The concept of price action trading embodies the analysis of basic price movement as a methodology for financial speculation, as used by many retail traders and often institutionally where algorithmic trading is not employed. Since it ignores the fundamental factors of a security and looks primarily at the security's price history — although sometimes it considers values derived from that price history — it is a form of technical analysis. What differentiates it from most forms of technical analysis is that its main focus is the relation of a security's current price to its past prices as opposed to values derived from that price history. This past history includes swing highs and swing lows, trend lines, and support and resistance levels.
At its most simplistic, it attempts to describe the human thought processes invoked by experienced, non-disciplinary traders as they observe and trade their markets. Price action is simply how prices change - the action of price. It is readily observed in markets where liquidity and price volatility are highest, but anything that is bought or sold freely in a market will per se demonstrate price action. Price action trading can be included under the umbrella of technical analysis but is covered here in a separate article because it incorporates the behavioural analysis of market participants as a crowd from evidence displayed in price action - a type of analysis whose academic coverage isn't focused in any one area, rather is widely described and commented on in the literature on trading, speculation, gambling and competition generally. It includes a large part of the methodology employed by floor traders and tape readers. It can also optionally include analysis of volume and level 2 quotes.
The trader observes the relative size, shape, position, growth (when watching the current real-time price) and volume (optionally) of the bars on an OHLC bar or candlestick chart, starting as simple as a single bar, most often combined with chart formations found in broader technical analysis such as moving averages, trend lines or trading ranges. The use of price action analysis for financial speculation doesn't exclude the simultaneous use of other techniques of analysis, and on the other hand, a minimalist price action trader can rely completely on the behavioural interpretation of price action to build a trading strategy.
The various authors who write about price action, e.g. Brooks, Duddella, give names to the price action chart formations and behavioural patterns they observe, which may or may not be unique to that author and known under other names by other authors (more investigation into other authors to be done here). These patterns can often only be described subjectively and the idealized formation or pattern can in reality appear with great variation.
This article attempts to outline most major candlestick bars, patterns, chart formations, behavioural observations and trade setups that are used in price action trading. It covers the way that they are interpreted by price action traders, whether they signal likely future market direction, and how the trader would place orders correspondingly to profit from that (and where protective exit orders would be placed to minimise losses when wrong). Since price action traders combine bars, patterns, formations, behaviours and setups together with other bars, patterns, formations etc. to create further setups, many of the descriptions here will refer to other descriptions in the article. The layout of descriptions here is linear, but there is no one perfect sequence - they appear here loosely in the sequence: behavioural observations, trends, reversals and trading ranges. This editing approach reflects the nature of price action, sub-optimal as it might appear.
There is no evidence that these explanations are correct even if the price action trader who makes such statements is profitable and appears to be correct. Since the disappearance of most pit-based financial exchanges, the financial markets have become anonymous, buyers do not meet sellers, and so the feasibility of verifying any proposed explanation for the other market participants' actions during the occurrence of a particular price action pattern is tiny. Also, price action analysis can be subject to survivorship bias for failed traders do not gain visibility. Hence, for these reasons, the explanations should only be viewed as subjective rationalisations and may quite possibly be wrong, but at any point in time they offer the only available logical analysis with which the price action trader can work.
The implementation of price action analysis is difficult, requiring the gaining of experience under live market conditions. There is every reason to assume that the percentage of price action speculators who fail, give up or lose their trading capital will be similar to the percentage failure rate across all fields of speculation. According to widespread folklore / urban myth, this is 90%, although analysis of data from US forex brokers' regulatory disclosures since 2010 puts the figure for failed accounts at around 75% and suggests this is typical.
Some sceptical authors dismiss the financial success of individuals using technical analysis such as price action and state that the occurrence of individuals who appear to be able to profit in the markets can be attributed solely to the Survivorship bias.
A price action trader's analysis may start with classical technical analysis, e.g. Edwards and Magee patterns including trend lines, break-outs, and pull-backs, which are broken down further and supplemented with extra bar-by-bar analysis, sometimes including volume. This observed price action gives the trader clues about the current and likely future behaviour of other market participants. The trader can explain why a particular pattern is predictive, in terms of bulls (buyers in the market), bears (sellers), the crowd mentality of other traders, change in volume and other factors. A good knowledge of the market's make-up is required. The resulting picture that a trader builds up will not only seek to predict market direction, but also speed of movement, duration and intensity, all of which is based on the trader's assessment and prediction of the actions and reactions of other market participants.
