STOP LOSS Q&A
I get more questions about stop losses than about any other subject. Clearly this strategy causes traders a lot of pain and confusion. Some of it stems from the schizoid nature of our modern markets. But most of it reflects an underlying weakness in trade management skills.
What takes place at the end of a trade usually reflects decisions made at the beginning. In other words, the best entries usually lead to the most profitable exits. This is the most urgent wisdom I can give when it comes to stop-loss placement.
We can spend hours deciding whether a stock is a good buy or a good sell, but this emphasis is often misplaced. Over time, carefully chosen exits are more important than great entries. You don't believe me? Just ask all those folks who bought tech stocks in the late 1990s.
I've compiled a question-and-answer session that addresses the most important elements of stop-loss strategy.
Question: Where do I place my stop loss when shorting a stock that gaps down?
Answer: The most obvious place is just above the price level where the gap would be filled. But that's a generic answer. It's more effective to place the stop loss on top of converging resistance, such as highs, Fibonacci retracements and moving averages. A bouncing stock will have a very hard time getting through those levels.
Q: I'm getting stopped out of both my longs and my shorts in this market. Are my stops too tight, or should I blame it in the choppy market?
A: There are many reasons why stops get hit too often. It's hard to tell without knowing the specifics of each placement. This is a tough market, and you often have only two choices. First, place a tight stop loss and trade the small swings to avoid all the choppy reversals. Second, back up a giant step and trade the broader trend you see in front of your nose. In other words, the market is only choppy if you're a daytrader or if you flip positions every few days.
The trends are more obvious if your holding period is weeks or longer. But longer holds have a disadvantage when it comes to stop placement. You have to take on greater risk with longer-term positions, because stocks will wiggle around a lot more before getting from point A to point B.
There's one more caution in regard to stop placement. Your stops have to match your trading strategy. For example, if you're looking for a 3-point swing, you have to stay out of the market until your risk (current price to stop price) is a point or less. This goes back to the importance of picking good entry points.
Q: How can we trade profitably with stop-gunning games going on all the time?
A: Stop-running or stop-gunning (both terms are used) occurs when a price is pushed through support or resistance in order to trigger the stops that are hiding there. After the stop supply is exhausted, the market bounces back in the other direction, usually winding up where it was before the exercise began.
You only have two choices if you're positioned before a stop-gunning exercise. First, keep the stop-loss outside commonly targeted price levels. This is tough to do because it adds a lot of risk to the trade. Second, keep the stop loss in very close and take another position after the stop-gunning is over.
Look to step into stop-gunning games from the sidelines rather than being a sitting duck with a position bought or sold at a dangerous level. You can often get dramatic fills with good timing during these games.
Q: Why do I always place my stop loss at an exact high or low?
A: You're describing a condition known as trader's disease. It's caused by the market tendency to gravitate toward the price that causes the most pain. Options traders are especially vulnerable to this affliction. It's not really sinister, it's just the nature of the market.
Start by realizing that volatile stocks can't be traded with tight and scientific stops, because all their support-resistance levels are channeled. This pushes a stock back and forth through common stop levels but keeps the ongoing trend intact. If you get up close to a price chart, you'll notice there's large bar-to-bar overlap most of the time. This makes it hard to get your move without getting shaken out.
Q: How can I keep my stop loss from getting hit all the time on Nasdaq tech stocks?
A: Keep your size down when trading volatile stocks. Before you trade, ask yourself how far that stock can move in its natural wiggle. This quick analysis takes a long time to master and is complicated by the tendency of market volatility to change from day to day. You can also avoid getting your stops hit by picking lower-beta stocks to trade. This means avoiding most four-letter stocks.
Q: When should I use a stop-limit order?
A: I never use a stop limit on anything. It's too easy for the stock to go right through your price, not get filled, and trigger a deeper loss. When you want out, you want out. When you need to get out, you need to get out.
A regular stop-loss order becomes a market order when price trades through it. This gives you more control than a stop-limit order, as long as you choose your stock wisely. Keep in mind the more volatile the stock, the wider the potential loss will be on this type of order. When possible, pick lower-volatility stocks that will hit your stop and trigger at that price, without slippage.
Q: My stops get hit all the time. What am I doing wrong?
A: Keep those stops away from the most obvious support or resistance levels, such as round numbers. There's a lot to gain by pushing price through these levels. It cleans out one side of the market and sets up a vacuum headed the other way. It's one reason I'll actually sell short into a breakout or go long into a breakdown. Keep in mind that many traders look for price stretching through a barrier as a signal to go the other way.
Q: Should I use a flat dollar or percentage stop loss?
A: I never use percentage or dollar stop losses, at least for the initial placement. The first stop loss is always based on the price pattern and where current action violates the trade setup. Of course, you need good trailing stops once a position moves in your favor, and flat dollar strategies have a useful purpose in protecting profits. But I would avoid percentage stop losses in all cases.
A move of 5%, 10% or 50% says nothing about the current market or trade setup. You could enter a position where a stock moves 11% every day on average. So your 10% stop is at risk every day because of market noise, rather than anything else. A percentage stop loss gives the illusion of controlling risk without giving you the realization of what risk is in the first place. Why is this important? Reward and risk are joined at the hip. If you don't have one right, the other won't be right either.
There is a definable risk based on the pattern and where you enter the trade. Each trade has a different risk profile, and your trade entry tells you how much it can wiggle but still get you to the goal. You need to include this standard deviation in your stop-loss planning, or you'll take maximum loss after maximum loss.
Q: I'm thinking about using time-based stops instead of price-based stops. Do they work?
A: Time-based stops may work, but time cycles are 10 times harder to manage properly than price. So your chances of being wrong with time stops are about 10 times as great. You'll also experience major drawdowns while you wait for your time to get hit.
Q: How can I protect my positions from gaps and sudden price moves? Sometimes they happen before I have a chance to set my stop losses.
A: Plan a fire drill and practice it in your head at all times. The fire drill is a consideration for the worst-case scenario. Of course, we protect positions with stops whenever we can. But things such as gaps and world events can carry positions through them, and we need to know exactly what to do when the market spikes. The only way to accomplish this is to visualize it happening and to see how you really want to address it. Then you'll act spontaneously when the time comes.
If a stock is set to gap through your stop loss when it opens, do you sell it immediately or wait for a bounce? There's really no right answer. I usually pull my stop and watch the first few minutes of trading. If the market reverses, I try to close out on the bounce to a common retracement level.
Some midday panic situations are global, while others are sudden. Most times, my preferred fire drill is to exit first and ask questions later. Sometimes I'll see the futures go crazy and not know why. They may not affect my individual positions at the time, but I'll often exit everything until I can find out what happened. I still remember the futures going crazy on Sept. 11, 2001. There was only a few minutes to jump ship before the market was shut down for days.
Q: I'm placing very tight stops on every trade, but they keep getting hit. What am I doing wrong?
A: Base your stops on the risk profile of the stock you're trading. You can't trade a volatile biotech stock and expect to get away with a 15-cent stop loss. But you might be able to do it with a slow moving REIT or paper company. Look at total dollar exposure and the stock's volatility. Be focused on exiting when you're wrong, wherever that is on the price chart. The only way that makes sense with your stop loss is if your entry was appropriate to the trade setup. You can also take another shot at a stock if your stop loss gets hit or the stock recovers. These new positions should move in your favor immediately, or you should jump ship again because you were already wrong once.