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Strategy Quality Metrics Improve Out-of-Sample Results

by Michael R. Bryant



When optimizing a trading strategy, achieving good results on the so-called in-sample data on which the strategy is optimized is rarely a problem. You simply keep optimizing until you like the results. However, the ultimate goal is profitable trading, not results that look great in hindsight. The real goal in optimizing a trading strategy or in building a new strategy should be to select parameter values and/or elements of the strategy logic that generalize well to new data. In other words, we want the results we saw on the in-sample data to hold up on data that was not used in the optimization or strategy building process.


This so-called out-of-sample data is typically a recent segment of data that's large enough to provide a sufficiently large sample of trades for validation purposes. Real-time tracking, in which the strategy is tested in real-time using your trading platform's trading simulator, can also provide out-of-sample results. Of course, live trading results are also out-of-sample. Nonetheless, setting aside a segment of data for out-of-sample testing prior to optimization is often preferred as it can take months to test a strategy in real time, depending on how frequently it trades.


In previous articles, I've discussed different factors that can affect how well a strategy performs out-of-sample (training and selection bias, over-fitting), as well as a method to asses the likelihood of poor out-of-sample performance and various methods to prevent it (monitoring the optimization process, stress testing, multi-market techniques). This article falls into the last category, but instead of proposing changes to the optimization or build process itself, as in the prior articles, this article focuses on something simpler: selecting the metrics used to define the optimization's objective function.


Strategy Quality Metrics

When optimizing the parameter values for a trading strategy or when building a trading strategy using an automated tool like Adaptrade Builder, it's necessary to define what you mean by "optimal". A simple definition would be something like "find the parameter values that maximize net profit". In some cases, this may be sufficient, but it's also possible that metrics other than the most obvious ones, such as net profit, may provide better results. One alternative is what I call "strategy quality" metrics.


What do I mean by a strategy quality metric? Generally speaking, I define strategy quality metrics as measures of strategy performance that have the following properties:

  1. The higher the value of the metric, the better the strategy.

  2. The metric values are comparable across strategies, markets, time-frames, and bar sizes.

Simple metrics such as net profit, average trade size, and drawdown don't fit these criteria. For the most part, these criteria imply that we want metrics based on ratios and other non-dimensional quantities. While a number of metrics meet these requirements, this article will focus on the metrics shown below in Table 1.


Table 1. Strategy Quality Metrics.

Metric Threshold Definition
Profit Factor 1.7 Gross profit divided by the absolute value of gross loss.
Correlation Coefficient 0.95 Correlation coefficient of the equity curve relative to a straight line.
Trade Significance 95% Student's t test applied to the average trade; see this article, for example.
Average Entry Efficiency 60% How close the entry is to the lowest (highest) possible price over the course of the trade for a long (short) trade.1
Average Exit Efficiency 60% How close the exit is to the highest (lowest) possible price over the course of the trade for a long (short) trade.1
Kelly Fraction 20% [((r + 1) * p) - 1]/r, where r is the win/loss ratio and p is the fraction of winning trades.2
Degrees-of-Freedom (DoF) Ratio 0.75 Number of closed trades divided by the product of 30 times the number of strategy inputs.3


The table also includes a threshold value for each metric that is intended to represent the value above which a strategy is considered to be high-quality. These values are entirely subjective. For example, 60% is suggested by Zamansky and Stendahl1 as the threshold for good quality entries and exits.


The correlation coefficient effectively measures the consistency of the strategy results across different periods. The trade significance takes into account both the average trade size and its standard deviation. It's basically a measure of whether the average trade is large enough to be statistically different than zero given its standard deviation. While this is not a valid measure of the statistical significance of the trading strategy when the strategy has been optimized, it's nonetheless a useful measure of the quality of the trade distribution of the strategy.