Price action patterns occur with every bar and the trader watches for multiple patterns to coincide or occur in a particular order, creating a 'set-up'/'setup' which results in a signal to buy or sell. Individual traders can have widely varying preferences for the type of setup that they concentrate on in their trading.
An candlestick chart of the Euro against the USD,
marked up by a price action trader.
This annotated chart shows the typical frequency, syntax and terminology for price action patterns implemented by a trader.
One published price action trader is capable of giving a name and a rational explanation for the observed market movement for every single bar on a bar chart, regularly publishing such charts with descriptions and explanations covering 50 or 100 bars. This trader freely admits that his explanations may be wrong, however the explanations serve a purpose, allowing the trader to build a mental scenario around the current 'price action' as it unfolds, and for experienced traders, this is often attributed as the reason for their profitable trading.
Implementation of trades
The price action trader will use setups to determine entries and exits for positions. Each setup has its optimal entry point. Some traders also use price action signals to exit, simply entering at one setup and then exiting the whole position on the appearance of a negative setup. Alternatively, the trader might simply exit instead at a profit target of a specific cash amount or at a predetermined level of loss. This style of exit is often based on the previous support and resistance levels of the chart. A more experienced trader will have their own well-defined entry and exit criteria, built from experience.
An experienced price action trader will be well trained at spotting multiple bars, patterns, formations and setups during real-time market observation. The trader will have a subjective opinion on the strength of each of these and how strong a setup they can build them into. A simple setup on its own is rarely enough to signal a trade. There should be several favourable bars, patterns, formations and setups in combination, along with a clear absence of opposing signals.
At that point when the trader is satisfied that the price action signals are strong enough, the trader will still wait for the appropriate entry point or exit point at which the signal is considered 'triggered'. During real-time trading, signals can be observed frequently while still building, and they are not considered triggered until the bar on the chart closes at the end of the chart's given period.
Entering a trade based on signals that have not triggered is known as entering early and is considered to be higher risk since the possibility still exists that the market will not behave as predicted and will act so as to not trigger any signal.
After entering the trade, the trader needs to place a protective stop order to close the position with minimal loss if the trade goes wrong. The protective stop order will also serve to prevent losses in the event of a disastrously timed internet connection loss for online traders.
After the style of Brooks, the price action trader will place the initial stop order 1 tick below the bar that gave the entry signal (if going long - or 1 tick above if going short) and if the market moves as expected, moves the stop order up to one tick below the entry bar, once the entry bar has closed and with further favourable movement, will seek to move the stop order up further to the same level as the entry, i.e. break-even.
Brooks also warns against using a signal from the previous trading session when there is a gap past the position where the trader would have had the entry stop order on the opening of the new session. The worse entry point would alter the risk/reward relationship for the trade, so is not worth pursuing.
A price action trader generally sets great store in human fallibility and the tendency for traders in the market to behave as a crowd. For instance, a trader who is bullish about a certain stock might observe that this stock is moving in a range from $20 to $30, but the traders expects the stock to rise to at least $50. Many traders would simply buy the stock, but then every time that it fell to the low of its trading range, would become disheartened and lose faith in their prediction and sell. A price action trader would wait until the stock hit $31.
That is a simple example from Livermore from the 1920s. In a modern day market, the price action trader would first be alerted to the stock once the price has broken out to $31, but knowing the counter-intuitiveness of the market and having picked up other signals from the price action, would expect the stock to pull-back from there and would only buy when the pull-back finished and the stock moved up again. Support, Resistance, and Fibonacci levels are all important areas where human behavior may affect price action. "Psychological levels", such as levels ending in .00, are a very common order trigger location. Several strategies use these levels as a means to plot out where to secure profit or place a Stop Loss. These levels are purely the result of human behavior as they interpret said levels to be important.
Two attempts rule
One key observation of price action traders is that the market often revisits price levels where it reversed or consolidated. If the market reverses at a certain level, then on returning to that level, the trader expects the market to either carry on past the reversal point or to reverse again. The trader takes no action until the market has done one or the other.
It is considered to bring higher probability trade entries, once this point has passed and the market is either continuing or reversing again. The traders do not take the first opportunity but rather wait for a second entry to make their trade. For instance the second attempt by bears to force the market down to new lows represents, if it fails, a double bottom and the point at which many bears will abandon their bearish opinions and start buying, joining the bulls and generating a strong move upwards.
Also as an example, after a break-out of a trading range or a trend line, the market may return to the level of the break-out and then instead of rejoining the trading range or the trend, will reverse and continue the break-out. This is also known as 'confirmation'.
