Saturday, May 2, 2009

Where's the Party At?

During the last post, you should have cemented the idea of limited chaotic trading by exploring the mechanisms that both cause it and contain it to finite ranges. This post will focus instead on what happens inside this finite range. While semi-hard limits are established by the edges of plausible fundamental valuation scenarios, fundamentals play less and less of a role when the stock is trading well within the plausible range. Look back to Covert Newspaper Interception for a refresh on the relationship between fundamentals and technical analysis.

This is a diagram of essentially what you should understand so far. There is a time dependent range of prices that a stock could plausibly trade at. These limits cannot be definitively described by any analytical solution, and even if they could, supply demand imbalances can cause them to be exceeded, although this is not favorable from the market's perspective and traders will quickly jump in to pick up any asset that is trading well away from its estimable value.

The limits can be changed by any number of influences, but usually large changes in a stock's trading regime will occur because of decisive changes to the corporations fundamental value drivers. Whenever this occurs, the chaotic meanderings of the stock within the range of plausible valuations will run into the semi-hard boundaries, where the demand becomes very responsive to further price changes and the stock can be expected to reliably recover.

Stocks always spend the least amount of time near the semi-hard boundaries. The reason for this is that the fundamentals are always dominant and exert ever increasing pressure at the edges, driving the stock back towards the chaotic region where fundamentals give no definite indication as to whether the asset is over or under-priced.

Area in between the boundaries is the current region of interest. The question of trading price is rather easily answered whenever the stock is near it's plausible fundamental boundary. It's rather obvious that somebody needs to either obtain or get rid of shares, and so traders are quick to show up at these points. Their activities guide the stock back into the chaotic region. The question is, now what?

Going back to the singles playing rugby in a bar analogy, ask yourself if you would stand out in the middle of nowhere or wait for a table to fill up somewhere with some interesting characters. Obviously you want to be where the action's at if you're going to make a move. Just like a trader wants to maximize profit potential for every trade, in a bar you might only briefly engage a single your interested while passing by in only to head over to their table later. The decisive interaction happens wherever interested parties coalesce for the mutual opportunity for exchange. Stock trades that happen at prices of little significance are low in volume and likely have little effect on the overall trading pattern. Cool exchanges while passing by on the staircase don't leave much opportunity for conversation.
The rugby pile does not just happen out of thin air. Players wait for the right openings. No trades can happen without trading partners. Orders will be waiting in the wings until it's obvious that some trading is about to take place.

Looking at our current model, a chaotic trading pattern semi-bounded by price elasticity resulting from fundamental analysis, it's a bit like knowing what street the bar is on. Once inside, the question becomes, which table are we looking to find a seat at? Technical analysis is the only tool capable of answering this question. It serves such a vital role that even if the entire body of literature on technical analysis were just 1% of what it is, that relatively tiny amount of knowledge would be paramount for anyone who wanted to maximize their profit or move a large amount of shares.

At first glance, the most basic forms of technical analysis seem to be inspired more by superstition and market psychology than any meaningful mechanisms, but recall that we, as traders, are interested exactly in determining where a "good" price to make a play is at in the absence of decisive fundamentals. To put it bluntly an arbitrary but mutually agreed upon price is exactly what's desired. Therefore the fact that the methods seem arbitrary makes them even more important than any analytical indications.

Before going straight to the question of which price to trade at, let's look at the three basic situations for any stock to find itself in:

  • Trading Flat - In this situation, the stock has a lot of recent information describing the price elasticity. Reactions to price are well understood and the contention points are straightforward. Non-flat trading will encounter resistance.
  • Moving Into Well-Defined Trading Regime - The price is on the move, and there is a body of existing trade history providing good cues as to what prices can be expected relative to prior valuations.
  • Moving Into Undefined Trading Regime - Stock is at a price that it has never traded at or hasn't traded at for a very long time. Indications of relative valuations are not current enough or non-existent and cannot provide reliable price points.
Now, to resolve what to look for in all three of these situations, let me introduce you to the three technical analysis tools that you will, without fail, get the most mileage out of.

Price Support/Resistance levels: Look for regions of the chart where lots of trading activity has occurred. A volume overlay is available on free websites such as stock charts that lets you see this graphically:

Blow up the chart to get a clearer view. See the hold up that occurred at approximately 7900 - 8300? Shouldn't be all that significant, yet as the Dow recovered, lo and behold the bounce decelerated quickly as it re-entered this range.

Uptrends/Downtrends: Connect some recent peak-to-peak points or bottom-to-bottom points and linearly extrapolate the result. It's really that simple. Stock charts has their own article on this. This is the most straightforward pacing mechanism in the stock market. As long as the rugby pile keeps advancing somewhere, this is where the new players will show up to keep the momentum going. Trendlines are especialy influential in the shaping of intraday trading.

Moving Averages: Come in exponential and standard varieties. These are also really good pacing mechanisms for a stock on the move. They form the first line offense/defense for trendlines. The beauty is that they exist as indicators even in the absence of existing price points or a nearby trendline. Thus they work even in the third situation.

AMD goes into a dead-cat bounce with the rest of the market and where's the first good point for restistance? There weren't any good price plateau's on the way down, so the stock went on uninterupted until the 200-day moving average. Then the scrummage was on. The exponential 20-day in particular will remain very intact on a long trend and will breakdown almost immediatly whenever the main trend has run its course.

With these three tools, you have all the ability to pick arbitrary price points that you need in order to avoid trading out in the middle of nowhere. Got a falling knife? Look for an old price point. Not sure where to make an entry on a long-term uptrend that is getting tripped up? Look for a longer-term uptrend that has remained intact.

I don't really consider this a form of technical analysis, but picking round numbers isn't always a bad idea. If you want a buy order to go through for certain and are expecting the stock to hit at least $14.50, place the order for $14.48 and you'll avoid having your order get creamed by everyone else. These are numbers of arbitrary significance and if humans had twelve fingers maybe we would think $144 was a price milestone, but we have ten and so decimal values are the numbers to pay attention to. I know. It seems too trivial to be significant, but trust me if you ever watch level II quotes on the daily, you'll see relatively massive volume at round prices like $35 or $10. The rounder the better.

Yes, these numbers are arbitrary, but so is the arrangement of tables in a bar, and yet we still sit down at them instead of standing in the space between.

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