Trend Following - The Most Popular Strategy in all Financial Markets
Updated: March 22, 2013 at 8:30 AM
Trend following is perhaps the most popular long-term strategy in all financial markets. It is exceedingly effective and profitable when the conditions are favorable, is quite straightforward in its methodology, and there are many individuals, past and present, famous or obscure, who have used this strategy to success and riches. We should note that the technical aspect of trend following is in fact quite simple, but also that it requires, before everything else, discipline, sound money management, and patience from the trader. Trend following is not a short-term method, and patience and determination are as important as correct analysis as a result.
Trends are created by powerful underlying economic factors which may not be all that clear to those who are not very familiar with fundamental analysis. But the simple patterns created by the price action in response to the economic events can often be identified through methods that are easy to learn and apply. Thus, the retail trader has as much potential of success as the most experienced analyst if he can control his emotions and behave logically.
To apply this strategy we must first be aware of the existence of a trend. Without identifying a trend we would be gambling, and that’s not the purpose of trading forex. Both fundamental and technical analysis can be employed for identifying a trend, and both of them have their advantages and drawbacks. It is in general a good idea to use a combination of them for deciding on the trend’s character, and deciding on our entry and exit points.
From here, let us use the dialogue between the successful trader and the beginner in order to explain the principles in an easier way.
B: I want to use the trend following method. How do I do it?
ST: You must first choose whether you want to employ technical or fundamental analysis for your method, or a combination of both.
B: Is there a difference between these methods?
ST: Yes. Fundamental analysis can provide you with information which can predict the strength and length of a trend., while technical analysis can show you how it develops. It is possible to base your strategy on one of these to the exclusion of the other, and it is still possible to turn a profit if you are lucky enough, but our principle has always been to reduce the role of luck to as little as possible. Fundamental analysis is more reliable than technical analysis in defining a trend that has long term potential, but without technical analysis it would be extremely difficult to decide when or how to trade. Technical analysis can suggest the beginning of a trend, but it’s unlikely to tell much about the length or strength of the same. Thus, I suggest that you use both technical and fundamental methods for your trend following strategy, with fundamental factors eliminating the false signals of technical analysis, and technical tools providing you with a time-price frame for deciding on entry points.
B: How do I decide on the existence of a trend?
ST: There are many technical tools that can signal the phenomenon, but there are an equal number of false signals generated by them. Remember that there are only three kinds of trends that can exist at any time: flat, up or down, and it is possible to speak of trends between any two points on a price chart. Simply take two random points on a chart, draw a moving average on it, and the pattern that arises can be analyzed as a trend. Thus it is always necessary to have at least a basic of understanding of the economic factors that can create trends, before deciding on the validity of a chart pattern.
B: And how do I do that?
ST: Familiarize yourself with the big picture; understand what drives market participants; recognize the stage of the business cycle.
B: What kind of price pattern will create a trend?
ST: The trend that we seek to trade is different from random fluctuations, range patterns and similar price movements in that the price itself, in the absence of any technical indicator, can still be recognized as showing a trend. In other words, there is some driving conviction behind the price action which allows the trader to easily identify it visually. Depending on the type of the trend (that is, an up- or downtrend), successive highs and lows should constitute a rising or falling pattern, with relatively few irregularities. But such a case is often a rarity, and the trader will have to back his technical patterns with conviction that can perhaps only be gained through fundamental analysis.
B: If the trend can be identified visually, why use technical tools?
ST: Even though we can notice the existence of a trend, we still need technical tools to trade it, and time it.
B: So will you try time the market? I’m told that never works.
ST: Market timing never works when one is trying to predict reversal points on a technical basis. However market timing in the context of a trend, with the purpose of picking the counter-trend extremes, and using them to enter a trade, is necessary and profitable. And there lies the main principle of a trend following strategy: recognize the trend, identify counter-trend moves, and use them to enter a trade in the direction of the trend.
B: In a sense, then, you’re behaving as a contrarian of short scale moves, and the follower of the long-term trend
ST: Yes. Indeed, there lies the soul and spirit of all trading. To utilize short-term irrational behaviors of the market in order to enter into long-term positions in positive alignment with fundamentals (or, sometimes just the trend), is the core of all successful trading.
B: How long should the trend follower maintain his position?
ST: Forever, or to be exact, for as long as the fundamental reasons that back the trend are dominant. If the trader cannot identify those reasons, if he’s unwilling to do so, or if he doesn’t believe, for some unfathomable reason, that they are useful, he can use technical patterns to time his exit point. Even if the trader is aware of the fundamental factors, and is able to evaluate them correctly, technical analysis can still provide him with a very useful early warning system. If the price action is suggesting strongly that there’s some error in the trader’s fundamental outlook, he can use the technical signals as an occasion to reevaluate and reexamine his fundamental picture.
B: How do I time my trade with technical analysis?
ST: The best tools for trend following are supplied by moving averages and simple price charts. Bar charts, candlesticks and many others can be equally useful if employed with moving averages. For example, between October 2007 and April-May 2008, the price action of USD/SGD always remained below the 100-day moving average. When the pattern broke down, in June of the same year, the trend had also broken down, and the price went on to break the 200-day average, and a medium-term upward trend was established. It is also possible to use moving average crossovers, and myriad other methods, but whichever you choose to use, you should ensure that you do not complicate the main aspect of your strategy, which is trend following.
B: Which time frame do you recommend for the moving average?
ST: If you want to trade on a weekly or daily basis, the 100-day MA will probably be able to capture most of the important trends for you. Anything with a longer period is likely to be meaningless because of too much data discarded , and any time frame that is too much below the 100-day period may be too sensitive to price action. But as usual, one can use other timeframes below 100, provided that he doesn’t clutter his screen with lots of indicators, charts, tools.
B: When trend following, where should I place my stop-losses and take profit orders?
ST: This partly depends on the term and nature of your trend following method. A stop-loss order can be placed a short distance above or below the trend line, whether it is provided by the moving average, or a simple line drawn on the chart. In our opinion, the trend follower should not realize his profits until he has a good reason to do so. The purpose of this strategy is to focus on underlying price dynamics by stripping out volatility and short term movements, and there is little logic to realizing profits in response to fluctuations which are irrelevant to the main action of the trend. More on where to place stop-loss orders.
B: But I still have to take a profit at some point. Where should I do that?
ST: Go as far as the trend goes, then stop. There you can take profits.
B: How do I know how far it goes?
ST: As we just explained, you can use the MAs to decide on that, but it’s far better to identify the fundamental causes behind a trend, and then to exit the trade once those causes are eliminated.
To sum it up, we can repeat that trend following is the easiest and most straightforward way of making money in the forex market. But successful trading requires the foresight provided by analysis and the patience that only comes with confidence. Those of us who prefer quick profits and instant ratification will find the method uninspiring, but it is reliable and will work wonders if you give it the chance.
Risk Statement: Trading Foreign Exchange on margin carries a high level of risk and may not be suitable for all investors. The possibility exists that you could lose more than your initial deposit. The high degree of leverage can work against you as well as for you.
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