Technical Indicators and Oscillators for Beginner Traders

Tyler Stokes

Analysis paralysis is a real challenge when it comes to learning how to day trade, especially when we encounter the maze of technical indicators and oscillators.

As an introduction for beginners, we want to try to simplify this area of technical analysis by focusing on 3 popular indicators that lay the groundwork for successful trading.

In this article, we’ll discuss moving averages, RSI, and MACD, explaining them in straightforward terms. There are many others, and we will cover them all eventually, but these are good ones to start with.

What are Technical Indicators?

Technical indicators are tools used in trading that help analyze past and current price information of stocks, currencies, or other financial instruments to predict future market movements. They are primarily used to assess trends, momentum, volume, and other aspects of a security to aid in making investment decisions.

Essentially, these indicators take the raw data of market prices and volumes and transform them into a more digestible and usable form. They can be as simple as a line drawn on a chart or as complex as a series of calculations based on price and volume history.

Building on this, it’s important to differentiate between general indicators and a specific subset known as oscillators. While all oscillators are indicators—providing valuable insights into market behavior—not all indicators are oscillators.

What Does Oscillation Mean?

Oscillation, in simple terms, is just a fancy way of saying “back and forth movement” or “fluctuation.” Here’s a simple breakdown of what oscillation means in different contexts:

In Physics

Oscillation is the movement back and forth in a regular rhythm. A classic example is a pendulum swinging from side to side from its equilibrium or resting position. This movement is governed by forces that restore the object to a midpoint or equilibrium position.

Oscillators in Technical Analysis

In technical analysis, oscillators are tools that help us understand when a stock’s price might be getting ready to change direction. They measure how strong the price movement is and whether the price is moving quickly or slowly within a defined range.

Think of it like a speedometer in a car that shows how fast you’re driving. Similarly, oscillators in the stock market don’t measure speed, but rather momentum – which reflects the rate at which stock prices are changing. By indicating how rapidly prices are moving, oscillators can signal whether a price trend is likely to continue or reverse, helping traders decide when to buy or sell.

How Oscillators Work

  • Range: Most of the time, oscillators have a scale that ranges from 0 to 100.
  • High and Low Signals: They give signals when things are extreme. If the value is very high (close to 100), it might mean the stock price is too high and could start going down soon. If the value is very low (close to 0), it might mean the stock price is too low and could start going up.

Oscillators are invaluable because they help traders determine the optimal times to buy or sell, based on the underlying momentum of the market. Like using a thermometer to gauge the temperature before heading out, traders use oscillators to “feel the pulse” of the market dynamics. This guidance helps in making informed decisions, predicting when a trend is likely to continue, or when a reversal might occur.

Why Use Indicators and Oscillators?

Both technical indicators and oscillators are used by traders to make more informed trading decisions:

  • Trend Confirmation: Indicators can confirm if a market trend is likely to continue or reverse, helping traders decide to buy or sell.
  • Signal Trading Opportunities: Certain patterns in the indicators can suggest optimal moments to enter or exit trades.
  • Reduce Risk: By providing objective data on market conditions, these tools can help traders avoid emotional decision-making and focus on evidence-based strategies.

How They Fit into Technical Analysis

Technical analysis itself is the study of price action, primarily through the use of candlestick charts, for the purpose of forecasting future price trends. Technical indicators and oscillators are integral to this practice. They provide graphical representations and mathematical calculations of market dynamics that are not readily apparent just by looking at a price chart.

By using technical indicators and oscillators, traders can see patterns and signals that help them understand market movements in a way that raw data alone cannot provide.

For beginners, mastering a few basic indicators and understanding how to interpret them can be a significant first step in becoming proficient at technical analysis.

The charts below are from the charting platform TradingView. You can sign up and use their software for free.

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Moving Averages

Moving averages are one of the most popular tools in technical analysis used to smooth out price data over a specified period, making it easier to identify the trend direction. By calculating the average price of a stock over a set number of days, moving averages offer a clear view of whether a stock’s price is trending up or down, without the distraction of daily price fluctuations.

20 day moving average

How Do Moving Averages Work?

A moving average is calculated by averaging the stock’s closing prices over a specific period. For instance, a 20-day Simple Moving Average (SMA) sums up the closing prices of the last 20 days and divides this total by 20. This process is repeated daily, adding the new day’s closing price while dropping the oldest, which smooths out short-term volatility and reveals the underlying price trend.

Why Use Moving Averages?

Traders utilize moving averages for several key reasons:

  • Trend Identification: Moving averages help pinpoint the overall trend. If a stock price remains above a certain moving average, like the 50-day SMA, it’s generally considered in an upward trend, suggesting a buy signal. Conversely, if the price is below the moving average, it might indicate a downward trend, signaling a potential sell.
  • Support and Resistance Levels: These averages can act as barriers at which a stock’s price movement is halted and possibly reversed, providing strategic points for entry or exit. Learn more about support and resistance here.
  • Crossover Strategies: Traders often watch for a shorter-term moving average (like a 10-day SMA) crossing over a longer-term one (like a 20-day SMA) to signal increasing momentum and potentially initiating a new trade position.

