Get Rich Slowly

Most trading systems are of the get-rich-quick type. They exploit temporary market inefficiencies and aim for annual returns in the 100% area. They require regular supervision and adaption to market conditions, and still have a limited lifetime. Their expiration is often accompanied by large losses. But what if you’ve nevertheless collected some handsome gains, and now want to park them in a more safe haven? Put the money under the pillow? Take it into the bank? Give it to a hedge funds? Obviously, all that goes against an algo trader’s honor code. Here’s an alternative.

The old-fashioned investing method is buying some low-risk stocks and then waiting a long time. Any portfolio of stocks has a certain mean return and a certain fluctuation in value; you normally want to minimize the latter and maximize the former. The optimal capital allocation among the portfolio components produces either maximum mean return for a given allowed fluctuation, or minimum fluctuation – respectively, minimum variance – for a given mean return. This optimal allocation is often very different to investing the same amount in all N components of the portfolio. An easy way to solve this mean / variance optimization problem was published 60 years ago by Harry Markowitz. It won him later the Nobel prize.

The unfashionable Markowitz

Unfortunately, Markowitz got largely out of fashion since then. The problem is the same as with all trading algorithms: You can only calculate the optimal capital allocation in hindsight. Optimized portfolios mysteriously failed in live trading. They were said to often return less than a simple 1/N capital distribution. But this was challenged recently in an interesting paper (1) by Keller, Butler, and Kipnis, of which I quote the first paragraph:

Mean-Variance Optimization (MVO) as introduced by Markowitz (1952) is often presented as an elegant but impractical theory. MVO is an “unstable and error-maximizing” procedure (Michaud 1989), and is “nearly always beaten by simple 1/N portfolios” (DeMiguel, 2007). And to quote Ang (2014): “Mean-variance weights perform horribly… The optimal mean-variance portfolio is a complex function of estimated means, volatilities, and correlations of asset returns. There are many parameters to estimate. Optimized mean-variance portfolios can blow up when there are tiny errors in any of these inputs…”.

MVO is sensitive to small changes in asset returns, but that does not yet mean that it won’t work. And whatever Ang (2014) meant with the “many parameters to estimate”, there is no such parameter in Markowitz’ algorithm. But the optimized portfolios by the quoted authors indeed blew up. The reason according to (1): The Markowitz vituperators did it all wrong. They used too long, mean-reverting time periods for sampling the returns and covariances, and they applied the MVO algorithm wrongly to mixed long/short portfolios. When correctly applied to a momentum-governed time period and long-only portfolios, MVO in fact produces out of sample results far superior to 1/N. This was proven by testing a number of example portfolios in (1) with a R MVO implementation by fellow blogger Ilya Kipnis.

However, a R implementation is not very practical for live trading. For this we have to implement MVO in a real trade platform. Then we can park our money in an optimized portfolio of stocks and ETFs, let the platform rebalance the capital allocation in regular intervals, lean back, wait, and get rich slowly.

Implementing MVO

The Zorro implementation is based on Markowitz’ 1959 publication (2). In chapter 8, he described the MVO algorithm in a clear and easy to follow way. For simple minded programmers like me, he even included a brief introduction to linear algebra! I only modified his original algorithm by adding a weight constraint as suggested in (1). It turned out later that this constraint was a good idea – it stabilizes the algorithm and has a large positive effect on performance.

In wise anticipation of future computing machines, Markowitz also included an example portfolio for checking if you programmed his algorithm correctly. The proof:

function main()
	var Means[3] = { .062,.146,.128 };
	var Covariances[3][3] = { .0146,.0187,.0145,.0187,.0854,.0104,.0145,.0104,.0289 };
	var Weights[3];
	var BestVariance = markowitz(Covariances,Means,3,0);

	printf("\nMax:  %.2f %.2f %.2f",Weights[0],Weights[1],Weights[2]);
	printf("\nBest: %.2f %.2f %.2f",Weights[0],Weights[1],Weights[2]);
	printf("\nMin:  %.2f %.2f %.2f",Weights[0],Weights[1],Weights[2]);