Average entry and exit efficiency measure how effectively the strategy captures the potential profit of trades. The Kelly fraction is typically used for position sizing. Higher values generally indicate that greater leverage can be used via more aggressive position sizing, which is an indication of a higher quality strategy. The DoF ratio depends on the number of trades, so this is more of a measure of whether there is sufficient test data than of the strategy itself. Nonetheless, it's a useful measure of the quality of the strategy results.


Some metrics that could have been included in the table above but were excluded include Tharp's System Quality Number (SQN)4, the Sharpe ratio, the Sortino ratio, the MAR ratio, risk of ruin, and total efficiency, among others. For some of these, choosing a universal threshold value is difficult, whereas others evaluate differently under variable position sizing versus fixed size trading. The risk of ruin is almost always close to zero for most decent strategies, so it tends to be uninformative. Ultimately, the set of metrics listed in Table 1 is subjective.


Quality Score

To use the strategy quality metrics, it's helpful to be able to combine them into a composite measure of strategy quality. This can be done by simply adding up the number of metrics for which the value exceeds the threshold value. For example, if the profit factor exceeds (or equals) 1.7, a "1" is added to the sum. The same is done for each metric in the table. The result is an integer score between 0 and 7 representing the overall strategy quality, with 0 representing the lowest quality and 7 the highest quality.


Testing the Inclusion of Strategy Quality Metrics in a Build Process

To test whether or not including strategy quality metrics in the build process produces better out-of-sample results, the following test cases were run:

  1. Maximizing net profit by itself.

  2. Maximizing net profit plus setting conditions requiring each of the build quality metrics in Table 1 to be above their respective threshold values.

To run the tests, Adaptrade Builder was used to create a population of 500 strategies, which were evolved over 40 generations. The strategies were built for the futures symbol @TFS#C (IQFeed, mini Russell 2000 futures), 60 minute bars, over the date range 2/25/2008 to 2/23/2018. Trading costs of $15 per round turn were deducted from each trade, and one contract per trade was specified. The training segment was set to 70% of the date range, with 30% assigned to the validation segment. No test segment was used.


For those unfamiliar with Adaptrade Builder, it constructs trading strategies by combining indicators, price patterns, and other trading logic options so that the resulting strategies meet the user's performance specifications and requirements. It's based on a kind of machine learning algorithm called genetic programming (GP); see, for example, this white paper on GP for trading. One of the key aspects of this approach is that only the training data is used in the GP optimization process. The validation data is not examined or used in any way by the optimization process. The results on the validation segment don't benefit from hindsight and are therefore unbiased and out-of-sample.


The GP algorithm is a type of optimization algorithm in which the objective function is based on the metrics selected by the user. For the two test cases shown above, the following metrics were used:


Test Case 1:


Build Objectives:

Maximize Net Profit, weight 1.000

Test Case 2:


Build Objectives:

Maximize Net Profit, weight 1.000


Build Conditions:

Trade Sig >= 95.0000% (Train)
Corr Coeff >= 0.9500 (Train)
Prof Fact >= 1.700 (Train)
Ave Exit Efficiency >= 60.00% (Train)
Ave Entry Efficiency >= 60.00% (Train)
DoF Ratio >= 0.750 (Train)
Kelly f >= 20.00% (Train)

Test case 2 is therefore the same as test case 1 except for the addition of the build conditions. Each build condition consists of one of the strategy quality metrics being above its threshold value. The objective function for the optimization combines the build objectives and the build conditions, if any. The build process, based on the GP optimization, then works to evolve a population of strategies that maximizes the objective function. For test case 2, this means the process worked to maximize the net profit while meeting the build conditions. It's important to understand that, in general, there is no guarantee that the build conditions will be met. It may be impossible, given the market, to meet all the conditions simultaneously. Nonetheless, the conditions steer the solution towards strategies that come as close as possible to meeting all the conditions.

The two test cases were designed to test the hypothesis that adding strategy quality metrics to the build process improves the out-of-sample results. For the results to support this hypothesis, we should find that the out-of-sample results are better in case 2 than in case 1. So what happened? The results are summarized below in Table 2.