Simple and Advanced Forms of Moving Averages

While the Simple Moving Average (SMA) gives equal weight to all data points, other types of moving averages like the Exponential Moving Average (EMA) and Weighted Moving Average (WMA) assign more importance to recent prices. This can help traders react more quickly to recent price changes:

  • Exponential Moving Average (EMA): More sensitive to recent price movements, the EMA helps traders catch trends early.
  • Weighted Moving Average (WMA): Prioritizes recent prices over older ones, offering a weighted average that reacts more promptly to new market information.

Both EMA and WMA are designed to overcome the shortcomings of a simple moving average by putting more emphasis on recent data, which can be crucial in fast-paced financial markets.

Moving averages help you see the average price of a security over a certain period, making it easier to spot trends.

Lagging and Leading Indicators

A moving average is a lagging indicator because it calculates an average of past prices. This smooths out price data, clarifying the trend direction after it has begun but not predicting new trends. Its reliance on historical data means it’s excellent for confirming ongoing trends but less effective for spotting the start or end of these trends.

In contrast, leading indicators like the Relative Strength Index (RSI) aim to predict future price movements by identifying early signs of overbought or oversold conditions. These indicators can offer early warnings about potential market reversals, although they are susceptible to false signals and generally need to be used with other analysis tools for best results.

RSI (Relative Strength Index)

The Relative Strength Index (RSI) is an oscillator in technical analysis that measures the speed and change of price movements of a stock or asset. It operates on a scale from 0 to 100 and helps identify overbought or oversold conditions, suggesting potential price reversals. The RSI is calculated by comparing the average gains and losses over a specific period, typically 14 days.

How Does RSI Work?

  • Calculation: To determine the RSI, start by calculating the average price increase (gains) and the average price decrease (losses) over the period. The ratio of these averages is known as the “relative strength” (RS).
  • Formula: The RSI is then calculated using the formula: RSI = 100 – (100 / (1 + RS)). This formula helps normalize the index to fit within the 0 to 100 range.

Interpreting RSI Values

Overbought Conditions: When the RSI value exceeds 70, it often suggests that the stock might be overbought. This condition implies that recent gains are disproportionately high compared to any losses during the same period. Essentially, the stock has experienced strong upward momentum without significant pullbacks, making it potentially overvalued or primed for a price correction.

Here’s a breakdown of the mechanics:

  • The RSI compares the magnitude of recent gains to recent losses.
  • If the average gains over the RSI’s calculation period (commonly 14 periods) are larger than the average losses, the RSI increases.
  • An RSI above 70 indicates that the stock has been gaining significantly, often due to heightened buying activity, which might not be sustainable. This can lead investors to anticipate a pullback as some traders might start taking profits, expecting that the rapid price increases are likely to slow down or reverse.

This high RSI value signals that the upward price momentum is possibly overextended, making it a critical indicator for traders looking to predict potential reversals from recent trends.

Oversold Conditions: When the RSI value drops below 30, it typically indicates that the stock may be oversold. This condition suggests that recent losses are disproportionately high compared to any gains during the same period, potentially signaling that the stock is undervalued or due for a price rebound.

  • An RSI below 30 signifies that the stock has been experiencing significant selling pressure, often leading to a downward price push that might be excessive relative to its true value.

This low RSI value signals that the downward price momentum may be overextended. It acts as a critical alert for traders who might see this as a buying opportunity, anticipating a potential price increase as the market corrects itself from this oversold state.

RSI diagram

Why Use RSI?

RSI is particularly useful in volatile markets where prices oscillate within a consistent range. It provides clear signals that can help traders:

  • Identify potential entry and exit points based on perceived overbought or oversold conditions.
  • Detect divergences where the price movement differs from the RSI trend, often indicating a potential price reversal.

RSI and Divergence

Bearish divergence is a situation where the stock price hits a new high while the RSI fails to reach a new high suggests weakening momentum and a possible price decline. This interpretation suggests that while prices are reaching higher highs, the momentum behind those price increases is weakening. The RSI, which measures the magnitude and velocity of directional price movements, isn’t confirming the new highs with higher readings of its own. This lack of confirmation can be a warning signal that the upward price movement might not be sustained, possibly leading to a future decline.

The RSI is like the thermometer of the stock market. It measures the speed and change of price movements, helping you identify if a security is overbought or oversold.

MACD (Moving Average Convergence Divergence)

The MACD, or Moving Average Convergence Divergence, is a powerful tool used by traders to understand market trends. At its core, the MACD is about comparing two moving averages of stock prices — one that covers a shorter period and one that covers a longer period. This comparison helps traders spot changes in the direction and strength of stock prices over time. By observing how these two averages converge (come together) or diverge (move apart), the MACD provides clear signals that can guide traders on when to buy or sell a stock. It’s like having a personal assistant that helps you decide when to get into or out of the market, making it easier to manage your trades effectively.

How Does MACD Work?