The means and covariances arrays in the script are from Markowitz’ example portfolio. The markowitz function runs the algorithm and returns the variance value associated with the best Sharpe ratio. The markowitzReturn function then calculates the capital allocation weights with the maximum mean return for a given variance. The weights for maximum, best, and minimum variance are printed. If I did it right, they should be exactly the same as in Markowitz’ publication:

Max:  0.00 1.00 0.00
Best: 0.00 0.22 0.78
Min:  0.99 0.00 0.01

Selecting the assets

For long-term portfolios you can’t use the same high-leverage Forex or CFD instruments that you preferred for your short-term strategies. Instead you normally invest in stocks, ETFs, or similar instruments. They offer several advantages for algo trading:

  • No zero-sum game. In the long run, stocks and index ETFs have positive mean returns due to dividends and accumulated value, while Forex pairs and index CFDs have negative mean returns due to swap/rollover fees.
  • Serious brokers. Stock/ETF brokers are all regulated, what can not be said of all Forex/CFD brokers.
  • More data for your algorithms, such as volume and market depth information.
  • Bigger choice of assets from many different market sectors.
  • More trading methods, such as pairs trading (“stat arb”), trading risk-free assets such as T-bills, or trading volatility.

The obvious disadvantage is low leverage, like 1:4 compared with 1:100 or more for Forex instruments. Low leverage is ok for a long-term system, but not for getting rich quick. More restrictions apply to long-term portfolios. MVO obviously won’t work well with components that have no positive mean return. And it won’t work well either when the returns are strongly correlated. So when selecting assets for your long-term portfolio, you have to look not only for returns, but also for correlation. Here’s the main part of a Zorro script for that:

#define NN  30  // max number of assets

function run()
	BarPeriod = 1440;
	NumYears = 7;
	LookBack = 6*252; // 6 years

	string	Names[NN];
	vars	Returns[NN];
	var	Correlations[NN][NN];

	int N = 0;
	while(Names[N] = loop( 
		Returns[N] = series((priceClose(0)-priceClose(1))/priceClose(1));
		if(N++ >= NN) break;
	if(is(EXITRUN)) {
		int i,j;
		for(i=0; i<N; i++)
		for(j=0; j<N; j++)
			Correlations[N*i+j] = 
		for(i=0; i<N; i++)
			printf("\n%i - %s: Mean %.2f%%  Variance %.2f%%",

The script first sets up some parameters, then goes into a loop over N assets. Here I’ve just entered some popular ETFs; for replacing them, websites such as give an overview and help searching for the optimal ETF combination.

In the initial run, the asset prices are downloaded from Yahoo. They are corrected for splits and dividends. The assetHistory function stores them as historical price data files. Then the assets are selected and their returns are calculated and stored in the Returns data series. This is repeated with all 1-day bars of a 7 years test period (obviously the period depends on since when the selected ETFs are available). In the final run the script prints the annual mean returns and variances of all assets, which are the first and second moments of the return series. The annual function and the 252 multiplication factor convert daily values to annual values. The results for the selected ETFs:

1 - TLT: Mean 10.75% Variance 2.29%
2 - LQD: Mean 6.46% Variance 0.31%
3 - SPY: Mean 13.51% Variance 2.51%
4 - GLD: Mean 3.25% Variance 3.04%
5 - VGLT: Mean 9.83% Variance 1.65%
6 - AOK: Mean 4.70% Variance 0.23%

The ideal ETF has high mean return, low variance, and low correlation to all other assets of the portfolio. The correlation can be seen in the correlation matrix that is computed from all collected returns in the above code, then plotted in a N*N heatmap:

The correlation matrix contains the correlation coefficients of every asset with every other asset. The rows and columns of the heatmap are the 6 assets. The colors go from blue for low correlation between the row and column asset, to red for high correlation. Since any asset correlates perfectly with itself, we always have a red diagonal. But you can see from the other red squares that some of my 6 popular ETFs were no good choice. Finding the perfect ETF combination, with the heatmap as blue as possible, is left as an exercise to the reader.

