Backtesting is a very important step in strategy development. But if you have ever went through the full strategy development cycle, you may have realized how difficult it is to backtest a strategy properly.
People use different tools to implement a backtest depending on their expertise and goals. For those with a programming background, Quantstrat (R), Zipline, PyAlgoTrade (Python) or TradingLogic (Julia) are sure to be favorite options. For those preferring a retail product that involves less conventional programming, Tradestation or TradingBlox are common options.
One of the problems with using a third party solution is often the lack of flexibility. This doesn’t become apparent until one tries to backtest a strategy that requires more esoteric details. Obviously this will not be an issue backtesting the classics like moving averages or donchian channel type strategies, but I am sure some of you have hit your head on the backtest complexity ceiling more than once. There is also the issue of fill assumption. Most backtests I see posted on the blogosphere (including the ones present on this humble website) assume trade on the close price as a simplifying assumption. While this works well for the purpose of entertaining a conversation on the internet, it is not robust enough to be used as the basis for decision making to deploy significant capital.
The first time one can actually realize how good (bad) his chosen backtesting solution is when the strategy is traded live. However I am always amazed how little some traders pay attention to how closely their backtest match their live results. To some, it is like the strategy is the step following the backtest. I think this is missing on some crucially important part of the trading process, namely the feedback loop. There is a lot to be learned in figuring out where the difference between simulation and live implementation. In addition to the obvious bugs that may have passed through testing, it will quickly become apparent whether your backtest assumptions are any good and whether or not they must be revisited. Ideally backtested results and live results for the period which the overlap should be closely similar. If they are not, one should be asking serious questions and try to figure out where the discrepancies come from. In a properly designed simulation on slow frequency data (think daily or longer) you should be able to reconcile both to the penny. If the backtester is well designed, the difference is probably going to center on the fill price at the closing auction being different from the last traded price which is typically what gets reported as the close price. I always like to pay particular attention to the data I use to generate live signals and compare it to the data fed to the simulation engine to find potential signal differences as I often find that the live implementation trades off data that doesn’t always match with the simulation dataset. Obviously, as the time frame diminishes the problems are magnified. Backtesting intraday trading strategies is notoriously difficult and beyond the scope of this blog. Let’s just say that a good intraday backtester is a great competitive advantage for traders/firms willing to put in the development time and money.
It would be negligent of me to complain about backtesting problem without offering some of the processes that I use to improve their quality and ultimately usability. First I personally chose not to use a third party backtesting solution. I use software that I write, not because it is better than other solutions out there but because it allows me to fully customize all aspects of the simulation in a way that is intuitive to me. That way I can tune any backtest as part of the feedback loop I was referring to earlier to more accurately model live trading. Furthermore, as I refined the backtester over time, it slowly morphed into an execution engine that could be used with proper adapters to trade live markets. Effectively I have a customized backtest for each strategy but they all share a common core of code that forms the base of the live trading engine. I also spend quite some time looking at live fill vs simulated fills and try to reconcile the two.
Please do not think that I am trying to tell you that do-it-yourself solution is the best. I am simply saying that it is the one that fits me best. The point I am trying to make herein is that no matter what solution you decide to use, it is valuable to consider the difference between simulated and live results, who knows perhaps it will make you appreciate the process even more.I would be tremendously interested to hear what readers think on the subject, please share some insight in the comment section below so everybody can benefit.