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The Trade that Killed Dighton Capital?

There have been quite a few winners and losers in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 crash (does this move have a name yet?), and one of the biggest losers has been discretionary trader Dighton Capital. We posted their ‘defense’ of their position two weeks ago, but things went terribly wrong since then, with a dramatic move higher in the Swiss Franc causing losses of more than -50% for Dighton in August (on top of -30% losses in July),  putting the drawdown on their composite track record at a disturbing -76%.

What happened? Several clichés come to mind. Mess with the bull, get the horns; you’ll run out of money before the market returns to sanity; don’t get married to a trade… just to name a few. But this wasn’t some novice trader throwing a trade against the wall to see if it would stick. Dighton had been here and done that before. Yes, they were a high risk/high reward type of strategy, but still we’re talking about professional traders with over $100 million in assets under management and 8 years of history.

In the end, Dighton followed their usual discretionary trading pattern of taking a contrarian stance against an outlier move – and adding to the position as the trade went against them. But unlike their past successes with this strategy, this outlier simply didn’t revert to the mean. It kept going and going, past all time highs, past resistance, through central bank intervention – and more. It went so far it could very well have cost them their business.

Can they recover from this?  The immediate problem is that it takes a huge gain to climb out of a hole this large. Consider the following chart which shows they would need to gain 300% to earn back the losses they have encountered. Our best guess is that they close up shop…

What could investors in Dighton have done differently?  Could Attain have sounded the alarm sooner? Based on the breakdown of this trade, there isn’t a whole lot which could have been done differently from what we can see.

To start, Dighton was a known quantity in terms of its risk, with multiple drawdowns of over -45% in the past – meaning a loss of -50% in the future shouldn’t have surprised anybody. Additionally, this wasn’t a trade outside of their normal strategy, as they add to losing positions and sell into rallies as a matter of practice.

They were communicating throughout the trade, giving their reasons for the stance they were taking – so there wasn’t a ‘rogue  trader’ aspect. And up until just a handful of days ago, the trade was within their worst past max drawdown levels.

All in all, it was a perfectly normal Dighton trade – that simply went bad in a hurry.

What are the lessons to be learned from this flame out?  One, discretionary managers without set risk per trade limits carry a unique set of risks which aren’t shared by their systematic counterparts (namely that they can/will hold onto a trade a little longer if they have a heavy conviction). Two, contrarian/counter-trend/mean reversion strategies carry unique risks (the market may not mean revert). Three, be wary of investing in a managed futures program doing something different than the typical managed futures trend following type strategy (it may suffer right along with your traditional investments when a crisis hits). Four, there is risk in managed futures-there will be losses. The key to surviving such losses is to be diversified (clients invested in trend followers alongside Dighton were making money on long Swiss Franc trades right alongside Dighton losing money on it – a wash). And five, the disclaimers pasted all over our website and the rest of the industry aren’t just there for fun; there is truth in those words – past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

We’re hopeful investors in Dighton were diversified across strategies of different types, and have survived to fight another day, as it doesn’t look likely Dighton itself will be so lucky.

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To read more Managed Futures research pieces, visit Attain’s Managed Futures Newsletter archive and our Managed Futures Blog.


Forex trading, commodity trading, managed futures, and other alternative investments are complex and carry a risk of substantial losses. As such, they are not suitable for all investors.

The entries on this blog are intended to further subscribers understanding, education, and – at times- enjoyment of the world of alternative investments through managed futures, trading systems, and managed forex.  Unless distinctly noted otherwise, the data and graphs included herein are intended to be mere examples and exhibits of the topic discussed, are for educational and illustrative purposes only, and do not represent trading in actual accounts.

The mention of asset class performance is based on the noted source index (i.e. Newedge CTA Index, S&P 500 Index, etc.) , and investors should take care to understand that any index performance is for the constituents of that index only, and does not represent the entire universe of possible investments within that asset class. And further, that there can be limitations and biases to indices:  such as survivorship and self reporting biases, and instant history.

Managed Futures Disclaimer:

Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results. The regulations of the CFTC require that prospective clients of a managed futures program (CTA) receive a disclosure document when they are solicited to enter into an agreement whereby the CTA will direct or guide the client’s commodity interest trading and that certain risk factors be highlighted. The disclosure document contains a complete description of the principal risk factors and each fee to be charged to your account by the CTA.

Copyright © 2011 Attain Capital Management, licensed Managed FuturesTrading System Commodity Brokers. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.