7 Technical Indicators to Build a Trading Toolkit

Technical Analysis: What It Is and How to Use It in Investing

Adam Hayes, Ph.D., CFA, is a financial writer with 15+ years Wall Street experience as a derivatives trader. Besides his extensive derivative trading expertise, Adam is an expert in economics and behavioral finance. Adam received his master’s in economics from The New School for Social Research and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in sociology. He is a CFA charterholder as well as holding FINRA Series 7, 55 & 63 licenses. He currently researches and teaches economic sociology and the social studies of finance at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Updated February 21, 2024
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Charlene Rhinehart is a CPA , CFE, chair of an Illinois CPA Society committee, and has a degree in accounting and finance from DePaul University.

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What Is Technical Analysis?

Technical analysis is a trading discipline employed to evaluate investments and identify trading opportunities by analyzing statistical trends gathered from trading activity, such as price movement and volume. Unlike fundamental analysis, which attempts to evaluate a security’s value based on business results such as sales and earnings, technical analysis focuses on the study of price and volume.

Key Takeaways

  • Technical analysis is a trading discipline employed to evaluate investments and identify trading opportunities in price trends and patterns seen on charts.
  • Technical analysts believe past trading activity and price changes of a security can be valuable indicators of the security’s future price movements.
  • Technical analysis may be contrasted with fundamental analysis, which focuses on a company’s financials rather than historical price patterns or stock trends.

Technical Analysis

Understanding Technical Analysis

Technical analysis tools are used to scrutinize the ways supply and demand for a security will affect changes in price, volume, and implied volatility. It operates from the assumption that past trading activity and price changes of a security can be valuable indicators of the security’s future price movements when paired with appropriate investing or trading rules.

It is often used to generate short-term trading signals from various charting tools, but can also help improve the evaluation of a security’s strength or weakness relative to the broader market or one of its sectors. This information helps analysts improve their overall valuation estimate.

Technical analysis as we know it today was first introduced by Charles Dow and the Dow Theory in the late 1800s. Several noteworthy researchers including William P. Hamilton, Robert Rhea, Edson Gould, and John Magee further contributed to Dow Theory concepts helping to form its basis. Nowadays technical analysis has evolved to include hundreds of patterns and signals developed through years of research.

Using Technical Analysis

Professional analysts often use technical analysis in conjunction with other forms of research. Retail traders may make decisions based solely on the price charts of a security and similar statistics, but practicing equity analysts rarely limit their research to fundamental or technical analysis alone.

Technical analysis can be applied to any security with historical trading data. This includes stocks, futures, commodities, fixed-income, currencies, and other securities. In fact, technical analysis is far more prevalent in commodities and forex markets where traders focus on short-term price movements.

Technical analysis attempts to forecast the price movement of virtually any tradable instrument that is generally subject to forces of supply and demand, including stocks, bonds, futures, and currency pairs. In fact, some view technical analysis as simply the study of supply and demand forces as reflected in the market price movements of a security.

Technical analysis most commonly applies to price changes, but some analysts track numbers other than just price, such as trading volume or open interest figures.

Technical Analysis Indicators

Across the industry, there are hundreds of patterns and signals that have been developed by researchers to support technical analysis trading. Technical analysts have also developed numerous types of trading systems to help them forecast and trade on price movements.

Some indicators are focused primarily on identifying the current market trend, including support and resistance areas, while others are focused on determining the strength of a trend and the likelihood of its continuation. Commonly used technical indicators and charting patterns include trendlines, channels, moving averages, and momentum indicators.

In general, technical analysts look at the following broad types of indicators:

  • Price trends
  • Chart patterns
  • Volume and momentum indicators
  • Oscillators
  • Moving averages
  • Support and resistance levels

Underlying Assumptions of Technical Analysis

There are two primary methods used to analyze securities and make investment decisions: fundamental analysis and technical analysis. Fundamental analysis involves analyzing a company’s financial statements to determine the fair value of the business, while technical analysis assumes that a security’s price already reflects all publicly available information and instead focuses on the statistical analysis of price movements.

Technical analysis attempts to understand the market sentiment behind price trends by looking for patterns and trends rather than analyzing a security’s fundamental attributes.

Charles Dow released a series of editorials discussing technical analysis theory. His writings included two basic assumptions that have continued to form the framework for technical analysis trading.