"Trapped traders" is a common price action term referring to traders who have entered the market on weak signals, or before signals were triggered, or without waiting for confirmation and who find themselves in losing positions because the market turns against them. Any price action pattern that the traders used for a signal to enter the market is considered 'failed' and that failure becomes a signal in itself to price action traders, e.g. failed breakout, failed trend line break, failed reversal. It is assumed that the trapped traders will be forced to exit the market and if in sufficient numbers, this will cause the market to accelerate away from them, thus providing an opportunity for the more patient traders to benefit from their duress. “Trapped traders” is therefore used to describe traders in a position that will be stopped out if price action hits their stop loss limit. The term is closely linked to the idea of a “trap” which Brooks defines as: "An entry that immediately reverses to the opposite direction before a scalper’s profit target is reached, trapping traders in their new position, ultimately forcing them to cover at a loss. It can also scare traders out of a good trade."
Since many traders place protective stop orders to exit from positions that go wrong, all the stop orders placed by trapped traders will provide the orders that boost the market in the direction that the more patient traders bet on. The phrase "the stops were run" refers to the execution of these stop orders. Since 2009, the use of the term “trapped traders” has grown in popularity and is now a generic term used by price actions traders and applied in different markets – stocks, futures, forex, commodities, etc. All trapped trader strategies are essentially variations of Brooks pioneering work.
Trend and range definition
The concept of a trend is one of the primary concepts in technical analysis. A trend is either up or down and for the complete neophyte observing a market, an upwards trend can be described simply as a period of time over which the price has moved up. An upwards trend is also known as a bull trend, or a rally. A bear trend or downwards trend or sell-off (or crash) is where the market moves downwards. The definition is as simple as the analysis is varied and complex. The assumption is of serial correlation, i.e. once in a trend, the market is likely to continue in that direction.
A 'bear' trend where the market is continually falling,
interrupted by only weak rises.
On any particular time frame, whether it's a yearly chart or a 1-minute chart, the price action trader will almost without exception first check to see whether the market is trending up or down or whether it's confined to a trading range.
A range is not so easily defined, but is in most cases what exists when there is no discernible trend. It is defined by its floor and its ceiling, which are always subject to debate. A range can also be referred to as a horizontal channel.
A trading range where the market turns around at the ceiling and the floor
to stay within an explicit price band.
OHLC bar or candlestick
Brief explanation of bar and candlestick terminology:
- Open: first price of a bar (which covers the period of time of the chosen time frame)
- Close: the last price of the bar
- High: the highest price
- Low: the lowest price
- Body: the part of the candlestick between the open and the close
- Tail (upper or lower): the parts of the candlestick not between the open and the close
A range bar is a bar with no body, i.e. the open and the close are at the same price and therefore there has been no net change over the time period. This is also known in Japanese Candlestick terminology as a Doji. Japanese Candlesticks show demand with more precision and only a Doji is a Doji, whereas a price action trader might consider a bar with a small body to be a range bar. It is termed 'range bar' because the price during the period of the bar moved between a floor (the low) and a ceiling (the high) and ended more or less where it began. If one expanded the time frame and looked at the price movement during that bar, it would appear as a range.
There are bull trend bars and bear trend bars - bars with bodies - where the market has actually ended the bar with a net change from the beginning of the bar.
Bull trend bar
In a bull trend bar, the price has trended from the open up to the close. To be pedantic, it is possible that the price moved up and down several times between the high and the low during the course of the bar, before finishing 'up' for the bar, in which case the assumption would be wrong, but this is a very seldom occurrence.
Bear trend bar
The bear trend bar is the opposite.
Trend bars are often referred to for short as bull bars or bear bars.
A trend bar with movement in the same direction as the chart's trend is known as 'with trend', i.e. a bull trend bar in a bull market is a "with trend bull" bar. In a downwards market, a bear trend bar is a "with trend bear" bar.
A trend bar in the opposite direction to the prevailing trend is a "countertrend" bull or bear bar.
There are also what are known as BAB - Breakaway Bars- which are bars that are more than two standard deviations larger than the average.
Climactic exhaustion bar
This is a with-trend BAB whose unusually large body signals that in a bull trend the last buyers have entered the market and therefore if there are now only sellers, the market will reverse. The opposite holds for a bear trend.
A shaved bar is a trend bar that is all body and has no tails. A partially shaved bar has a shaved top (no upper tail) or a shaved bottom (no lower tail).
