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Thread: Stop Loss - Q&A

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    Default 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

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    Q - Where do I place my stop loss when shorting a stock that gaps down?

    A - 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Q - I want to hold on to a trade as long as the pattern stays intact. So I place my stop loss just outside the edge of the pattern. But what do I do when price breaks out in my favor for a bar or two and then falls back into the pattern?
    A - You need to exit right away after a false breakout or breakdown, regardless of where you've placed your stop loss. The false move creates overhead supply (or underlying demand in a short sale) and raises the odds the pattern will break the other way. This is classic pattern-failure dynamics.

    Rigid stop-loss placement with global rules undermines good trade management. Management is more important than knowledge and all the technical analysis in the world. You have to be a manager of your trades and your trading style. That gives you the courage to re-enter good positions when you get blown out of them, if and when conditions change

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    Q - A stock breaks out and moves in my favor, but my stop gets hit most of the time on a pullback. How can I avoid this? A - This scenario illustrates the major problem traders face when they chase breakouts. For example, you get a breakout and a strong move in your favor. You're taught to protect profits, so you place a stop-loss that guards some of the gains in anticipation of making more money when the stock runs. But the nature of price mechanics suggests that after an initial rally, a stock will pull back to test the original breakout level.

    Both of your stop-loss choices have problems. First you protect profits with a trailing stop, but you risk getting hit when price pulls back to the breakout level. Second, you place the stop under the breakout level, but then you turn a winner into a loser. This also adds risk, because pullbacks often overshoot support-resistance just to get to the stops that are buried there.

    The pullback from a rally is a two-edged sword, because it's a buy signal and a stop-loss level at the same time. In other words, if I'm already positioned I feel the need to sell, but if I'm not positioned, I feel the need to buy. The solution is counterintuitive and simple. Train yourself to avoid breakout entries and instead trade pullback entries.

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    Q - Should I lift my stop-loss when I know the stock will gap against my position when it opens?

    A - I usually lift the stop-loss, but every case is different. Watch the pre- and postmarket trading, and see how much pressure the stock faces and whether it's trading above or below major support-resistance. The ability to hold higher price levels predicts that the stock will stabilize when the market opens. Keep in mind that New York Stock Exchange stocks may give few clues in extended hours.

    When there's news that could affect the stock, I pull the stop loss and keep the position through the open. Then I try to hold for the first 10 to 15 minutes to see if it reverses or runs. If the stock starts to run or breaks a large support-resistance level, I get out immediately. The strategy can lead to a larger loss, but it's a tradeoff, because the gap prints the high or low for the day more than 70% of the time.


    A - Some brokers hold stops locally, while others send them out to the "floor." But it doesn't really matter whether insiders see them or not because they know where you'll place them, even if they're not physical. Millions of traders came before you and applied the same logic to stop placement that you do every day. So unless you find a more creative way to accomplish this task, you'll wind up selling at the worst possible price anyway.

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    Q - Do market insiders see our stop-loss orders and purposely try to trigger them?

    A - Some brokers hold stops locally, while others send them out to the "floor." But it doesn't really matter whether insiders see them or not because they know where you'll place them, even if they're not physical. Millions of traders came before you and applied the same logic to stop placement that you do every day. So unless you find a more creative way to accomplish this task, you'll wind up selling at the worst possible price anyway.

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    Q - Once a trade turns profitable, when do I adjust the stop loss to ensure I won't take a loss? And thereafter, if the trade continues in my favor, what rule do I use for trailing stops?
    A - I figure an amount of initial wiggle room based on my goals for the trade. If the reward target is several points away, the stock needs to move around a lot, and I don't want to get in its way. If it's a small trade, I don't want to lose a penny after I get the first thrust away from my entry price.

    The best strategy as the trade evolves is to use support-resistance on the 60-minute chart to move your trailing stop. For example, you get your rally and the stock congests for a few bars. When price breaks even higher, move your stop behind the last congestion pattern. This way, price needs to break the smaller support before it hits your trailing stop.

    Get more aggressive as the stock approaches your reward target. Shift your strategy after the price passes 75% of the distance between your entry and intended exit. At that point, there's no sense risking a bundle in order to make a few pennies. Move the stop in close so any small reversal takes you out of the trade.

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    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.

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    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.

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