  1. Markets are efficient with values representing factors that influence a security’s price, but
  2. Even random market price movements appear to move in identifiable patterns and trends that tend to repeat over time.
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Today the field of technical analysis builds on Dow’s work. Professional analysts typically accept three general assumptions for the discipline:

  1. The market discounts everything: Technical analysts believe that everything from a company’s fundamentals to broad market factors to market psychology is already priced into the stock. This point of view is congruent with the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH) which assumes a similar conclusion about prices. The only thing remaining is the analysis of price movements, which technical analysts view as the product of supply and demand for a particular stock in the market.
  2. Price moves in trends: Technical analysts expect that prices, even in random market movements, will exhibit trends regardless of the time frame being observed. In other words, a stock price is more likely to continue a past trend than move erratically. Most technical trading strategies are based on this assumption.
  3. History tends to repeat itself: Technical analysts believe that history tends to repeat itself. The repetitive nature of price movements is often attributed to market psychology, which tends to be very predictable based on emotions like fear or excitement. Technical analysis uses chart patterns to analyze these emotions and subsequent market movements to understand trends. While many forms of technical analysis have been used for more than 100 years, they are still believed to be relevant because they illustrate patterns in price movements that often repeat themselves.

Technical Analysis vs. Fundamental Analysis

Fundamental analysis and technical analysis, the major schools of thought when it comes to approaching the markets, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Both methods are used for researching and forecasting future trends in stock prices, and like any investment strategy or philosophy, both have their advocates and adversaries.

Fundamental analysis is a method of evaluating securities by attempting to measure the intrinsic value of a stock. Fundamental analysts study everything from the overall economy and industry conditions to the financial condition and management of companies. Earnings, expenses, assets, and liabilities are all important characteristics to fundamental analysts.

Technical analysis differs from fundamental analysis in that the stock’s price and volume are the only inputs. The core assumption is that all known fundamentals are factored into price; thus, there is no need to pay close attention to them. Technical analysts do not attempt to measure a security’s intrinsic value, but instead, use stock charts to identify patterns and trends that suggest what a stock will do in the future.

Limitations of Technical Analysis

Some analysts and academic researchers expect that the EMH demonstrates why they shouldn’t expect any actionable information to be contained in historical price and volume data; however, by the same reasoning, neither should business fundamentals provide any actionable information. These points of view are known as the weak form and semi-strong form of the EMH.

Another criticism of technical analysis is that history does not repeat itself exactly, so price pattern study is of dubious importance and can be ignored. Prices seem to be better modeled by assuming a random walk.

A third criticism of technical analysis is that it works in some cases but only because it constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, many technical traders will place a stop-loss order below the 200-day moving average of a certain company. If a large number of traders have done so and the stock reaches this price, there will be a large number of sell orders, which will push the stock down, confirming the movement traders anticipated.

Then, other traders will see the price decrease and also sell their positions, reinforcing the strength of the trend. This short-term selling pressure can be considered self-fulfilling, but it will have little bearing on where the asset’s price will be weeks or months from now.

In sum, if enough people use the same signals, they could cause the movement foretold by the signal, but over the long run, this sole group of traders cannot drive the price.

Chartered Market Technician (CMT)

Among professional analysts, the CMT Association supports the largest collection of chartered or certified analysts using technical analysis professionally around the world. The association’s Chartered Market Technician (CMT) designation can be obtained after three levels of exams that cover both a broad and deep look at technical analysis tools.

The association now waives Level 1 of the CMT exam for those who are Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) charterholders. This demonstrates how well the two disciplines reinforce each other.

What Assumptions Do Technical Analysts Make?

Professional technical analysts typically accept three general assumptions for the discipline. The first is that, similar to the efficient market hypothesis, the market discounts everything. Second, they expect that prices, even in random market movements, will exhibit trends regardless of the time frame being observed. Finally, they believe that history tends to repeat itself. The repetitive nature of price movements is often attributed to market psychology, which tends to be very predictable based on emotions like fear or excitement.

What’s the Difference Between Fundamental and Technical Analysis?

Fundamental analysis is a method of evaluating securities by attempting to measure the intrinsic value of a stock. The core assumption of technical analysis, on the other hand, is that all known fundamentals are factored into price; thus, there is no need to pay close attention to them. Technical analysts do not attempt to measure a security’s intrinsic value, but instead, use stock charts to identify patterns and trends that might suggest what the security will do in the future.

How Can I Learn Technical Analysis?

There are a variety of ways to learn technical analysis. The first step is to learn the basics of investing, stocks, markets, and financials. This can all be done through books, online courses, online material, and classes. Once the basics are understood, from there you can use the same types of materials but those that focus specifically on technical analysis. Investopedia’s course on technical analysis is one specific option.