An "inside bar" is a bar which is smaller and within the high to low range of the prior bar, i.e. the high is lower than the previous bar's high, and the low is higher than the previous bar's low. Its relative position can be at the top, the middle or the bottom of the prior bar.
There is no universal definition imposing a rule that the highs of the inside bar and the prior bar cannot be the same, equally for the lows. If both the highs and the lows are the same, it is harder to define it as an inside bar, yet reasons exist why it might be interpreted so. This imprecision is typical when trying to describe the ever-fluctuating character of market prices.
An outside bar is larger than the prior bar and totally overlaps it. Its high is higher than the previous high, and its low is lower than the previous low. The same imprecision in its definition as for inside bars (above) is often seen in interpretations of this type of bar.
An outside bar's interpretation is based on the concept that market participants were undecided or inactive on the prior bar but subsequently during the course of the outside bar demonstrated new commitment, driving the price up or down as seen. Again the explanation may seem simple but in combination with other price action, it builds up into a story that gives experienced traders an 'edge' (a better than even chance of correctly predicting market direction).
The context in which they appear is all-important in their interpretation.
If the outside bar's close is close to the centre, this makes it similar to a trading range bar, because neither the bulls nor the bears despite their aggression were able to dominate.
The outside bar after the maximum price (marked with an arrow)
is a failure to restart the trend and a signal for a sizable retrace.
Primarily price action traders will avoid or ignore outside bars, especially in the middle of trading ranges in which position they are considered meaningless.
When an outside bar appears in a retrace of a strong trend, rather than acting as a range bar, it does show strong trending tendencies. For instance, a bear outside bar in the retrace of a bull trend is a good signal that the retrace will continue further. This is explained by the way the outside bar forms, since it begins building in real time as a potential bull bar that is extending above the previous bar, which would encourage many traders to enter a bullish trade to profit from a continuation of the old bull trend. When the market reverses and the potential for a bull bar disappears, it leaves the bullish traders trapped in a bad trade.
If the price action traders have other reasons to be bearish in addition to this action, they will be waiting for this situation and will take the opportunity to make money going short where the trapped bulls have their protective stops positioned. If the reversal in the outside bar was quick, then many bearish traders will be as surprised as the bulls and the result will provide extra impetus to the market as they all seek to sell after the outside bar has closed. The same sort of situation also holds true in reverse for retracements of bear trends.
The inside - and outside - inside pattern when occurring at asto higher high or lower low is a setup for countertrend breakouts. It is closely related to the ii pattern, and contrastingly, it is also similar to barb wire if the inside bars have a relatively large body size, thus making it one of the more difficult price action patterns to practice.
As with all price action formations, small bars must be viewed in context. A quiet trading period, e.g. on a US holiday, may have many small bars appearing but they will be meaningless, however small bars that build after a period of large bars are much more open to interpretation. In general, small bars are a display of the lack of enthusiasm from either side of the market. A small bar can also just represent a pause in buying or selling activity as either side waits to see if the opposing market forces come back into play. Alternatively small bars may represent a lack of conviction on the part of those driving the market in one direction, therefore signalling a reversal.
As such, small bars can be interpreted to mean opposite things to opposing traders, but small bars are taken less as signals on their own, rather as a part of a larger setup involving any number of other price action observations. For instance in some situations a small bar can be interpreted as a pause, an opportunity to enter with the market direction, and in other situations a pause can be seen as a sign of weakness and so a clue that a reversal is likely.
One instance where small bars are taken as signals is in a trend where they appear in a pull-back. They signal the end of the pull-back and hence an opportunity to enter a trade with the trend.
ii and iii patterns
An 'ii' is an inside pattern - 2 consecutive inside bars. An 'iii' is 3 in a row. Most often these are small bars.
Price action traders who are unsure of market direction but sure of further movement - an opinion gleaned from other price action - would place an entry to buy above an ii or an iii and simultaneously an entry to sell below it, and would look for the market to break out of the price range of the pattern. Whichever order is executed, the other order then becomes the protective stop order that would get the trader out of the trade with a small loss if the market doesn't act as predicted.
A typical setup using the ii pattern is outlined by Brooks. An ii after a sustained trend that has suffered a trend line break is likely to signal a strong reversal if the market breaks out against the trend. The small inside bars are attributed to the buying and the selling pressure equalling out. The entry stop order would be placed one tick on the countertrend side of the first bar of the ii and the protective stop would be placed one tick beyond the first bar on the opposite side.
An iii formation - 3 consecutive inside bars.
