My Best Trailing Stop Techniques

Most investors and traders spend far too much time focusing on how to enter a stock, and far too little time focusing on how to best exit a profitable position. What is particularly interesting regarding this neglect is that most traders make the vast majority of their profits in a year from just one to five trades that move substantially in their favor. Thus most traders would actually do better to focus in on how to better exit heavily profitable trades than they would to further refine their entry techniques.

I would like to briefly go over some of our best “trailing stop” techniques to help traders learn how to exit profitable trades much more profitably. We use a number of trailing stop techniques, but the simple rules of thumb we present here should greatly enhance the trading of most investors.


The method we’re going to briefly cover is used before a stock becomes overvalued.

–waiting for the breakout of a three- to four-week or longer consolidation

–putting stops below the low of that consolidation after you’ve just entered a stock (as long as it is not becoming overpriced on a price/earnings basis)

This requires patience for the first quarter of a move after you’ve entered a stock (first 50 or so bars after a trade on any timeframe).

However, when a stock starts to get a PE ratio that is both higher than its historical high PE and above its forward one-to-three year growth rate projected by Wall Street analysts, then it is potentially becoming overvalued, and investors should tighten up trailing stops much more aggressively.

Once a stock becomes overvalued, it is generally in a blow-off. A blow-off can last from weeks to months, and occasionally years – so the trick is to stick with a stock for as long as it is likely to continue running up, no matter how high the price and PE. This is the essence of attempting to let profits run.

Thus, when a stock rises to a PE ratio that is both higher than its historical high PE and above its projected (by consensus analysts) growth rate for the next one to three years, we use a different technique than the one we used before the stock becomes overvalued.

When a stock becomes overvalued, we watch for any decline in the close for two days in a row. Once we have a two-day in a row decline in the close, we consider that stock to be in a “reaction”. Once a stock is in a reaction, we wait for it to recover to new highs. On any new high following a reaction, we will then move our trailing stop to the low of that reaction — and we’ll keep moving it up in this manner on every reaction and subsequent new high. In this way we are still waiting for a fairly significant support point to be broken on the downside before exiting a stock, but we are moving our stops up much more aggressively than is the case prior to the stock becoming overvalued.

Real World Examples

Let’s take a brief look at how this works in the real world using actual trades we made from 1999.

Adobe (ADBE) broke out to new 52-week highs in March, 1999, and then developed a nice, tight trading range from late-March to mid-April, creating just the type of flag pattern we like to watch for an entry signal. It was exhibiting strong relative strength, strong EPS rank, strong quarterly earnings growth, had very strong earnings growth estimates for the next year, was the leader in its field, and was being re-accumulated by funds–meaning that it met most of our criteria for a runaway stock with fuel to go much higher.

When the four-week consolidation was broken to the upside in April (near the 30 level) we started buying ADBE for clients, it started appearing on the list of new highs.

The first trading range of three-four weeks following our entry occurred in May, when ADBE declined from 40.53 to 33 1/2, a fairly large dip. In June, ADBE broke out of this consolidation to new highs, and we instigated our first trailing stop rule, using trailing stop at 33, and we were finally able to “lock in” a profit by having our stop above our entry price. Other three-to-four-week-plus consolidations developed in July-August and in August-September, allowing us to again raise our stops via the three-to-four-week-plus consolidation and new high rule.

Then in October ADBE took off and began to trade above a P/E of 40. Forty had been a high P/E for the last three years and was above earnings growth estimates for the next two years after the one-year spike in earnings expected in 1999. This meant ADBE was potentially becoming overvalued, and was potentially undergoing a blow-off in price.

Thus in October we began to use our tighter trailing stop method on ADBE. Every time ADBE made a two-day-in-a-row decline and then later broke to new highs, we would move our stop below the low of that reaction.

On Nov. 1 and 2 ADBE made a two-day in a row decline. On Nov. 4 ADBE bottomed at 67 1/8 and then made a new high on 11/8. This was nothing close to a three-week-plus consolidation, but since we were in potentially overvalued territory, we used an open protective stop (OPS) at 66 3/4 (just below 67 1/8). The stock continued to explode to 79 before collapsing, and we were stopped out via our 66 3/4 OPS in early-December as ADBE began a decline to the 50’s.

While we didn’t catch the top perfectly, we caught the lion’s share of this nice move, and we caught more of the move by using a trailing stop than we would have had we just began selling the position in October, when it first began to look overvalued.

Our final example is a foreign stock traded on the NASDAQ, Business Objects
Quote |
Chart |
News |
. In mid-June, BOBJ broke out of a two-month consolidation on the upside on a high-volume thrust and lap. It showed strong RS, exploding earnings growth, increasing-but-low ownership by funds, and other elements of our runaway criteria. We began buying BOBJ near the 30 level, and put it into our PSL model portfolio in June.

BOBJ made a new high in July, corrected to the 37 level, and then consolidated for two months before making a new 52-week high again – which allowed us to move our trailing stops to just below 37 where we locked in a profit via our trailing stops.

BOBJ took off on a runaway up-move, and in November it moved above a P/E of 90 (its projected earnings growth for the next year and a historic PE high). Thus in November we switched to our tighter trailing stop technique. On 1/6/00 BOBJ hit our stop at 115, below the Dec. 14, 1999 lows, and we took some very healthy profits.

In Conclusion

Remember no trailing stop technique is perfect. Trailing stops will often take you out of a stock that ends up moving further in the desired direction. But even more often, the trailing stop will prevent you from letting your open profits erode substantially in a stock that has peaked for a considerable period of time. You can always re-enter a stock if it meets your criteria on a new breakout. Trailing stops therefore not only help you to let your profits run and prevent you from giving back huge portions of open profit, but they also help you to focus your trading capital on vehicles that are moving up strongly, right now, and exit those that are in prolonged corrections.