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7 Technical Indicators to Build a Trading Toolkit

Investopedia contributors come from a range of backgrounds, and over 24 years there have been thousands of expert writers and editors who have contributed.

Updated November 27, 2023
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Technical indicators are used by traders to gain insight into the supply and demand of securities and market psychology. Together, these indicators form the basis of technical analysis. Metrics, such as trading volume, provide clues as to whether a price move will continue. In this way, indicators can be used to generate buy and sell signals.

Seven of the best indicators for day trading are:

  • On-balance volume (OBV)
  • Accumulation/distribution (A/D) line
  • Average directional index
  • Aroon oscillator
  • Moving average convergence divergence (MACD)
  • Relative strength index (RSI)
  • Stochastic oscillator

You don’t need to use all of them, rather pick a few that you find helpful in making better trading decisions. Learn more about how these indicators work and how they can help you day trade successfully.

Key Takeaways

  • Technical traders and chartists have a wide variety of indicators, patterns, and oscillators in their toolkit to generate signals.
  • Some of these consider price history, others look at trading volume, and yet others are momentum indicators. Often, these are used in tandem or combination with one another.
  • Here, we look at seven top tools market technicians employ, and that you should become familiar with if you plan to trade based on technical analysis.

Tools of the Trade

The tools of the trade for day traders and technical analysts consist of charting tools that generate signals to buy or sell, or which indicate trends or patterns in the market. Broadly speaking, there are two basic types of technical indicators:

  1. Overlays: Technical indicators that use the same scale as prices are plotted over the top of the prices on a stock chart. Examples include moving averages and Bollinger Bands® or Fibonacci lines.
  2. Oscillators: Rather than being overlaid on a price chart, technical indicators that oscillate between a local minimum and maximum are plotted above or below a price chart. Examples include the stochastic oscillator, MACD, or RSI. It will mainly be these second kind of technical indicators that we consider in this article.

Traders often use several different technical indicators in tandem when analyzing a security. With literally thousands of different options, traders must choose the indicators that work best for them and familiarize themselves with how they work.

They may also combine technical indicators with more subjective forms of technical analysis, such as looking at chart patterns, to come up with trade ideas. Technical indicators can also be incorporated into automated trading systems given their quantitative nature.

1. On-Balance Volume

Use the on-balance volume to measure the positive and negative flow of volume in a security over time. The indicator is a running total of up volume minus down volume. Up volume is how much volume there is on a day when the price rallies. Down volume is the volume on a day when the price falls. Each day volume is added or subtracted from the indicator based on whether the price went higher or lower.

When OBV rises, it shows that buyers will step in and push the price higher. When OBV falls, the selling volume outpaces the buying volume, which indicates lower prices. In this way, it acts like a trend confirmation tool. If price and OBV are rising, that helps indicate a continuation of the trend.

Traders who use OBV also watch for divergence. This occurs when the indicator and price are going in different directions. If the price is rising but OBV is falling, that could indicate that the trend is not backed by strong buyers and could soon reverse.

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2. Accumulation/Distribution Line

One of the most commonly used indicators to determine the money flow in and out of a security is the accumulation/distribution line.

Similar to OBV, this indicator also accounts for the trading range for the period and where the close is in relation to that range in addition to the closing price of the security for the period. If a stock finishes near its high, the indicator gives volume more weight than if it closes near the midpoint of its range. The different calculations mean that OBV will work better in some cases and A/D will work better in others.

If the indicator line trends up, it shows buying interest, since the stock closes above the halfway point of the range. This helps confirm an uptrend. On the other hand, if A/D falls, that means the price is finishing in the lower portion of its daily range, and thus volume is considered negative. This helps confirm a downtrend.

Traders using the A/D line also watch for divergence. If the A/D starts falling while the price rises, this signals that the trend is in trouble and could reverse. Similarly, if the price trends lower and A/D starts rising, that could signal higher prices to come.

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3. Average Directional Index

The average directional index is a trend indicator used to measure the strength and momentum of a trend. When the ADX is above 40, the trend is considered to have a lot of directional strength, either up or down, depending on the direction the price is moving.

When the ADX indicator is below 20, the trend is considered to be weak or non-trending.

The ADX is the main line on the indicator, usually colored black. There are two additional lines that can be optionally shown. These are DI+ and DI-. These lines are often colored red and green, respectively. All three lines work together to show the direction of the trend as well as the momentum of the trend.