Classically a trend is defined visually by plotting a trend line on the opposite side of the market from the trend's direction, or by a pair of trend channel lines - a trend line plus a parallel return line on the other side - on the chart. These sloping lines reflect the direction of the trend and connect the highest highs or the lowest lows of the trend. In its idealised form, a trend will consist of trending higher highs or lower lows and in a rally, the higher highs alternate with higher lows as the market moves up, and in a sell-off the sequence of lower highs (forming the trendline) alternating with lower lows forms as the market falls. A swing in a rally is a period of gain ending at a higher high (aka swing high), followed by a pull-back ending at a higher low (higher than the start of the swing). The opposite applies in sell-offs, each swing having a swing low at the lowest point.
When the market breaks the trend line, the trend from the end of the last swing until the break is known as an 'intermediate trend line' or a 'leg'. A leg up in a trend is followed by a leg down, which completes a swing. Frequently price action traders will look for two or three swings in a standard trend.
With-trend legs contain 'pushes', a large with-trend bar or series of large with-trend bars. A trend need not have any pushes but it is usual.
A trend is established once the market has formed three or four consecutive legs, e.g. for a bull trend, higher highs and higher lows. The higher highs, higher lows, lower highs and lower lows can only be identified after the next bar has closed. Identifying it before the close of the bar risks that the market will act contrary to expectations, move beyond the price of the potential higher/lower bar and leave the trader aware only that the supposed turning point was an illusion.
A more risk-seeking trader would view the trend as established even after only one swing high or swing low.
At the start of what a trader is hoping is a bull trend, after the first higher low, a trend line can be drawn from the low at the start of the trend to the higher low and then extended. When the market moves across this trend line, it has generated a trend line break for the trader, who is given several considerations from this point on. If the market moved with a particular rhythm to and fro from the trend line with regularity, the trader will give the trend line added weight. Any significant trend line that sees a significant trend line break represents a shift in the balance of the market and is interpreted as the first sign that the countertrend traders are able to assert some control.
If the trend line break fails and the trend resumes, then the bars causing the trend line break now form a new point on a new trend line, one that will have a lower gradient, indicating a slowdown in the rally / sell-off. The alternative scenario on resumption of the trend is that it picks up strength and requires a new trend line, in this instance with a steeper gradient, which is worth mentioning for sake of completeness and to note that it is not a situation that presents new opportunities, just higher rewards on existing ones for the with-trend trader.
In the case that the trend line break actually appears to be the end of this trend, it's expected that the market will revisit this break-out level and the strength of the break will give the trader a good guess at the likelihood of the market turning around again when it returns to this level. If the trend line was broken by a strong move, it is considered likely that it killed the trend and the retrace to this level is a second opportunity to enter a countertrend position.
However in trending markets, trend line breaks fail more often than not and set up with-trend entries. The psychology of the average trader tends to inhibit with-trend entries because the trader must "buy high", which is counter to the clichee for profitable trading "buy high, sell low". The allure of counter-trend trading and the impulse of human nature to want to fade the market in a good trend is very discernible to the price action trader, who would seek to take advantage by entering on failures, or at least when trying to enter counter-trend, would wait for that second entry opportunity at confirmation of the break-out once the market revisits this point, fails to get back into the trend and heads counter-trend again.
In-between trend line break-outs or swing highs and swing lows, price action traders watch for signs of strength in potential trends that are developing, which in the stock market index futures are with-trend gaps, discernible swings, large counter-trend bars (counter-intuitively), an absence of significant trend channel line overshoots, a lack of climax bars, few profitable counter-trend trades, small pull-backs, sideways corrections after trend line breaks, no consecutive sequence of closes on the wrong side of the moving average, shaved with-trend bars.
In the stock market indices, large trend days tend to display few signs of emotional trading with an absence of large bars and overshoots and this is put down to the effect of large institutions putting considerable quantities of their orders onto algorithm programs.
Many of the strongest trends start in the middle of the day after a reversal or a break-out from a trading range. The pull-backs are weak and offer little chance for price action traders to enter with-trend. Price action traders or in fact any traders can enter the market in what appears to be a run-away rally or sell-off, but price action trading involves waiting for an entry point with reduced risk - pull-backs, or better, pull-backs that turn into failed trend line break-outs. The risk is that the 'run-away' trend doesn't continue, but becomes a blow-off climactic reversal where the last traders to enter in desperation end up in losing positions on the market's reversal. As stated the market often only offers seemingly weak-looking entries during strong phases but price action traders will take these rather than make indiscriminate entries. Without practice and experience enough to recognise the weaker signals, traders will wait, even if it turns out that they miss a large move.