Trading in a sideways market

Stochastics can generate buy and sell signals. Here's what it says about stocks.

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Do you know what you want to buy or sell, but are uncertain as to when to pull the trigger? When combined with other fundamental and technical tools, stochastics—a short-term technical indicator that is widely used among chart analysts for market signals—can help. And it can be particularly useful with a stock or a market that is moving sideways, which US markets might be doing.

Based on recent action of the S&P 500, this indicator is suggesting that US stocks may be close to registering a buy signal.

What is stochastics?

Similar to the Relative Strength Index (RSI) and Moving Average Convergence/Divergence (MACD), stochastics is a momentum measure that ranges from 0 to 100. The reason why momentum indicators like stochastics are considered more useful in sideways markets, compared with uptrends or downtrends, is due to the nature of the way it oscillates between relatively overbought and oversold prices. When selected, stochastics can typically be found beneath the price chart (see Stochastics applied to the S&P 500 below). 

Stochastics is actually made up of 2 lines, which tend to move in tandem. %K (black line in the chart above) represents the level of the stock or index's closing price relative to the high and low range over a period of time, and %D (red line in the chart above) attempts to smooth out the %K line by taking a 3-day moving average of the %K line. Consequently, %D is generally considered the more important of the 2 lines.

The theory behind stochastics is that these lines generate buy or sell signals when closing prices are near recent extreme highs or lows (i.e., sell signals after an uptrend and buy signals after a downtrend).

Generally, the area above 80 indicates an overbought region, while the area below 20 is considered an oversold region. When stochastics is above 80 and moves below that number, it indicates a sell signal. When stochastics is below 20 and moves above that number, it indicates a buy signal. Note that 80 and 20 are the most common signal levels used, but can be adjusted per individual preferences.

What stochastics says about stocks now

Looking at the chart of the S&P 500 above, both stochastics lines have been trending lower since mid-April, when the indicator generated a sell signal. If these lines continue to fall below the 20 reading (the %K line has declined below the 30 line, as of early May), and then subsequently rebound above that level, that would generate a buy signal.

Of course, it's possible that the indicator remains above the oversold lines and does not generate a signal. Moreover, you shouldn’t take a trading action based solely on this one signal. Like any technical indicator, stochastics is best used in combination with other technical indicators, as well as a macroeconomic analysis of the market and business cycle, and, if used with individual stocks, an analysis of earnings and other company fundamentals.

Additional tips

It's important to note that momentum indicators—including stochastics—can remain above 80 in overbought levels for extended periods after an upturn, without indicating that the security is becoming more overpriced. Similarly, stochastics can remain below 20 in oversold territory for extended periods after a sustained downtrend, without meaning the stock is becoming more oversold. For example, both stochastics lines for the S&P 500 held above 80 for several weeks during most of the second half of 2017; this should not have been interpreted as the market becoming more overpriced.

Another thing to watch for is divergences between the direction of the stochastics indicator and the price of the stock/security. Divergences form when a new high or low in price is not confirmed by a new high or low in stochastics. A bullish divergence forms when price makes a lower low but stochastics forms a higher low (see an example in the chart below). This could indicate less downward momentum and could foreshadow a bullish reversal.

Alternatively, a bearish divergence forms when price makes a higher high but stochastics forms a lower high. This could show less upward momentum and could foreshadow a bearish reversal. Recently, there appear not to have been any significant divergences between stochastics and the price of the S&P 500, but it may be worth monitoring to see if this does occur.

Finally, some technical analysts look at whether indicators are making higher highs/lower lows to confirm the direction of a trend, or lower highs/higher lows to confirm a change in trend direction. The S&P 500 chart shows how stochastics has made 2 higher lows over the past month, a potential signal that the market may return to its bullish trend.

Next steps to consider

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Technical analysis focuses on market action — specifically, volume and price. Technical analysis is only one approach to analyzing stocks. When considering which stocks to buy or sell, you should use the approach that you're most comfortable with. As with all your investments, you must make your own determination as to whether an investment in any particular security or securities is right for you based on your investment objectives, risk tolerance, and financial situation. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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The S&P 500® Index is a market capitalization–weighted index of 500 common stocks chosen for market size, liquidity, and industry group representation to represent US equity performance. S&P 500 is a registered service mark of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC.

Indexes are unmanaged. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Stock markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments.

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