  • MACD Line: The MACD Line is the foundation of the indicator and is calculated by subtracting the 26-day exponential moving average (EMA) of the stock’s price from its 12-day EMA.
  • Signal Line: This is the 9-day EMA of the MACD Line, acting as a trigger for buy and sell signals.
  • Histogram: The histogram simplifies the relationship between the MACD Line and the Signal Line. It’s a visual tool on a stock chart, showing the difference between the MACD Line and the Signal Line through bars. If the bars are above zero (MACD Line is above the Signal Line), it suggests a potential increase in stock price, and bars below zero (MACD Line is below the Signal Line) indicate a possible decline. The height of these bars helps traders quickly gauge the strength of a trend and spot changes in momentum.
MACD and signal lines
  • Why these numbers (12 and 26)? These specific numbers are standard in the industry and were originally chosen based on the traditional working days in a month, roughly corresponding to two weeks and one month of trading data. The 12-day EMA is a faster, more responsive average because it considers fewer days, making it sensitive to recent price movements. The 26-day EMA is slower, smoothing out volatility and providing a longer-term trend line.
  • What does this show? The difference between these two EMAs gives an immediate visual representation of the trend’s momentum. If the MACD Line is above zero, it suggests that the short-term momentum is higher than the long-term momentum, indicating bullish conditions. If the MACD Line is below zero, it suggests bearish conditions.

Signal Line

This is essentially a smoother or “slower” version of the MACD Line, being the 9-day EMA of the MACD itself. It’s an average of an average so it smooths out the fluctuations more extensively.

  • Role of the Signal Line: It acts as a trigger for trading signals. When the MACD Line crosses above the Signal Line, it’s typically seen as a bullish signal (good time to buy), and when it crosses below, it’s seen as bearish (good time to sell). The slower nature of the Signal Line makes it useful as a trigger for trading signals. When the faster MACD Line crosses the slower Signal Line, it indicates a potential change in momentum and trend strength, which traders might use to make buy or sell decisions.

Histogram: The Histogram is a graphical representation of the difference between the MACD Line and the Signal Line.

  • What does the Histogram show? It provides a clear visual of how far apart the MACD Line and the Signal Line are, indicating the strength of the trend. Positive bars suggest that the MACD Line is above the Signal Line (bullish), and negative bars indicate the MACD Line is below the Signal Line (bearish). Increasing bar length signals growing momentum, whereas decreasing length suggests fading momentum.

Why ‘Convergence’ and ‘Divergence’?

  • Convergence occurs when the two moving averages move towards each other. In the context of MACD, it happens when the MACD Line and the Signal Line draw closer together. This suggests that the difference between the fast and slow EMAs of price is decreasing, often indicating a weakening momentum in the trend. Convergence can signal a potential end to the current trend or a weakening in momentum.
  • Divergence occurs when the two moving averages move away from each other. For MACD, divergence is observed when the MACD Line moves away from the Signal Line. This indicates that the difference between the fast and slow EMAs is increasing. Divergence can be a sign of strengthening momentum and often precedes a potential reversal in the trend.

A Good Summary: What Happens When the Lines Cross?

Here’s a detailed breakdown of what happens when the MACD Line crosses above the Signal Line:

  • MACD Line Dynamics: The MACD Line represents the difference between two exponential moving averages (EMAs) of the stock’s prices – specifically, the 12-day EMA and the 26-day EMA. When the MACD Line crosses above the Signal Line, it indicates that the 12-day EMA (which responds more quickly to recent price changes) has moved above the 26-day EMA. This shows that recent prices are rising faster than they were over the longer period, suggesting an increase in short-term momentum relative to the longer term.
  • Signal Line Dynamics: The Signal Line, being a 9-day EMA of the MACD Line, represents a smoothed version of these movements. It moves slower because it accumulates this data over a short period but in a more averaged way. It trails behind the more immediate reactions seen in the MACD Line.
  • Interpretation of the Crossover: When the MACD Line crosses above the Signal Line, it suggests that recent price momentum is strengthening and moving faster than the average of the recent past, as reflected in the Signal Line. This is typically interpreted as a bullish signal, indicating that the prices might continue to rise and that it could be a good time to consider buying.

Essentially, this crossover points to a shift where short-term prices are gaining strength and outpacing the more moderated view of recent price trends, which can indicate a potential upward movement in the market.

Why Does MACD Work?

The MACD is a helpful tool for traders because it puts together a couple of important trading concepts into one easy-to-read indicator. Essentially, it measures both the direction a stock price is heading and how fast it’s moving in that direction. It does this by comparing two averages of the stock’s prices over different time periods: a shorter one for recent trends and a longer one for overall direction. The difference between these averages forms the MACD Line, which shows if the stock’s momentum is increasing or decreasing.

Additionally, the MACD uses a Signal Line, which is a smoothed version of the MACD Line, and a Histogram, which shows the distance between the MACD Line and the Signal Line. These features help traders see when the stock might be ready for a buy or sell by showing entry and exit signals clearly. This combination of features makes the MACD very valuable for traders looking to catch and follow trends in fast-moving markets.

MACD is like the traffic light of the stock market. It shows the relationship between two moving averages and helps you decide when to enter or exit a trade.

About the author

Hi I'm Tyler Stokes. I started my day trading journey in 2024. As a pure beginner I decided to document everything on this website. I plan to share all the ups and downs of becoming a day trader on this website and through social media.