The Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD) indicator is one of the most popular technical analysis tools used by stock traders. This comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about using the MACD indicator to analyze stocks and make profitable trades.
What is the MACD Indicator?
The MACD indicator was developed in the 1970s by Gerald Appel and is based on moving averages. It is used to identify changes in the strength, momentum, and direction of a stock’s price.
The MACD is calculated by taking the difference between a 12-period exponential moving average (EMA) and a 26-period EMA of the stock’s closing prices. A 9-period EMA of the MACD, called the “signal line”, is then plotted on top of the MACD line.
How is the MACD Calculated?
MACD = 12-period EMA – 26-period EMA
Signal Line = 9-period EMA of MACD
The standard MACD setting uses these default parameters of 12, 26, and 9. However, traders can customize the periods used based on their trading style and goals.
The 12-period EMA reacts more quickly to recent price changes compared to the 26-period EMA. When the short-term EMA moves further away from the long-term EMA, it means there is strengthening momentum in the direction of the price move.
What Does the MACD Tell You?
The main things traders look for in the MACD indicator are:
- Crossovers – When the MACD line crosses above or below the signal line, it generates a buy or sell signal respectively.
- Divergence – When the MACD forms highs or lows that diverge from the price action, it indicates a reversal may be imminent.
- Dramatic rises/falls – When the MACD rises or falls dramatically, it signals a large increase/decrease in momentum that could lead to a breakout.
- Zero line crossovers – The zero line represents the point at which there is no difference between the 12-period and 26-period EMAs. A move from positive to negative MACD or vice versa can signal a trend change.
MACD Trading Strategies
Now that you understand how to read the MACD indicator, let’s look at some trading strategies you can use:
1. MACD Crossover Strategy
This simple strategy relies on using MACD crossovers to generate trade signals:
- Buy signal – When the MACD line crosses above the signal line
- Sell signal – When the MACD line crosses below the signal line
The crossover suggests that momentum is shifting in the direction of the price move. This system can work well for volatile stocks that are trending strongly.
2. MACD Divergence Strategy
Divergence between the MACD and price occurs when they move in opposite directions and indicates waning momentum. This warns the current price trend may reverse.
You can trade divergence in the MACD by:
- Going long when the MACD forms higher lows while the price action shows lower lows
- Going short when the MACD forms lower highs as the price makes higher highs
Timing the trade correctly is critical when trading divergences. Wait for confirmation from the price before entering a position.
3. Dramatic Rise/Fall Strategy
When the MACD rises or falls rapidly to extreme high or low levels, it signals a strong burst of momentum in the direction of the move.
You can use these dramatic moves to enter positions in the direction of the momentum:
- Buy when the MACD surges sharply upward
- Sell when the MACD plummets downward suddenly
The acceleration often continues in the direction of the initial explosion, creating a profit opportunity.
4. Zero Line Crossovers
A move from positive to negative MACD or vice versa can act as a simple trend change indicator.
To trade zero line crossovers:
- Buy when the MACD crosses above 0
- Sell when it crosses below 0
This shows momentum has changed direction and could signal the start of a new uptrend or downtrend.
MACD Indicator Settings
The standard MACD settings of 12, 26, 9 work well for most trading. However, you can adjust the periods to try generating more or quicker signals. Some common non-standard settings include:
- Faster setting – (5,13,5) or (8,17,9) to react more quickly
- Slower setting – (20,40,10) or (24,52,16) for less frequent signals
- More sensitivity – (12,24,9) using a narrower spread between the EMAs
Make sure to test any new settings thoroughly on historical data before using real capital.
Using the MACD Histogram
The MACD histogram represents the difference between the MACD and its signal line. It provides a visual representation of the speed and strength of the MACD movement.
When the MACD is above its signal line, the histogram is positive and plotted above the centerline. When the MACD is below its signal line, the histogram is negative and plotted below the centerline.
The MACD histogram can help traders:
- Identify subtle MACD divergences earlier as the histogram diverges before the indicator
- Spot quicker crossovers as a crossing of the zero line precedes the signal line crossover
- See momentum accelerate as histogram bars grow larger
- Visualize the speed of decays as bars shrink rapidly during momentum slowdowns
Combining the MACD with Other Indicators
For better trading signals, the MACD can be combined with:
- Trend-following indicators like moving averages – to trade in the direction of the trend
- Oscillators like RSI – to spot extremely oversold/overbought levels
- Volume indicators – for confirmation of MACD divergences
- Chart patterns – use MACD crossovers to confirm breakouts
Using the MACD with supporting indicators improves accuracy and timing of profitable trades.
MACD Indicator Limitations
While powerful, the MACD does have some drawbacks traders should be aware of. These include:
- Lagging – MACD is based on moving averages and lags price action. Signals occur after the price starts moving.
- False signals – Crossovers and divergences can occur frequently, signaling trades that don’t materialize.
- Subject to volatility – Too much noise results in choppy MACD lines and unclear signals.
- Flat trading ranges – MACD oscillates horizontally during trading ranges, generating false signals.
- Parameter dependence – Different MACD settings can provide contradictory signals.
Due to these limitations, the MACD should not be used alone but with other indicators and proper risk management.
The MACD indicator is a valuable momentum tool that when used correctly, can help traders spot high-probability trading opportunities. Mastering MACD analysis takes practice but it is worth adding to your trading toolbox.
Some key takeaways include:
- Look for crossovers, divergence, dramatic rises/falls and zero line crossovers
- Combine MACD with other technical indicators for a robust trading approach
- Adjust the MACD parameters to suit your trading style
- Use proper risk management techniques and don’t rely solely on MACD
Learning to integrate the MACD with your own analysis could significantly improve your trading performance.
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