Stops Part 1 – When Not To Use Them

One topic I’ve received a good number of questions about lately is Stops. Using a stop on a position is a very popular risk management technique used by traders. My research and experience has led me to believe they are appropriate for some – but not all – types of trades. Today I will discuss when I believe they aren’t appropriate.

In Larry Connors new book, “Short-term Trading Strategies That Work” he dedicates a chapter to stops. It’s entitled, “Stops Hurt”. The chapter discusses how Larry’s research team ran hundreds of tests to try and find optimal stop levels. In doing so they came to the conclusion that for the trades they were looking at, the optimal stop was consistently none at all. In every case they found that instituting stops hurt system performance.

You should keep in mind that Larry Connors trades mean reversion strategies. Much of what I do is mean reversion based also. For instance, the Catapult system which makes up the CBI looks to buy stocks that are undergoing capitulative selling. It enters long positions in stocks or ETFs that are extremely oversold. When I first designed the system in 2005 I went through a massive series of tests to find a way to successfully incorporate stops into the methodology. Like Larry I failed to find a stop technique that would enhance the performance of the system.

I’ve gone through numerous other exercises and found the same thing time and again. When looking to trade overbought/oversold techniques, stops generally don’t work well. If the system suggests the security should bounce when it drops to $20 and it continues to $18 then it is REALLY overdue for a bounce. Any level of stop ensures you are selling an extremely oversold security that is making a low. Those are buying conditions for oversold systems – not selling conditions.

One stop technique for oversold systems that I will sometimes use that in testing hurt performance less than the other techniques I evaluated is this:

Wait until the security bounces for a bar or two. Look for a higher high, higher low, and higher close – or at least 2 of those 3. Then place a stop under the swing low that was just made. In cases like this even if the security doesn’t hit your target exit price, it still ensures that you won’t have to suffer through the entire next leg down. While it seems logical and can sometimes help avoid catastrophic trades in the long run you’re normally better off just waiting for the mean reversion to occur and exiting at your target level.

Not using stops does not equal not controlling risk. Position sizing becomes very important. Traders could also consider using options to trade their short-term positions. Options provide a natural stop (zero). I wrote a series back in the Spring (when the VIX was a lot lower) on how I sometimes use options for my short-term trading. You can find links to that series below:

Options – part 1
Options – part 2

This is getting a bit lengthy so in a future post I’ll discuss situations when I believe stops are absolutely appropriate.