To analysts who make calls on the stock market based on the state of the economy, corporate profit prospects, industry trends and the like, divining the direction of share prices by poring over charts to detect patterns might as well be reading entrails. To its detractors, technical analysis is little more than mumbo jumbo. What’s a head-and-shoulders pattern, anyway? Sounds like shampoo. What does the salacious-sounding rounded bottom portend? The spooky death cross? And let’s not forget the Fibonacci retracement—an esoteric technique for gauging market moves that uses a mathematical sequence found in everything from the swirl of a pine cone to the path of a hurricane.
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Technical analysis is a big tent. It can be used to analyze any type of market or security—bonds, commodities, currencies, you name it—although we’ll focus on stocks here. The tent has enough room to accommodate complex computations and wacky Wall Street-isms, such as the hemline indicator (the shorter the skirts, the higher the stock market) or the more conventional-sounding presidential cycle (election years are bullish). It combines some of the systematic rigor of quantitative analysis—a numbers-based methodology characterized by the use of trading algorithms—with insights from human psychology and crowd behavior that form the foundation of behavioral finance. In its simplest form, technical analysis is the study of supply and demand as expressed in a stock’s price.
Whether stock charts can really clue you in to what the market will do next depends on whom you ask. Technical analysis has frequently struggled for acceptance, and yet a number of Wall Street’s best and brightest incorporate it into their strategy. But investors don’t have to choose sides; those interested in technical analysis will find that it works best when it’s part of a holistic look at the market. “I think every investor can benefit from a rudimentary understanding of technical analysis,” says Sam Stovall, market strategist at S&P Capital IQ. “Fundamentals tell you why, while technicals tell you the when and how far.”
The practice of technical analysis goes back millennia, as evidenced by Babylonian price records, Greek market-sentiment assessments and Roman seasonality patterns. Modern-day methodologies can be traced back to Charles Dow, creator of the first Dow Jones averages and founder of the Wall Street Journal. “Ever since we’ve had organized financial markets, investors have plotted prices over time,” says Andrew Lo, coauthor of The Evolution of Technical Analysis, hedge fund manager and finance professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From those price plots emerge patterns and geometric structures that allow us to forecast the direction of the market or of an individual security. “These are things that we all respond to,” says Lo.
Well, not everyone. Warren Buffett famously dissed technical analysis, quipping that he realized it didn’t work when he turned a stock chart upside down and didn’t reach a different conclusion. Andreas Clenow, chief investment officer of Zurich-based Acies Asset Management, compares technical analysis with “quasi-religious numerology.” Says Clenow: “All these funny names for patterns, such as white soldiers, black crows, spinning dragons—I think I just made that one up—add to the feeling that we can understand the market. It really doesn’t work like that.”
Despite a rocky relationship with the financial establishment, technicians are nonetheless a big part of it. “There’s not a single portfolio manager, trader or analyst who doesn’t look at charts every day,” says Craig Johnson, senior technical strategist at Piper Jaffray & Co. and current president of the Market Technicians Association (MTA). One market-beating newsletter that incorporates technical analysis into its recommendations is InvesTech Research. Its recommendations returned an average of 8.9% annualized over the past 15 years through November 30, according to the Hulbert Financial Digest, compared with just 5.9% annualized for the broad Wilshire 5000 Total Market index.
Why it’s useful. Technical analysis is based on statistics, not magic, says David Aronson, author of Evidence-Based Technical Analysis. Consider one of his favorite data points, the moving average, or the average closing prices for a stock or an index for a given period, plotted over time. The interplay of short- and long-term moving averages can be telling. When the 50-day moving average falls below the 200-day average, it forms what’s called a death cross, a bearish signal; when the 50-day average climbs above the 200-day average, it forms a golden cross, which is considered bullish. Data going back to 1896 show that anytime the 50-day moving average is below the 200-day average, the probability of a bear market is 36%, up substantially from a base probability of 18% in the normal course of things. As long as the 50-day average remains above the 200-day average, the probability of a bear market drops to 8%. Those odds hardly guarantee that you’ll bat 1,000 with your market calls. “But saying that technical analysis is not perfect is not the same as saying it has no value,” says Aronson.