Article in Futures Magazine on our Commodity Trading Program

From the December 2014 issue of Futures Magazine • Subscribe!

Zoi: A match made in cyber heaven

Konstantinos (Gus) Tsahas and Robert Terpilowski had similar ideas regarding trading. These partners, who have been working on trading strategies together for nearly a decade, met of all places on an Interactive Brokers (IB) message board where they began sharing ideas (both have an engineering background) despite being on separate coasts: Tsahas in New York and Terpilowski in Seattle.

“Around 2000, Interactive Brokers offered an API and I began developing a mean reversion strategy for the equity markets,” Terpilowski says. “I was working on software to automate that. Gus actually posted something on the message board of the API group so we hooked up and started bouncing ideas off of each other and hit it off.”

Tsahas adds, “It just turned out that we were working on the same mean reversion ideas. I was further along in some aspects, Rob was [further along] in others. Collaborating helped both of us to come up with some good strategies. That was the start.”

This collaboration continued for five years with both Terpilowski and Tsahas pursuing separate careers: Terpilowski in various civil engineering positions and Tsahas running his own business installing fiber optic lines.

By 2005 they were trading a number of different strategies but running into scalability issues trading individual equities and decided to look at taking their mean reverting strategies and porting them over to futures.

“We noticed in 2005 that it was difficult to get filled in equity markets,” Tsahas says.

“The reason we chose the mean reversion strategies is we were looking at forming a CTA and felt like mean reversion was a pretty good alternative to the 70% or so of [CTAs] who were trend followers,” Terpilowski says. “That would allow people to include our strategy in their portfolio and provide a return stream that was uncorrelated to other CTAs.”

At the time Tsahas went back to school to get a financial engineering degree and entered an IB-sponsored trading contest using their methodology. “I actually came in second place using this strategy and won $50,000.”

Both would build and code the strategy. “Once we hit something that was beneficial we would share it. It was a lot of test and verify,” Tsahas says. “That is the beauty of having a second person with a different set of skills. Once I saw something that I liked or Rob saw something that he liked, we would port it over and test it ourselves.”

“That is one of the reasons we have worked so well together,” Terpilowski adds. “Being from an engineering background we basically say if it is not something that we can model and backtest it is not something that we are willing to trade.”

By 2007 they began trading proprietary money on 19 futures markets in six sectors. Their strategy attempts to capture short-term pullbacks in medium-term (two to three-week) trends.  They did not attempt to optimize their strategy on each market but rather on the entire portfolio to avoid curve-fitting.

“The inputs we use for natural gas are the same inputs that we use for the S&P 500 or gold or wheat,” Terpilowski says. “We wanted to avoid curve-fitting so we decided we are going to optimize it at the portfolio level only and we included 40 markets.”

Their strategies performed extremely well in 2007-2009 and by 2010 they began trading customer money in CTA Zoi Capital.

Winning trades typically last 1.5 days, with losers lasting 2.5 days. Zoi’s Telio program has a four-point risk management strategy. They exit the market in five days if a trade does not begin to revert back to the mean.

“We want to minimize the amount of time in the market because whenever you are in the market you are assuming risk,” Terpilowski says. “We apply stop losses whenever we open a new position but they are dynamic; if volatility is higher we want to place the stops a little further away than if volatility is less to give it more room to breathe.”

However, Zoi will reduce the position size when applying wider stops. That way they maintain their risk parameters, 2.5% on every trade, but allow trades to work. They also will exit all positions if they reach a portfolio-wide drawdown of 5% in a day. They cap margin to equity at 25%, though it typically runs around 7 to 10%.

Zoi earned solid returns: 36.12% in 2010, 25.34% in 2011 and 32.66% in 2012, trading basically for friends and family and looked to raise more assets.

In 2013 Zoi got its first institutional client when Jack Schwager provided an allocation from the ADM Investor Services Diversified Strategies Fund he was co-portfolio manager of, which is ironic as Terpilowski first got interested in technical trading after reading a Jack Schwager book.

The Telio program has produced a compound annual return of 20.36% since April 2010 with a Sharpe ratio of 1.05. It is up 6.56% in 2014 through October.

Zoi is looking to expand its program to 40 markets, which should be no problem as the strategy has already been rigorously tested. As Tsahas says, “If we can’t see it in a model, validate it and make sure it is not curve fitted, we are not going to trade it.”

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