The efficient frontier

After selecting the assets for our portfolio, we now have to calculate the optimal capital allocation, using the MVO algorithm. However, “optimal” depends on the desired risk, i.e. volatility of the portfolio. For every risk value there’s a optimal allocation that generates the maximum return. So the optimal allocation is not a point, but a curve in the return / variance plane, named the Efficient Frontier. We can calculate and plot it with this script:

function run()
	... // similar to Heatmap script
	if(is(EXITRUN)) {
		int i,j;
		for(i=0; i<N; i++) {
			Means[i] = Moment(Returns[i],LookBack,1);
			for(j=0; j<N; j++)
				Covariances[N*i+j] =

		var BestV = markowitz(Covariances,Means,N,0);	
		var MinV = markowitzVariance(0,0);
		var MaxV = markowitzVariance(0,1);

		int Steps = 50;
		for(i=0; i<Steps; i++) {
			var V = MinV + i*(MaxV-MinV)/Steps;
			var R = markowitzReturn(0,V);
		plotGraph("Max Sharpe",(BestV-MinV)*Steps/(MaxV-MinV),

I’ve omitted the first part since it’s identical to the heatmap script. Only the covariance matrix is now calculated instead of the correlation matrix. Covariances and mean returns are fed to the markowitz function that again returns the variance with the best Sharpe ratio. The subsequent calls to markowitzVariance also return the highest and the lowest variance of the efficient frontier and establish the borders of the plot. Finally the script plots 50 points of the annual mean return from the lowest to the highest variance:

At the right side we can see that the portfolio reaches a maximum annual return of about 12.9%, which is simply all capital allocated to SPY. On the left side we achieve only 5.4% return, but with less than a tenth of the daily variance. The green dot is the point on the frontier with the best Sharpe ratio (= return divided by square root of variance) at 10% annual return and 0.025 variance. This is the optimal portfolio – at least in hindsight. 


How will a mean / variance optimized portfolio fare in an out of sample test, compared with with 1/N? Here’s a script for experiments with different portfolio compositions, lookback periods, weight constraints, and variances:

#define DAYS	252 // 1 year lookback period
#define NN	30  // max number of assets

function run()
	... // similar to Heatmap script

	int i,j;
	static var BestVariance = 0;
	if(tdm() == 1 && !is(LOOKBACK)) {
		for(i=0; i<N; i++) {
			Means[i] = Moment(Returns[i],LookBack,1);
			for(j=0; j<N; j++)
				Covariances[N*i+j] = Covariance(Returns[i],Returns[j],LookBack);	
		BestVariance = markowitz(Covariances,Means,N,0.5);
	var Weights[NN]; 
	static var Return, ReturnN, ReturnMax, ReturnBest, ReturnMin;
	if(is(LOOKBACK)) {
		Month = 0;
		ReturnN = ReturnMax = ReturnBest = ReturnMin = 0;

	if(BestVariance > 0) {
		for(Return=0,i=0; i<N; i++) Return += (Returns[i])[0]/N; // 1/N 
		ReturnN = (ReturnN+1)*(Return+1)-1;
		markowitzReturn(Weights,0);	// min variance
		for(Return=0,i=0; i<N; i++) Return += Weights[i]*(Returns[i])[0];
		ReturnMin = (ReturnMin+1)*(Return+1)-1;
		markowitzReturn(Weights,1);	// max return
		for(Return=0,i=0; i<N; i++) Return += Weights[i]*(Returns[i])[0];
		ReturnMax = (ReturnMax+1)*(Return+1)-1;

		markowitzReturn(Weights,BestVariance); // max Sharpe
		for(Return=0,i=0; i<N; i++) Return += Weights[i]*(Returns[i])[0];
		ReturnBest = (ReturnBest+1)*(Return+1)-1;

		plot("Max Sharpe",100*ReturnBest,AXIS2,GREEN);
		plot("Max Return",100*ReturnMax,AXIS2,RED);
		plot("Min Variance",100*ReturnMin,AXIS2,BLUE);

The script goes through 7 years of historical data, and stores the daily returns in the Returns data series. At the first trading day of every month (tdm() == 1) it computes the means and the covariance matrix of the last 252 days, then calculates the efficient frontier. This time we also apply a 0.5 weight constraint to the minimum variance point. Based on this efficient frontier, we compute the daily total return with equal weights (ReturnN), best Sharpe ratio (ReturnBest), minimum variance (ReturnMin) and maximum Return (ReturnMax). The weights remain unchanged until the next rebalancing, this way establishing an out of sample test. The four daily returns are added up to 4 different equity curves :


We can see that MVO improves the portfolio in all three variants, in spite of its bad reputation. The black line is the 1/N portfolio with equal weights for all asset. The blue line is the minimum variance portfolio – we can see that it produces slightly better profits than 1/N, but with much lower volatility. The red line is the maximum return portfolio with the best profit, but high volatility and sharp drawdowns. The green line, the maximum Sharpe portfolio, is somewhere inbetween. Different portfolio compositions can produce a different order of lines, but the blue and green lines have almost always a much better Sharpe ratio than the black line. Since the minimum variance portfolio can be traded with higher leverage due to the smaller drawdowns, it often produces the highest profits.

