What Is Swing Trading? - dummies

By Omar Bassal

Swing trading is the art and science of profiting from securities’ short-term price movements spanning a few days to a few weeks. Swing traders can be individuals or institutions. They’re rarely 100 percent invested in the market at any time. Rather, they wait for low-risk opportunities and attempt to take the lion’s share of a significant move.

Generally, large institutional investors (think of a pension plan or a sovereign wealth fund) can’t swing trade because their size prohibits them from easily moving into and out of a position. Smaller traders, however, can profit from these short-term movements because their size allows them easier entry and exit from liquid positions.

swing trader
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Swing trading is different from day trading or buy-and-hold investing. Those types of investors approach the markets differently, trade at different frequencies, and pay attention to different data sources. You must understand these differences so you don’t focus on aspects that are only relevant to long-term investors.

The differences between swing trading and buy-and-hold investing

If you’re a buy-and-hold investor in the mold of Warren Buffett, you care little for price swings. Over the long term, equity indexes have tended to rise across countries. Therefore, you prefer to buy quality businesses at discounts to their intrinsic value (also known as their true worth). You pore over financial statements and read the notes to the financial statements. You read through earnings call transcripts (the management presentations given after quarterly earnings results). Short-term price movements are merely opportunities to pick up securities (or exit them) at prices not reflective of their true value. In fact, buy-and-hold investors tend to have a portfolio turnover rate (the rate at which their entire portfolio is bought and sold in a year) below 25 percent — meaning they turn over their portfolio once very four years.

Buy-and-hold investing is an admirable practice, and many investors should follow this approach, because it’s not as time-intensive as swing trading and not as difficult (in my opinion). But if you have the work ethic, discipline, and interest in swing trading, you can take advantage of its opportunities to achieve the following:

  • Generate an income stream: Buy-and-hold investors are generally concerned with wealth preservation and growth. They don’t invest for current income because they sometimes have to wait a long time for an idea to prove correct. Swing trading, on the other hand, can lead to current income.
  • Time your buys and sells and hold a basket of positions to diversify and manage risk: The majority of people aren’t interested in closely following their finances and are best served by investing in a basket of domestic and international mutual funds covering stocks, commodities, and other asset classes. Swing traders can hold a few securities across asset classes or sectors and generate higher profits than those who invest passively.
  • Achieve lower drawdowns than buy-and-hold investing: Sometimes markets become overvalued. Just because a market is expensive doesn’t mean it will tank. Markets often go from being overvalued to even more overvalued. This inevitably sets the stage for a major market crash (think 2000 or 2008). During market crashes, buy-and-hold investors can experience drawdowns of 50 percent or more, meaning a decline in portfolio value from peak to trough. Swing traders, on the other hand, are only in the market when there is opportunity. If the trend is down, swing traders can sit on the sidelines with their cash in tact until sunny days return.

The differences between swing trading and day trading

Opposite the buy-and-hold investor on the trading continuum is the day trader. Day traders rarely hold positions overnight. Doing so exposes them to the risk of a gap up or down in a security’s price the following day that could wipe out a large part of their account. Instead, they monitor price movements on a minute-by-minute basis and time entries and exits that span hours.

Day traders have the advantage of riding security price movements that can be quite volatile. This requires time-intensive devotion on their part. Near-term price movements can be driven by a major seller or buyer in the market and not by a company’s fundamentals. Hence, day traders concern themselves with investor psychology and news flow more than they do with fundamental data. They’re tracking the noise of the market — they want to know whether the noise is getting louder or quieter.

But it’s not all cake and tea for day traders. They trade so often they rack up major commission charges, which makes it that much more difficult to beat the overall market. A $5,000 profit generated from hundreds of trades may net a day trader a significantly reduced amount after commissions and taxes are taken out. This doesn’t include additional costs the day trader must sustain to support his or her activities.

Swing traders also face stiff commissions (versus the buy-and-hold investor), but nothing as severe as the day trader. Because price movements span several days to several weeks, a company’s fundamentals can come into play to a larger degree than they do for the day trader (day-to-day movements are due less to fundamentals and more to short-term supply and demand of shares). Also, the swing trader can generate higher potential profits on single trades because the holding period is longer than the day trader’s holding period.