Why Why Your Stop Losses Are (Probably) Wrong

When you start to learn about trading, you'll come across plenty of material about minimising risk and money management, because they're two of the most critical areas of the business. 

Learning to manage risk and preserve trading capital is fundamental to a successful trading journey. 

One area the literature focuses on is the use of stop losses. A stop loss is simply a price level beyond which you choose not to run an unprofitable or losing trade.

But for me, stop losses are one of the most misunderstood tools in a trader's arsenal, and I wanted to offer a different perspective than what is usually found in the research.  

I'll give you a hint; it's in the name!

Knowing your risk

It's important to know the risk you are taking on any given trade, this can be calculated by multiplying the distance of your stop loss, from the entry-level of your trade, by the notional size of your trade.  

In theory, this simple calculation determines the maximum risk or loss that you face on a given trade. I say in theory because that risk figure is not cast in stone.  

Firstly, if the stop loss you use on a trade is just a mental one, i.e. a figure that you have chosen, (but will watch rather than attach to an order), then it will be down to you to monitor price action and trade it. That's a sure recipe for looking like a maniac checking your platform or mobile app every second you get.

Systemise your process

Rather than rely on them being in front of the screen to close a trade (which in a 24/5 market is not that realistic), many traders will place a stop loss to an open position. This is essentially creating an instruction to close the position should the price of the underlying instrument reach a pre-set level.

In doing so, traders are systemising this part of their trading. On the face of it, that sounds like a good idea doesn't it? 

But what if that automated stop loss level was defining the loss you make on a trade and eating away at your trading capital, not protecting it?  

The use of a stop loss should be what its name suggests – the prevention of a loss, not the realisation of losses as 90% of traders currently use their SL for.  

Crowding together

Here's the thing. Traders of all sizes fall foul of "clustering" which means they place their stop losses in the same areas, at the same time.  

For example, at or around round numbers, (e.g. USDJPY 110) just above or just below a moving average or indeed close by the same support or resistance levels everyone else is keenly watching.  

The market is aware of this behaviour and is often on the lookout for these clusters of stop losses. When they are, it's known as a stop hunt.  

But what exactly does that mean? 

Well, a big bank (a price "Maker") might see on their books that they have a cluster of orders around 1.10 on EURUSD, and then be willing to commit large sums of capital to "hunting down" that stop loss level. They do this by moving the underlying price towards it, in a selfish way, to reward themselves, rather than because of natural order flow (and they wonder why they have bad reputations!).  

As an aside, a broker such as Fusion Markets, that typically services "retail" clients, e.g. mum and dad investors, often get accused of doing the same thing, despite the fact we are a price "Taker" not a price "Maker", and have no control over the prices coming through to you, as a client.  

Think about it if the market can find these groups of stop losses and trigger them, then that's easy money for the banks and traders who have the opposing view and positions.  

Remember that in FX trading there is a winner for every loser and vice versa. A successful trader endeavour's to be on the winning side of that relationship more often than not.

A different approach to stop losses

Are we saying then that you should trade without a stop loss? No, we are not! 

But what if we took a different approach to stop loss placement? Instead of lining up to provide a free lunch for the banks, what if we placed our stop losses above our entry price rather than below it?   

Of course, that means that we'd have to risk-manage our trades in a different way.

For example, employing less leverage and taking smaller positions relative to our account size. But that is really what we should be doing anyway. And of course, we would have to monitor performance closely in a trade's early stages, as we should.  

However, if the trade we have taken is the correct one, then our position will soon be on-side, and once we have a buffer between the current price and our entry-level. Then, our stop loss can be locking in profits rather than minimising (or realisation of) our losses.  

Trailing a stop-loss behind a profitable position is something of a holy grail in trading it's often talked about, but rarely seen in the markets. By not acting like the crowd, maybe we can turn the tables on the stop hunters.  

What are you waiting for? Why not stop your losses in the way they're supposed to be stopped?