All About The Stop Loss Order And How I Use It

Updated: May 5

I received dozens of emails following my recent free webinar. The question I heard most often concerned the setting of stops. Specifically, traders were interested in learning how I set my stops, especially with trades that lasted an average of less than few hours minutes.

I believe that a key to successful trading is learning how to become comfortable with taking a loss. We know that markets, while not perfectly efficient, are largely so; complete predictability is never going to be attained by mortal traders. That makes trading a bit like hitting in baseball, where one can achieve a high degree of expertise, even while making frequent outs.

Losing traders often bring a measure of perfectionism to their work. They equate a good trading day with a profitable day. No, no, no! A good trading day is one in which you have followed your well-researched plan with focus and discipline. Good trading days, over time, will generate profits. But the uncertainty of the markets means that even the best laid trading plans can go awry. In the short-run, you cannot control your profitability. You can control whether or not you have good trading days, which will generate profits over the long haul—if you have adequately researched your strategies.

Broken clocks are right twice daily and even unresearched strategies implemented impulsively can occasionally yield profits. Those might seem like good trading days, but in reality, they reinforce the very qualities associated with failure.

The perfectionistic trader equates taking a loss with experiencing failure. The loss thus sets up a rash of negative internal dialogues and subsequent trades born of frustration. A more realistic trader realizes that there is a degree of uncertainty built into the market and that losses are simply a cost of doing business. The goal is to limit these losses as effectively as possible, not will them away or becoming preoccupied with them.

Stop Loss Scheme #1: Price-Based

In this article, I will cover three basic stop-loss strategies: price-based, time-based, and indicator-based. All of these can be rehearsed in advance to make the taking of losses more automatic (i.e., less emotional).

Most traders are familiar with price-based stops (though not all adhere to them!). I utilize price-based stops as a last resort in losing situations, when time and indicators won’t take me out of a trade.

As I indicated in the webinar, I view every trade as a hypothesis. If I am buying on a one-hour time frame, it is because I have identified a candidate low point in that market. Perhaps I have noticed that the symbol price values have dropped to significant negative values, but that price has held above its prior low. I may place my order to buy with that prior low serving as my stop point. I have hypothesized that the prior low was an important low and that this pullback is the first in an upswing. If we return to that prior low, my hypothesis was not supported and I need to retrieve my remaining capital.

A key to making such price-based stops work is setting your entries near your hypothesized high and low points so that losses will not be excessive when your hypotheses fail to pan out. On short term trades, this means that I am examining 30-minutes and one-hour charts along with my market-maker screen for bids and asks. Remember, if the patterns you are trading only historically test out with 50% winners, you must keep the size of the losers much smaller than the average winners to make your system profitable!

Stop Loss Scheme #2: Time-Based

The second stop-loss approach makes use of time. One system I trade was designed for a holding period of 21 minutes in order to capture 3 points. If the desired profit has not been achieved in 21 minutes, I exit the trade—even if my price stop has not been hit.

The logic for such a time-based stop is as follows: I try to enter short-term trades where momentum is increasing in the direction of my trade (price and volume rising). If I have been successful, the position should become profitable fairly quickly. If the market stays flat to slightly down when I have taken a long position in a market, it means that I did not read the momentum correctly. That, too, is an invalidated hypothesis. I have learned from hard experience that when a trade stays flat, I was probably right about the direction of the move, but that the flat move is all the direction is going to give me. That means the next move is likely to be one that will hit my price stops. The time-based stop thus allows me to scratch a trade rather than lose a point or two.

One of the few rigid laws in trading is that risk and reward per trade are proportional to the holding period. When designing your trading approach, I encourage you to factor holding period into account as a way of suiting your methods to your personality and risk-tolerance. I designed the 21 minute system by researching the best predictors of 3+point profits in the markets over various brief time spans. I examined dozens of indicators—volatility, momentum, volume, intraday advances/declines, various TICK figures, sector indices, intraday new highs/new lows, index futures premiums, intraday put/call figures, intraday TRIN, etc.—to come up with something that tested well and held up against independent data. Once the system was built, the time-based stop was already built in, supplementing my price stops.

Stop Loss Scheme #3: Indicator-Based

The third stop-loss methodology is indicator based. As I suggested above, many of the predictors that I utilize in my trading are intraday versions of common stock market indicators, such as advances/declines, new highs/new lows, and volume. I spend much time testing these indicators against prospective price action, since the relationships among the indicators—and between indicators and price—are always shifting. For example, the blending of the predictors in the 21 minute system that I utilize today may not be (and probably won’t be) the blending I will be using next year. My goal is to identify what has been working in the market and keep doing it—until it degrades.

A large part of the research that goes into developing such trading approaches is determining what happens when the indicators that are candidate predictors hit extreme values. Will the extreme indicator reading produce a continuation of the trend or will it predict reversal? Such information can be helpful in setting stops.

For example, one of my trading frameworks utilizes a two hour average holding period. The NYSE Composite TICK is an important predictor for this approach. I recently researched what happens when the TICK breaks out of its two hour range. Interestingly, when the TICK significantly breaks above its range, the broad market averages move upward by .20% over the next several hours. When the TICK significantly breaks below its range, the averages decline a further -.11%. (This corresponds to an average gain of around 2 SP points versus a loss of a point).

