The methods used to analyze securities and make investment decisions fall into two very broad categories: fundamental analysis and technical analysis.
Fundamental analysis involves analyzing the characteristics of a company in order to estimate its value. Technical analysis takes a completely different approach; it doesn’t care one bit about the “value” of a company or a commodity. Technicians (sometimes called chartists) are only interested in the price movements in the market.
Despite all the fancy and exotic tools it employs, technical analysis really just studies supply and demand in a market in an attempt to determine what direction, or trend, will continue in the future. In other words, technical analysis attempts to understand the emotions in the market by studying the market itself, as opposed to its components. If you understand the benefits and limitations of technical analysis, it can give you a new set of tools or skills that will enable you to be a better trader or investor.
Technical Analysis is the forecasting of future financial price movements based on an examination of past price movements. Like weather forecasting, technical analysis does not result in absolute predictions about the future. Instead, technical analysis can help investors anticipate what is “likely” to happen to prices over time. Technical analysis uses a wide variety of charts that show price over time.
Technical analysis is applicable to stocks, indices, commodities, futures or any tradable instrument where the price is influenced by the forces of supply and demand. Price refers to any combination of the open, high, low, or close for a given security over a specific time frame. The time frame can be based on intraday (1-minute, 5-minutes, 10-minutes, 15-minutes, 30-minutes or hourly), daily, weekly or monthly price data and last a few hours or many years. In addition, some technical analysts include volume or open interest figures with their study of price action.
The Basis of Technical Analysis
At the turn of the century, the Dow Theory laid the foundations for what was later to become modern technical analysis. Dow Theory was not presented as one complete amalgamation, but rather pieced together from the writings of Charles Dow over several years. Of the many theorems put forth by Dow, three stand out:
Price Discounts Everything
Price Movements Are Not Totally Random
“What” Is More Important than “Why”
Price Discounts Everything
This theorem is similar to the strong and semi-strong forms of market efficiency. Technical analysts believe that the current price fully reflects all information. Because all information is already reflected in the price, it represents the fair value, and should form the basis for analysis. After all, the market price reflects the sum knowledge of all participants, including traders, investors, portfolio managers, buy-side analysts, sell-side analysts, market strategist, technical analysts, fundamental analysts and many others. It would be folly to disagree with the price set by such an impressive array of people with impeccable credentials. Technical analysis utilizes the information captured by the price to interpret what the market is saying with the purpose of forming a view on the future.
Prices Movements are not Totally Random
Most technicians agree that prices trend. However, most technicians also acknowledge that there are periods when prices do not trend. If prices were always random, it would be extremely difficult to make money using technical analysis.
General Steps to Technical Evaluation
Many technicians employ a top-down approach that begins with broad-based macro analysis. The larger parts are then broken down to base the final step on a more focused/micro perspective. Such an analysis might involve three steps:
Broad market analysis through the major indices such as the S&P 500, Dow Industrials, NASDAQ and NYSE Composite.
Sector analysis to identify the strongest and weakest groups within the broader market.
Individual stock analysis to identify the strongest and weakest stocks within select groups.
The beauty of technical analysis lies in its versatility. Because the principles of technical analysis are universally applicable, each of the analysis steps above can be performed using the same theoretical background. You don’t need an economics degree to analyze a market index chart. You don’t need to be a CPA to analyze a stock chart. Charts are charts. It does not matter if the time frame is 2 days or 2 years. It does not matter if it is a stock, market index or commodity. The technical principles of support, resistance, trend, trading range and other aspects can be applied to any chart. While this may sound easy, technical analysis is by no means easy. Success requires serious study, dedication and an open mind.
Weaknesses of Technical Analysis
Just as with fundamental analysis, technical analysis is subjective and our personal biases can be reflected in the analysis. It is important to be aware of these biases when analyzing a chart. If the analyst is a perpetual bull, then a bullish bias will overshadow the analysis. On the other hand, if the analyst is a disgruntled eternal bear, then the analysis will probably have a bearish tilt.
Open to Interpretation
Furthering the bias argument is the fact that technical analysis is open to interpretation. Even though there are standards, many times two technicians will look at the same chart and paint two different scenarios or see different patterns. Both will be able to come up with logical support and resistance levels as well as key breaks to justify their position. While this can be frustrating, it should be pointed out that technical analysis is more like an art than a science, somewhat like economics. Is the cup half-empty or half-full? It is in the eye of the beholder.
Technical analysis has been criticized for being too late. By the time the trend is identified, a substantial portion of the move has already taken place. After such a large move, the reward to risk ratio is not great. Lateness is a particular criticism of Dow Theory.
Always Another Level
Even after a new trend has been identified, there is always another “important” level close at hand. Technicians have been accused of sitting on the fence and never taking an unqualified stance. Even if they are bullish, there is always some indicator or some level that will qualify their opinion.
Not all technical signals and patterns work. When you begin to study technical analysis, you will come across an array of patterns and indicators with rules to match. For instance: A sell signal is given when the neckline of a head and shoulders pattern is broken. Even though this is a rule, it is not steadfast and can be subject to other factors such as volume and momentum. In that same vein, what works for one particular stock may not work for another. A 50-day moving average may work great to identify support and resistance for IBM, but a 70-day moving average may work better for Yahoo. Even though many principles of technical analysis are universal, each security will have its own idiosyncrasies.
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