For checking the monthly rebalancing of the capital allocation weights, we can display the weights in a heatmap:

The horizontal axis is the month of the simulation, the vertical axis the asset number. High weights are red and low weights are blue. The weight distribution above is for the maximum Sharpe portfolio of the 6 ETFs.

The final money parking system

After all those experiments we can now code our long-term system. It shall work in the following way:

  • The efficient frontier is calculated from daily returns of the last 252 trading days, i.e. one year. That’s a good time period for MVO according to (1), since most ETFs show 1-year momentum.
  • The system rebalances the portfolio once per month. Shorter time periods, such as daily or weekly rebalancing, showed no advantage in my tests, but reduced the profit due to higher trading costs. Longer time periods, such as 3 months, let the system deteriorate.
  •  The point on the efficient frontier can be set up with a slider between minimum variance and maximum Sharpe. This way you can control the risk of the system. 
  • We use a 50% weight constraint at minimum variance. It’s then not anymore the optimal portfolio, but according to (1) – and my tests have confirmed this – it often improves the out of sample balance due to better diversification.

Here’s the script:

#define LEVERAGE 4	// 1:4 leverage
#define DAYS	252 	// 1 year
#define NN	30	// max number of assets

function run()
	BarPeriod = 1440;
	LookBack = DAYS;

	string Names[NN];
	vars	Returns[NN];
	var	Means[NN];
	var	Covariances[NN][NN];
	var	Weights[NN];

	var TotalCapital = slider(1,1000,0,10000,"Capital","Total capital to distribute");
	var VFactor = slider(2,10,0,100,"Risk","Variance factor");
	int N = 0;
	while(Names[N] = loop( 
		Returns[N] = series((priceClose(0)-priceClose(1))/priceClose(1));
		if(N++ >= NN) break;

	if(is(EXITRUN)) {
		int i,j;
		for(i=0; i<N; i++) {
			Means[i] = Moment(Returns[i],LookBack,1);
			for(j=0; j<N; j++)
				Covariances[N*i+j] = Covariance(Returns[i],Returns[j],LookBack);	
		var BestVariance = markowitz(Covariances,Means,N,0.5);
		var MinVariance = markowitzVariance(0,0);

		for(i=0; i<N; i++) {
			MarginCost = priceClose()/LEVERAGE;
			int Position = TotalCapital*Weights[i]/MarginCost;
			printf("\n%s:  %d Contracts at %.0f$",Names[i],Position,priceClose());

On Zorro’s panel you can set up the invested capital with a slider (TotalCapital) between 0 and 10,000$. A second slider (VFactor) is for setting up the desired risk from 0 to 100%: At 0 you’re trading with minimum variance, at 100 with maximum Sharpe ratio.

This script advises only, but does not trade: For automated trading it, you would need an API plugin to a ETF broker, such as IB. But the free Zorro version only has plugins for Forex/CFD brokers; the IB plugin is not free. However, since positions are only opened or closed once per month and price data is free from Yahoo, you do not really need an API connection for trading a MVO portfolio. Just fire up the above script once every month, and check what it prints out:

TLT:  0 Contracts at 129$
LQD:  0 Contracts at 120$
SPY:  3 Contracts at 206$
GLD:  16 Contracts at 124$
VGLT:  15 Contracts at 80$
AOK:  0 Contracts at 32$

Apparently, the optimal portfolio for this month consists of 3 contracts SPY, 16 contracts GLD, and 15 VGLT contracts. You can now manually open or close those positions in your broker’s trading platform until your portfolio matches the printed advice. Leverage is 4 by default, but you can change this to your broker’s leverage in the #define at the begin of the script. For a script that trades, simply replace the printf statement with a trade command that opens or closes the difference to the current position of the asset. This, too, is left as an exercise to the reader…

