securities, an online brokerage firm based in Washington.

Even so, several experts said they were surprised that trading levels aren’t higher given the market’s lengthy rise. The major indexes posted double-digit gains in 2006. On Friday, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of blue-chip stocks closed at its highest level since November 2000.

“Usually you have a bull market and it attracts investors,” said David Kalt, chief executive of OptionsXpress Holdings Inc., a Chicago-based online broker. “This bull market is a little more incremental.”

At E-Trade, for example, annual trades per account rose to about nine last year, from five in 2002. But that’s off from about 12 in 2000.

Some investors are holding back because of bad memories from the last bear market and uncertainty about how much longer today’s bull market will run. And many people may have shifted their money into real estate earlier this decade, as stocks tanked and home prices rose.

“I don’t think the speculative money is coming back into the online investor marketplace,” said Don Montanaro, CEO of TradeKing, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based online broker. “It’s tied up in the condo market in Miami.”

Nevertheless, interest in trading is heating up.

In the last year or so, several brokerages and websites that cater to online stock traders have popped up, including TradeKing, and Zecco.

Don Bright is capitalizing on the trend. His Bright Trading in Las Vegas teaches trading skills, and demand is growing. About 50 people took his course in October, he said, about double the number in 2003. He said 34 people were enrolled in a three-day, $1,000 course that started Monday.

Of course, some active traders never went away despite the market’s slump in 2000-02.

Ziyue Fu, 32, of New York got hooked on stocks in 1997 and dropped out of podiatry school to day trade full time.

He hung on through the bear market, but altered his trading style in 2003 when “scalping” became less profitable. He still does about 30% of his trades intraday, but is now more of a “swing” trader -- holding shares for days or weeks.

Last month, for example, Fu almost doubled his money in Internet search engine, which more than tripled in price in eight days, he said.

“It felt just wonderful,” Fu said. “Nothing beats that as a trader.”

But he’s seen a lot of his friends fail over the years, and predicts that many more will.

“I see a lot more newcomers than in 2005,” Fu said. “Most of them wash out in the first six months. Very few of them stay.”

Earl, the Long Beach man, is determined to be one of those who stays.

He worked as a district manager at a restaurant company for seven years and owned a seafood restaurant for eight years, but he says he has found his calling as a full-time trader.

Earl began day trading in 2004 and said he was making enough to support himself.

“I just came in off the golf course,” he said with a laugh.

Sharon Ostapiuk also is trading stocks full time, something she never dreamed she would be doing.

The 34-year-old from Arlington Heights, Ill., had long invested in her 401(k) and in mutual funds but didn’t buy individual stocks until August 2005.

At first, Ostapiuk invested for the long term. That paid off initially, but she got hammered when the market slumped last May.

So she began trading actively through E-Trade and found that she enjoyed it.

“I feel that if I get real good at this I can make a lot of money,” she said.