Over my testing period, the market was up 148 times and down 184 times when the TICK made a downside breakout. It was up 205 times and down 121 times when the breakout was to the upside.

Armed with such research, I created an indicator-based stop. If the TICK breaks out to a significant new high or new low against me (i.e., a new high if I am short; a new low if I’m long), I exit the trade—even if my price stop has not been hit. (In certain situations I might even stop and reverse, given the bias for short-term continuation in the direction of the TICK breakout).

If you take the time to research intraday indicators at various time frames, you can create indicator-based stops to fit your trading style and approach.

Using Stops as a Psychological Tool

Once stops are set, they can be mentally rehearsed while the trade is on as a way of ensuring that they will be honored. A good loss is a planned one; the only true market failures are the ones that are unintended.

Alright then...

Traders spend most of their time researching setups for trade entry, using fundamental analysis, chart patterns, signals from technical indicators, or some combination of these.

Yes, no doubt about it, finding entries is vitally important, because the entry is the foundation upon which a trade is built. However, if finding good entries is the most difficult thing, finding good exits is the most emotionally challenging part of the trading process!

Winning or losing, deciding on the exact time to close your trade can drive you nuts.

Common exits occur when traders get stopped out at a stop loss level, close the trade into high volume spikes, or attain predefined targets.

All trades should have a stop loss in place. Some traders hold a mental stop, others place physical stops in the market. Initially the stop is set at some level representing the maximum risk the trader is willing to bear if the market turns against the trade. Later, if the trade moves favourably, stops can be adjusted to lock in profits. Trailing their stops like this enables traders to stay with the market as long as a positive trend exists, until a trend reversal stops them out.

Stops are usually placed close to support and resistance levels apparent on the charts. Experienced traders can easily anticipate where most stops will be resting. Whenever a support or resistance level is penetrated there is often a sharp price movement as stops are triggered.

Frequently, trend moves reach a climax typified by steepening price movement on the charts AND very high volume. This is the moment when everybody is frantically trying to jump on board the trend, whatever the price, whatever the direction. Smart traders go against the crowd by closing positions into such spikes.

Other traders prefer to set targets for their trades. Target levels are frequently set near the next resistance level for long trades, or support level for shorts. Sometimes targets are based on a multiple of a market movement, or swing, already apparent on the charts. Other times, targets are set at a multiple of risk with no particular reference to the chart. Yet again, there are traders who look to mystical numbers (like Fibonacci) to set their exit targets.

You have probably guessed that there is no right answer here. A technique may do well in a particular set of market conditions, but bomb in others. The skill of the trader may help, although there is no evidence that a trader relying on intuitive exits fares better than one who relies on the same exit every time.

As a day trader, there are certain psychological aspects to the exit which are important. A day trader can usually get into a trade quite quickly at the open. However, the exit may not come for a long time. Indeed, if no other trigger has arisen, the trade may be exited in the last few seconds of the market session.

So you have to decide whether to use an exit strategy that requires you to watch every tick of market action, or choose a strategy that lets you walk away.

To me, this is a no contest. I want to be liberated from watching the screen for hours on end on those days where the market goes nowhere. I also want to avoid psychological stresses as the market swings up and down. On good days, price moves directly to your target with barely a flicker. On other days, it gets there through a series of price gyrations. If you watch every move, your emotions are on a roller coaster as your paper profits expand and contract. The temptation to exit a trade early is sometimes huge.

For that reason, my preference is to avoid techniques which require me to watch the market, such as trailing stops behind support / resistance levels, or watching for volume spikes.

Instead, I prefer to set a target, a stop loss, and a market order to exit at the end of the session if neither of the other two orders fires. Connect these three orders in an OCA (one cancels another) group, and you are free to enjoy your day doing whatever you wish, confident that the trade is executing perfectly according to your predefined plan.

Another variation is to set an automatic trailing stop loss of fixed size. For example, you could specify a stop trailed exactly 4 points below the session high for a long trade, or above the session low for a short. That implements the trailing stop loss approach automatically without the need to identify support / resistance levels as the session progresses. Again, the trailing stop loss order may be connected through an OCA group to a market order exiting the trade at the end of the session if nothing else has happens.

Only those with practical trading experience will really understand, but believe me, the most stressful trading hours are those spent watching each market tick. Even if you are winning, you go through the torment of seeing large paper profits severely eroded during pullbacks. (Why, oh why, did I not sell at the peak?) Sometimes, you capitulate and take a small profit while it is still on the table, only to see price turn right round and race back up to new highs.

  • If you are a day trader, I strongly urge you to adopt an exit strategy that can be automated, so that your trade is left to work as planned without your being tempted to tinker with it. Come back at the end of the session and check your results.

Hard STOPS (market) is the bullet proof vest when u trade. Put it on! Don’t be an idiot. It doesn’t mean it won’t hurt but it will protect you from blowing up and dying!

Know your risk before you trade. Plan your trade & trade your plan! Know where u will enter, exit & STOP out.

Dom Out.

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Dominik Stone

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