MVO vs. OptimalF

It seems natural to use MVO not only for a portfolio of many assets, but also for a portfolio of many trading systems. I’ve tested this with the Z12 system that comes with Zorro and contains about 100 different system/asset combinations. It turned out that MVO did not produce better results than Ralph Vince’s OptimalF factors that are originally used by the system. OptimalF factors do not consider correlations between components, but they do consider the drawdown depths, while MVO is only based on means and covariances. The ultimate solution for such a portfolio of many trading systems might be a combination of MVO for the capital distribution and OptimalF for weight constraints. I have not tested this yet, but it’s on my to do list.

I’ve added all scripts to the 2016 script repository. You’ll need Zorro 1.44 or above for running them. When your fortune grows, reinvest only the square root of the growth (read here why). And after you made your first million with the MVO script, don’t forget to sponsor Zorro generously! 🙂


  1. Momentum and Markowitz – A Golden Combination: Keller.Butler.Kipnis.2015
  2. Harry M. Markowitz, Portfolio Selection, Wiley 1959


63 thoughts on “Get Rich Slowly”

  1. Markowitz seems not to be so “unfashionable” anymore, a couple papers came out about trading his algorithm in the last months. I’m going to test this concept. Thanks for this great article and the scripts!

  2. Someone asked me how to prevent opening more than 4 positions at any time. For this you have to set all weights to zero, except for the 4 highest weights. I’m posting the code snippet here in case other people have the same question:

    int* idx = sortIdx(Weights,N);
    var TotalWeight = 0;
    for(i=N-4; i<N; i++) // sum up the 4 highest weights
      TotalWeight += Weights[idx[i]];
    for(i=0; i<N; i++) {
      if(idx[i] < N-4)
        Weights[i] = 0;
      else // adjust weights so that their sum is still 1
        Weights[i] /= TotalWeight;

  3. Johann, are you going to publish an english edition of your book (Das Börsenhackerbuch: Finanziell unabhängig durch algorithmische Handelssysteme)?

  4. Depends on demand. Besides, my English might be sufficient for a blog, but possibly not for a book.

  5. Another outstanding contribution! What puzzles me a little bit is that the recently released Z8 system comes with a default set of assets that seems not to fulfill the “desperately” wanted lack of correlation. May be only a subset of four assets is uncorrelated. Some of the other assets have very substantial correlations as apparent from running the correlation heatmap script on the Z8 asset list. What has motivated this particular collection of assets?

  6. Yes, the Z8 ETFs have been selected by fundamental considerations only, such as covering market sections with a positive perspective. They were not selected by their correlation. But you can replace them with any other assets if you want.

  7. It’s actually a great and useful piece of information. I’m
    satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us.
    Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  8. amazing article. I added some etfs to the script but when i run it, it prints a negative number for some. e.g. TLT – 3 contracts at 139. Do you have any idea why this might be or how to fix it?

  9. The number is calculated from Capital * Weight / MarginCost, and since neither of them is negative, the number shouldn’t either as I see it. Well, phenomena like this make programmer’s life interesting. If you have nothing changed with the script, let me know which assets you have added. When I get negative numbers too, I can most likely tell you their reason.

  10. hey thanks jcl for the fast reply. that seems to be very odd. i am pretty new to programming/ trading, so i just added some of the assets from the z8 asset list.

    i will just copy the asset part:
    while(Names[N] = loop(
    … i didnt change the code besides that.
    thanks in advance 🙂

  11. oh i just saw that i have “TLT” twice in the list. I just removed one and now everything works fine!

  12. Good, also make sure that when you have more than 30 assets, change the “NN” definition in the script to the maximum number of assets.

  13. Hi Johann, does this work for stocks? BTW, how does one make use of the output? Let’s say I run the script now and it shows, AAPL: 3 Contracts at 114$. The price for 1 unit of AAPL now is 112.99$. Does it mean, if I don’t have any position on AAPL, I can buy it at 112.99$ and wait for it to hit 114$ before I close it or shall I wait for the price to hit 114$ before I buy? I think the former makes more sense. Thanks.

