Scalping is a fast-paced activity for nimble traders. It requires precision timing and execution. Scalpers use day trading buying power of four to one margin to maximize profits with the most shares in the shortest amount of holding time. This requires focusing on the smaller time frame interval charts such as the one-minute and five-minute candlestick charts. Momentum indicators such as stochastic, moving average convergence divergence (MACD) and relative strength index (RSI) are commonly used. Price chart indicators such as moving averages, Bollinger bands and pivot points are used as reference points for price support and resistance levels.
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Article copyright 2011 by Alex Elder. Reprinted and adapted from Come Into My Trading Room with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments® cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data. This reprint and the materials delivered with it should not be construed as an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy shares of any funds mentioned in this reprint.
Day trading was once an activity that was exclusive to financial firms and professional speculators. Many day traders are bank or investment firm employees working as specialists in equity investment and fund management. Day trading gained popularity after the deregulation of commissions in the United States in 1975, the advent of electronic trading platforms in the 1990s, and with the stock price volatility during the dot-com bubble.
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For most students, once his or her accuracy has improved the next step is increasing positions sizes to maximize profits. If you’ve been trading at 65% success with 1:1 or 2:1 profit loss ratios for at least a couple of months you should be starting to feel pretty confident. Now it’s time to increase your position sizes. Since you’ve been working with a $100 max loss, you’ve probably rarely exceeded 2000 shares.
A scalper intends to take as many small profits as possible, without letting them evaporate. This is the opposite of the "let your profits run" mindset, which attempts to optimize positive trading results by increasing the size of winning trades while letting others reverse. Scalping achieves results by increasing the number of winners and sacrificing the size of the wins. It's not uncommon for a trader with a longer time frame to achieve positive results by winning only half or even less of his or her trades – it's just that the wins are much bigger than the losses. A successful scalper, however, will have a much higher ratio of winning trades versus losing ones, while keeping profits roughly equal or slightly bigger than losses.
So, swing traders are not looking to hit the home run with a single trade – they are not concerned with the perfect time to buy a stock exactly at its bottom and sell exactly at its top (or vice versa). In a perfect trading environment, they wait for the stock to hit its baseline and confirm its direction before they make their moves. The story gets more complicated when a stronger uptrend or downtrend is at play: the trader may paradoxically go long when the stock dips below its EMA and wait for the stock to go back up in an uptrend, or he or she may short a stock that has stabbed above the EMA and wait for it to drop if the longer trend is down.
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But there is an added risk with the shorter time frame. A wide spread between the bid, the ask and commissions can eat too large a portion of your profits. Swing traders can struggle with this too, but the effect is amplified for the day trader. Day traders can find themselves doing all the work, and the market makers and brokers reap the benefits.
The reason is because all too often the price can drop and you will end up giving up that profit. Instead, as soon as I’ve reached my first profit target (if I’m risking $100, then as soon as I’m up $100), I’ll sell 1/2 my position and set my stop at breakeven. This method of scaling out ensures small profits on all trades that move in your favor, giving you a better percentage of success.
In parallel to stock trading, starting at the end of the 1990s, several new market maker firms provided foreign exchange and derivative day trading through electronic trading platforms. These allowed day traders to have instant access to decentralised markets such as forex and global markets through derivatives such as contracts for difference. Most of these firms were based in the UK and later in less restrictive jurisdictions, this was in part due to the regulations in the US prohibiting this type of over-the-counter trading. These firms typically provide trading on margin allowing day traders to take large position with relatively small capital, but with the associated increase in risk. The retail foreign exchange trading became popular to day trade due to its liquidity and the 24-hour nature of the market.
News provides the majority of opportunities from which day traders capitalize, so it is imperative to be the first to know when something significant happens. The typical trading room contains access to the Dow Jones Newswire, constant coverage of CNBC and other news organizations, and software that constantly analyzes news sources for important stories.
There are two primary divisions of professional day traders: those who work alone and/or those who work for a larger institution. Most day traders who trade for a living work for a large institution. These traders have an advantage because they have access to a direct line, a trading desk, large amounts of capital and leverage, expensive analytical software, and much more. These traders are typically looking for easy profits that can be made from arbitrage opportunities and news events, and these resources allow them to capitalize on these less risky day trades before individual traders can react.