Table 2. Test results show the average in-sample (IS) strategy profit, average out-of-sample (OOS) strategy profit, the number of profitable strategies in the out-of-sample segment, and the sum of the quality scores for the strategies in the out-of-sample segment for each test case. Despite lower average profits in-sample, the out-of-sample results for test case 2 are better in each column.


Test Case Ave Profit IS Ave Profit OOS # Profitable OOS Total Quality OOS
1 (Net Profit) $48,865 $3,784 316 167
2 (Net Profit + Strategy Quality) $39,528 $7,439 357 1082


The population results from each test case were copied to a spreadsheet for analysis. The average strategy net profit over all 500 population members was computed for each test case for both the in-sample (IS, training) and out-of-sample (OOS, validation) segments. In addition, the number of profitable strategies in the population for the OOS segment was counted for each test case. Lastly, the quality scores were calculated for each strategy using the OOS results, and the scores were summed over all 500 strategies for each test case.


As seen in Table 2, the average out-of-sample net profit for strategies in test case 2 was nearly double that of test case 1. In addition, the number of strategies with profitable OOS results was higher in test case 2. Lastly, the total quality score of strategies in the OOS segment of test case 2 was more than six times higher than in test case 1. To check if the better OOS results in test case 2 were due to a favorable population, the in-sample results were also examined. As shown in the table, the average in-sample net profit for strategies in test case 1 was actually higher than in test case 2, suggesting, that, if anything, the strategies in test case 1 benefitted from a favorable bias.



Intuitively, it seems reasonable that strategies that are designed to be of higher quality should generalize better to new data than strategies that are of lower quality. However, given the complexity of strategy design and testing and, in particular, the tendency of optimization to cause over-fitting, this was not entirely a forgone conclusion. Fortunately, the results shown above support this idea. Compared to a population of strategies built without considering strategy quality, as represented by seven so-called strategy quality metrics, the population that took strategy quality into account achieved notably better results in out-of-sample testing.


It's also interesting to note that not only were the strategies more profitable in the out-of-sample segment when the strategy quality metrics were included in the objective function, but the resulting strategies displayed much better strategy quality metric values in the out-of-sample segment. In this regard, it appears that you get what you ask for. By asking for higher quality results in-sample, we also got that in the out-of-sample segment.


It's possible that the higher in-sample profits for test case 1 in combination with the lower out-of-sample profits is due to over-fitting. Conceivably, it's easier to fit the noise of the in-sample segment when you're only trying to maximize net profit. It's possible that adding the additional constraints imposed by the strategy quality metrics in test case 2 made it more difficult to fit the random elements (i.e., noise) of the price data.


The reader may be wondering why test case 2 didn't forgo net profit entirely and simply try to meet the seven build conditions by themselves. The potential problem with that approach is that a high strategy quality score can be achieved with a low net profit. Even with only a handful of trades, you could conceivably have a quality score of 4 or 5 (i.e., perhaps all conditions but Trade Significance and DoF Ratio would be satisfied). Since having a high net profit is fundamental to the success of any trading strategy, it's better to add conditions for strategy quality to net profit than to rely on strategy quality alone.



  1. Leo J. Zamansky, David C. Stendahl, "Evaluating System Efficiency", Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities, Oct 1997, V15:10 (461-464).

  2. Vince, Ralph. "Portfolio Management Formulas," John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1990, p. 83.

  3. The DoF Ratio is based on the rule-of-thumb that a trading strategy should have roughly 30 times the number of trades as strategy inputs; see, for example, John Ehlers, Ric Way, "Be Your Own Hedge Fund", Technical Analysis of Stocks & Commodities, Jan 2017, p. 16.

  4. Tharp, Van K. "Van Tharp's Definitive Guide to Position Sizing," International Institute of Trading Mastery, Inc., North Carolina, 2008, p. 28.


Good luck with your trading.


Mike Bryant

Adaptrade Software




The results described in this article were generated using Adaptrade Builder version 2.4.1.


This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of the Adaptrade Software newsletter.




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