  14. Yes, this also works for stocks, however they have higher volatility than ETFs, so you need more different stocks for diversification. You buy the position at market. The displayed price is only from the Yahoo history from the day before.

  15. Hi Johann, thanks for the helpful reply. You mentioned that the script shall be run once a month to open or close a position. So let’s say I have a position on AAPL from previous month and when I run the script now and the output doesn’t show AAPL, does it mean I shall close it? Thanks.

  16. Hi Johann, thanks for the reply. I have compiled a list of stocks that I wanted to trade and there are about 100. In the code, I changed the array size, NN to 120 and included the 100 stocks however, the script run into run-time error that says, “Error 111: Crash in script: run()” and can’t proceed. Any idea? I am running Zorro 1.44 on Windows 7 64bit. Thanks.

  17. If you changed NN to a large value, put also all arrays outside the function, or make them static. If I remember right, the default stack size is some 100 KB, so too large local arrays can exceed it.

  18. I’m new(both for program and trading) and very interesting for this “Get Rich Slowly”. Could you mail me tell me how to create account and work with your system step by step?

    And all about cost and studying time(normal).

    Thanks! Happy new year!

  19. If you’re new, the first step would be taking a trading and programming course. A short one can be found in the Zorro manual, a more extensive course is offered by a fellow blogger, Robotwealth. You can register for his course “Algorithmic Trading Funddamentals” on the Zorro download page,

  20. I don’t understand why you are using priceClose() to calculate returns.
    You should use adjusted price for that purpose, shouldn’t you?

    I didn’t find in Zorro any function performing priceAdjust, neither any comment on their manual, why?

    Interesting that Zorro do not provide any build-in “return” function,
    opposed to R which provides many.

  21. Yes, prices in backtests should be and are adjusted when not otherwise mentioned. I used no “return” function in the script since I trusted the reader to recognize a return expression when seeing it.

  22. Hi jcl, I see you didn’t do WFO in this system, I guess it’s because that one year’s look back period and one month’s rebalance period have been the optimal. WFO doesn’t make any sense here, is it correct?

    Thank you


  23. Hi jcl,

    I add script below to your MVO script and expect to see an equity curve, but nothing happened, what I did wrong?

    StartDate = 2010;
    NumWFOCycles = 3;

    Thank you.


  24. I suppose you must not set the “NumWFOCycles” variable. It’s for WFO only. Since there are no optimized parameters in the script, there is also no WFO.

  25. Thank you for your prompt comment.

    I can test Z8, get all metrics like AR, SR Monte Carlo etc. How can I do the same thing to MVO? I still need to grab a sense how its results look like before I put it into live trading. In ther word, how can I test MVO?



  26. I think we have three metrics here for asset candidates, mean, variance and correlation, which one you think is more important?

  27. Neither. When looking at a single asset, mean divided by square root of variance is a more important metric than mean or variance alone. When looking at a portfolio, it’s total mean divided by square root of total variance.

  28. Yes, it’s the Sharpe Ratio aside from a constant factor. And the correlation is insofar important as it affects the total variance of a portfolio – lower correlation means lower total variance.

  29. Unfortuntately my boss does not allow me to check out program code of more than 10 lines – at least not without demanding money. But whatever does not work with your code, you can easily find out with the debugger. Help yourself, so help you god. The procedure is described in the Zorro manual under “troubleshooting”.

  30. That’s fine, I am ZorroS user, I will get your support team to look at it later, I guess they would do that as the 4 weeks email support.

    You gave out 2 versions of MVOtest, when you calculate BestVariance, you use different weight cap, 0.5 for your original version and 5./N for the latter one, it seems a constant 5 divided by the number of the assets. If I have 50 assets, the biggest weight in only 10%. Did I understand correctly? Why is that? Diversifying?

    Thank you.


  31. When you say better, I guess you mean low variance, not necessarily high return or high Sharp Ratio, is it?

    Thank you

  32. Do you think put some negative/inverse correlation asset, like VIX, into the AssetList is a good idea?

  33. Only when it has positive expectancy, such as assets derived from stocks or indices. VIX probably not. Maybe XIV, which can rise to high levels, but might impose high risk.

  34. Any metrics to measure overall correlation of all assets like mean divided by sqrt of the variance except the heatmap? It’s visual, not numeric.

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