Proprietary Trading: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Written By
Julija A.
September 26,2023

Proprietary trading stands out as a distinct and strategic investment aspect of the financial world. This guide aims to explain exactly how prop trading works, as well as all inherent risks and potential rewards that come with this high-risk trading venue.

How Proprietary Trading Works

Prop trading involves financial institutions trading in stocks, derivatives, and other instruments using their own capital instead of their clients'. The goal here is straightforward: to achieve higher returns than those typically realized from client-based trading.

The very nature of using an institution's own funds means that while there's potential for significant profits, there's also a risk of substantial losses if market movements are unfavorable.

Because of these high stakes, prop trading firms are discerning in their hiring practices. They typically look for traders with a proven history of success in the market, given the responsibility and trust placed in their hands.

For those who really know their way around the market, prop trading can be a golden opportunity with potentially big rewards.

Proprietary Trading Types

Prop trading can be done in a number of different ways, mainly through:

Principal Trading

At the heart of prop trading lies Principal Trading. Here, financial entities actively deploy their own funds to engage with a range of financial instruments, all with an eye on maximizing returns.

Given the volatile temperament of markets, success in this realm demands not only a solid financial foundation but also a meticulously crafted risk mitigation plan.

Market Making

Market Making is a specialized form of prop trading where firms play a crucial role in maintaining market liquidity. Their role involves a continuous cycle of buying and selling securities, acting as a stabilizing force against erratic market price movements.

To illustrate, when a market maker lists a stock quote at $20.05/$20.06, it indicates their commitment to acquire the stock for $20.05 and part with it for $20.06. This subtle price gap, termed the spread, translates to their revenue.

For these market custodians, an in-depth grasp of their trading portfolio combined with the agility to pivot with market changes is paramount.

Automated Trading

In recent years, and through the ever-increasing adoption of machine learning, automated trading has emerged as a significant player in prop trading. This method, a product of employs advanaced algorithms to dictate trade decisions based on set parameters. Its strength lies in speed and precision, but like all tools, it's not without its vulnerabilities, because unforseen algorithmic errors can lead to financial losses.

Pros and Cons of Proprietary Trading

Prop trading, while promising hefty returns, isn't without its challenges.

A significant allure of prop trading is its profitability potential. Since traders utilize the firm's capital, the upside can be substantial when trades go in their favor. Many firms are drawn to proprietary trading, believing their market insights provide them a competitive edge, leading to enhanced profit margins.

However, the flip side is the inherent risk. With the firm's own capital on the line, losses can be magnified. This underscores the importance of robust risk management strategies to safeguard against potential downturns.

Furthermore, an overemphasis on prop trading can divert attention from a firm's primary business operations. Traders engrossed in proprietary activities might find themselves stretched thin, potentially neglecting the needs of the firm's broader clientele.

Proprietary Trading vs. Hedge Funds

To the untrained eye, prop trading and hedge funds might appear synonymous. Both involve leveraging capital to reap profits, but it's the little things and nuances that set them apart.

Prop trading firms, or proprietary trading entities, trade using their capital. Conversely, hedge funds pool investor funds from external sources, and employ more intricate strategies to invest across a wider variety of assets. This is why prop trading firms tend to be more aggresive, while hedge fund managers employ stricter risk management to ensure the protection of their investor capital.

The Volcker Rule in Proprietary Trading

The Volcker Rule is a set of regulations implemented in 2009 and designed as a regulatory response to potential financial vulnerabilities. By limiting proprietary trading by banks, it aims to reduce systemic risks. However, the rule does accommodate client-centric trading and specific market-making activities.

Who Is Proprietary Trading For?

Prop trading is tailor-made for seasoned traders with a penchant for risk. Top-tier prop trading entities scout for traders with a stellar track record, often necessitating a personal trading account showcasing a history of profitable trades.

For novices, prop trading might be a steep hill to climb. But for trading veterans eyeing higher risks for potentially higher rewards, it could be an ideal fit.

Bottom Line

Detractors argue that prop trading offers undue advantages to trading firms. However, when executed adeptly, it can be a goldmine for shareholders.

Ultimately, the decision to venture into prop trading hinges on individual risk appetites. If you're game for some risk and have done your due diligence, the world of prop trading awaits.


What is a spot trader?


Positioned within the broader category of prop traders, spot traders specialize in executing on-the-spot transactions, be it involving stocks, commodities, or currencies. Their focus is strictly on short-lived market anomalies, with spot traders often using technical signals as their trading compass.

How much do proprietary traders make?


As per Glassdoor, the average annual compensation for a proprietary trader in the U.S. stands at approximately $86,666, encompassing a base pay of around $73,896 and additional earnings, like bonuses and commissions, amounting to about $12,770. 

Who engages in proprietary trading?


While major financial behemoths like commercial banks and investment firms are the primary players in prop trading, smaller entities and individual traders aren't far behind. The prerequisites? Adequate capital and access to advanced trading platforms.

About author

Albert Einstein is said to have identified compound interest as mankind’s greatest invention. That story’s probably apocryphal, but it conveys a deep truth about the power of fiscal policy to change the world along with our daily lives. Civilization became possible only when Sumerians of the Bronze Age invented money. Today, economic issues influence every aspect of daily life. My job at Fortunly is an opportunity to analyze government policies and banking practices, sharing the results of my research in articles that can help you make better, smarter decisions for yourself and your family.

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