  • ADX above 20 and DI+ above DI-. That’s an uptrend.
  • ADX above 20 and DI- above DI+. That’s a downtrend.
  • ADX below 20 is a weak trend or ranging period, often associated with the DI- and DI+ rapidly crisscrossing each other.
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4. Aroon Indicator

The Aroon oscillator is a technical indicator used to measure whether a security is in a trend, and more specifically if the price is hitting new highs or lows over the calculation period—typically 25.

The indicator can also be used to identify when a new trend is set to begin. The Aroon indicator comprises two lines: an Aroon Up line and an Aroon Down line.

When the Aroon Up crosses above the Aroon Down, that is the first sign of a possible trend change. If the Aroon Up hits 100 and stays relatively close to that level while the Aroon Down stays near zero, that is positive confirmation of an uptrend.

The reverse is also true. If Aroon Down crosses above Aroon Up and stays near 100, this indicates that the downtrend is in force.

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Always make sure you practice with a trading demo account before you decide to use your own capital. This ensures that you understand how technical analysis (or any other strategy you decide to take) can be applied to real-life trading.

5. MACD

The moving average convergence divergence indicator helps traders see the trend direction, as well as the momentum of that trend. It also provides a number of trade signals. When the MACD is above zero, the price is in an upward phase. If the MACD is below zero, it has entered a bearish period.

The indicator is composed of two lines: the MACD line and a signal line, which moves slower. When MACD crosses below the signal line, it indicates that the price is falling. When the MACD line crosses above the signal line, the price is rising.

Looking at which side of zero the indicator is on aids in determining which signals to follow. For example, if the indicator is above zero, watch for the MACD to cross above the signal line to buy. If the MACD is below zero, the MACD crossing below the signal line may provide the signal for a possible short trade.

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6. Relative Strength Index

The relative strength index has at least three major uses. The indicator moves between zero and 100, plotting recent price gains versus recent price losses. The RSI levels therefore help in gauging momentum and trend strength.

The most basic use of an RSI is as an overbought and oversold indicator. When the RSI moves above 70, the asset is considered overbought and could decline. When the RSI is below 30, the asset is oversold and could rally. However, making this assumption is dangerous; therefore, some traders wait for the indicator to rise above 70 and then drop below before selling, or drop below 30 and then rise back above before buying.

Divergence is another use of the RSI. When the indicator is moving in a different direction than the price, it shows that the current price trend is weakening and could soon reverse.

A third use for the RSI is support and resistance levels. During uptrends, a stock will often hold above the 30 level and frequently reach 70 or above. When a stock is in a downtrend, the RSI will typically hold below 70 and frequently reach 30 or below.

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7. Stochastic Oscillator

The stochastic oscillator measures the current price relative to the price range over a number of periods. Plotted between zero and 100, the idea is that the price should make new highs when the trend is up. In a downtrend, the price tends to make new lows. The stochastic tracks whether this is happening.

The stochastic moves up and down relatively quickly as it is rare for the price to make continual highs, keeping the stochastic near 100, or continual lows, keeping the stochastic near zero. Therefore, the stochastic is often used as an overbought and oversold indicator. Values above 80 are considered overbought, while levels below 20 are considered oversold.

Consider the overall price trend when using overbought and oversold levels. For example, during an uptrend, when the indicator drops below 20 and rises back above it, that is a possible buy signal. But rallies above 80 are less consequential because we expect to see the indicator move to 80 and above regularly during an uptrend. During a downtrend, look for the indicator to move above 80 and then drop back below to signal a possible short trade. The 20 level is less significant in a downtrend.

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Is Technical Analysis Reliable?

Technical analysis is the reading of market sentiment via the use of graph patterns and signals. Various empirical studies have pointed to its effectiveness, but the range of success is varied and its accuracy remains undecided. It is best to use a suite of technical tools and indicators in tandem with other techniques like fundamental analysis to improve reliability.

Which Technical Indicator Can Best Spot Overbought/Oversold Conditions?

The relative strength index is among the most popular technical indicators for identifying overbought or oversold stocks. The RSI is bound between 0 and 100. Traditionally, a reading above 70 indicates overbought ad below 30 oversold.

How Many Technical Analysis Tools Are There?

There are several dozen technical analysis tools, including a range of indicators and chart patterns. Market technicians are always creating new tools and refining old ones.

The Bottom Line

The goal of every short-term trader is to determine the direction of a given asset’s momentum and to attempt to profit from it. There have been hundreds of technical indicators and oscillators developed for this specific purpose, and this article has provided a handful that you can start trying out. Use the indicators to develop new strategies or consider incorporating them into your current strategies. To determine which ones to use, try them out in a demo account. Pick the ones you like the most, and leave the rest.

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