Popularized during the bull market of the late 1990s, day trading is the practice of buying and selling stocks over a very short period of time, typically one day. Once the domain of floor traders and investment banks, the availability of inexpensive computers and fast Internet access has brought day trading to the masses.
Day trading strategies typically follow one of two approaches: beating the spread or attempting to catch short term trends. The spread is the difference between what is being offered for a stock (the bid) and the price being asked for the stock (the ask). Spread trading attempts to buy at the bid and sell at the ask, over and over again. Spread traders may make hundreds or even thousands of such trades a day. With the advent of spreads as low as one penny, spread trading has become much less profitable than it once was.
Catching short term trends, or swing trading, generally involves following technical indicators to suggest when a trend may be starting or coming to an end. Technical indicators are a mathematical simplification of market movements that some traders feel provides them with insight into future market direction. Swing trading requires far fewer trades than spread trading, with the expectation that any given swing trade will generate a larger profit than one would see in a successful spread trade.
A recent development in day trading is the concept of the ECN rebate. ECNs are completely electronic exchanges with extremely low commissions and very fast execution of trading orders. To encourage traders to execute orders on their networks, ECNs may offer incentives to traders in the form of a rebate. In some cases, this allows a day trading individual to profit from simply buying and selling a stock at the same price.
With the collapse of the US equity markets in 2000, day trading garnered a reputation as being inherently risky. In response, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) moved to restrict day trading of stocks to accounts of over $25,000. In response, day trading activity moved to futures and commodities markets where the restrictions do not apply.