What to know about swing trading and how to minimize risks of this speculative trading strategy

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What to know about swing trading and how to minimize risks of this speculative trading strategy
If you’re considering swing trading, you’ll need to have the skills required to analyze charts and numbers to be successful. Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty
  • Swing trading is a speculative strategy where investors buy and hold assets to profit from expected price moves.
  • Swing traders leverages technical analysis to determine entry (buy) and exit (sell) points.
  • Swing traders are exposed to gap risk, where a security's price changes while the market is closed.

Investors approach the stock market with a variety of goals. Many invest for the long-term, seeking to build wealth over time, while others trade for short-term profits - and many people do both. There are a variety of strategies for trading, but one of the most accessible to newcomers is swing trading.

Unlike day trading, where trading is extremely fast paced, swing trading is slower. This strategy is a great way to understand market movements and dip your toe into technical analysis. Here's what the curious trader should know.

What is swing trading?

Swing trading is a trading strategy where investors buy a stock or some other asset and hold it - known as holding a position - for a short period of time (usually between a few days and up to a several weeks) in the hopes of turning a profit.

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The goal of the swing trader is to capture a portion of any potential price movement or "swing" in the market. Individual gains may be smaller as the trader focuses on short-term trends and seeks to cut losses quickly. However, small gains achieved consistently over time can add up to an attractive annual return.

How does swing trading work?

The swing trader analyzes patterns in trading activity to buy or sell a stock in order to capitalize on price movements and momentum trends of stocks, typically, focusing on large-cap stocks since they are the most heavily traded. Because these stocks have high trading volumes, they offer investors insight into how the market perceives the company and their security's price movements. This active trading offers the information necessary for what's called technical analysis, which we'll cover in the next section.

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As with any style of trading, swing trading carries plenty of risk. Swing traders are exposed to several types of risk, the most common being gap risk, where a security's price rises or falls significantly based on news or events that occur while the market is closed, whether overnight or during a weekend.

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The opening price will reflect the shock of any unexpected news. The longer the market is closed, the greater the risk. Abrupt changes in the market's direction also pose a risk, and swing traders may miss out on longer-term trends by focusing on shorter holding periods.

The role of technical analysis

Swing traders use technical analysis, which is the study of statistical trends and patterns on a stock chart, to spot trading opportunities. It's for this very reason that trading can be as intimidating as it is risky.

As such, technical analysis underpins swing trading as it holds that past trading activity and price movements can indicate future price movements. Swing traders rely on a wide variety of technical indicators and charts to gain insight into market psychology, analyzing multi-day patterns to determine the likely direction of a stock price.

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Example of swing trading

Let's take a look at a real-world example of how a swing trader may analyze Amazon's stock and determine when to buy or sell.

What to know about swing trading and how to minimize risks of this speculative trading strategy
Amazon stock from March to July 2021. Alyssa Powell/Insider

The candlestick chart above illustrates the "cup and handle" consolidation pattern, where the cup is u-shaped and the handle points slightly downward. This pattern is considered a bullish signal.

If a swing trader wants to make a profitable trade in Amazon, they would likely purchase the stock at the top of the "cup," at or above the most recent high of $3,555. They should place a stop-loss order at the most recent low in the cup handle ($3,395). Therefore, the risk - the maximum loss on the trade - is $160 ($3,555 - $3,395 = $160).

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At the recommended reward/risk ratio of 3:1, which is considered good, you'd need to sell at $480 (3 x $160 = $480) above the entry price, or $4,035 ($3,555 + $480).

Why risk management is critical in swing trading

Risk management is the most essential component in a successful swing trading strategy. Traders should choose only liquid stocks and diversify positions among different sectors and capitalizations.

Mike Dombrowski, head of capital markets at InterPrime Technologies, emphasizes the importance of risk management, saying that "each position should be roughly 2%-5% of total trading account capital. The most aggressive and professional traders may go up to 10% per position. That means a portfolio of five concentrated swing trades would represent 10%-25% of total trading account capital on average.

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Having cash in reserve allows you to add to the best-performing trades to help generate larger winners. As always, the key to swing trading is to minimize losses." He also notes that a desirable reward/risk ratio is 3:1, or 3 times the amount at risk.

Stop-loss orders are a vital tool in managing risk. When a stock falls below the stop price (or rises above the stop price for a short position), the stop-loss order converts to a market order, which is executed at the market price. With stop losses in place, the trader knows exactly how much capital is at risk because the risk of each position is limited to the difference between the current price and the stop price.

A stop loss is an effective way to manage risk per trade

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Swing trading strategies

Traders can deploy many strategies to determine when to buy and sell based on technical analysis, including:

  • Moving averages look for bullish or bearish crossover points
  • Support and resistance triggers
  • Moving Average Convergence/Divergence (MACD) crossovers
  • Using the Fibonacci retracement pattern, which identifies support and resistance levels and potential reversals

Traders also use moving averages to determine the support (lower) and resistance (upper) levels of a price range. While some use a simple moving average (SMA), an exponential moving average (EMA) places more emphasis on recent data points.

For example, a trader may use 9-, 13- and 50-day EMAs to look for crossover points. When the stock price moves above, or "crosses" the moving averages, this signals an upward trend in price. When a stock price falls below the EMAs, it's a bearish signal and the trader should exit long positions and potentially put on shorts.

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Market extremes make swing trading more challenging. In a bull or bear market, actively traded stocks do not exhibit the same up-and-down movements within a range as they do in more stable market conditions. Momentum will propel the market up or down for an extended period. "[Traders should] always trade in the direction of the trend, taking long positions in bull markets and shorts when the markets trend downward," says Dombrowski.

Swing trading vs. day trading

Swing trading and day trading have many similarities, but the most marked difference is the frequency of trades. Swing traders focus on short-to-medium term positions while day traders close out their positions at the end of each trading day. Day trading is a full-time job, requiring the trader to monitor market movements throughout the day and trade frequently. A swing trader can manage and trade on the side while still maintaining a full-time job.

Let's look at the principal differences.

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Swing tradingDay trading
Trading frequencyMulitple trades per weekMultiple trades per day
Time required to tradeCan be done periodicallyRequires constant attention
Number of transactionsFewer transactionsMany intra-day transactions
Profit potentialGains and losses accumulate slowlyGains and losses accumulate more quickly
Trading outletBrokerage accountSpecialized trading software
CostsLowerHigher

The financial takeaway

Swing trading is an easy way for new traders to get their feet wet in the market, with traders typically starting with $5k-$10k, although less is acceptable. The cardinal rule though is that this capital should be money the investor can afford to lose. Even with the strictest risk management, the unexpected is always possible.

More importantly, swing trading doesn't demand the same level of active attention as day trading, so the swing trader can start slowly and build the number of trades over time. But it does require the investor to take a deep dive into technical analysis, so an aptitude for charts and numbers is necessary.

For traders willing to spend time researching stocks and developing an understanding of technical analysis, swing trading offers the potential to accumulate attractive profits, slowly but steadily, over time.

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Trading and investing are two approaches to playing the stock market that bring their own benefits and risks Short selling is a high-risk but high-reward trading strategy that profits from a stock price's fall A long position means you buy a stock or stock option in the bullish belief its value will increase over time Margin trading means buying stocks with borrowed funds - it's riskier than paying cash, but the returns can be greater
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