Volume shows crowd sentiment as price bars carve out patterns that predict bullish or bearish outcome. Volume supporting price action creates convergence, adding reliability to directional signals, while opposing action creates divergence, warning that market forces are in conflict, with one side eventually taking control. Volume interpreted through an accumulation-distribution indicator clarifies this process, giving reliable signals that influence position choice and trade management. (For more, see: How To Use Volume To Improve Your Trading).

On-Balance Volume (OBV), developed by Joseph Granville in the 1960s, packs enormous use into a simple accumulation-distribution tool that tallies up and down volume, adding or subtracting the result in a continuous sub-total. The formula generates a smooth indicator line that carves out highs, lows and trendlines similar to price bars. Comparing relative action between price bars and OBV generates more actionable signals than the green or red volume histograms commonly found at the bottom of price charts. (To learn more, read: What's the difference between on-balance volume (OBV) and accumulation/distribution?)

OBV Feedback System

OBV gives the most reliable feedback around tests of major highs and lows, making it a perfect tool to measure the potential for breakouts and breakdowns. It’s a simple process, comparing the indicator’s progress to price action and noting convergence or divergence relationships. This gives way to many key predictions:

  • OBV hits new high while price tests resistance: bullish divergence, predicting price will break resistance and surge higher, playing catch-up.
  • Price hits new high while OBV grinds at or below the last resistance level: bearish divergence, predicting the rally will stall or reverse.
  • OBV hits new low while price tests support: bearish divergence, predicting price will break support and surge lower, playing catch up.
  • Price hits new low while OBV grinds at or above the last support level: bullish divergence, predicting the sell-off will stall or reverse.
  • OBV matches price action, higher or lower: bullish or bearish convergence, depending on direction.

Limit OBV analysis to major testing zones on the daily chart. It’s natural for conflicting relationships between price and volume to develop during the course of a sideways market, reducing the indicator’s reliability between contested levels. It also doesn’t scale well, with intraday and weekly OBV failing to produce consistently reliable signals. As a result, limiting analysis to tests at levels in place for months raises odds for the most benefit to your bottom line. (For related reading, see: On-Balance Volume: The Way To Smart Money).

Two Examples

Let’s look two common OBV scenarios:

CME Group (CME) rallies to 80 in June (1), posting an OBV high swing. It pulls back and exceeds that high in November but OBV fails to reach its prior high (2), signaling a bearish divergence. The rally fails, giving way to a sell-off that reaches an 11-month low in April. The stock then enters an accumulation phase, with OBV and price ticking higher in unison for 7 months. OBV lifts to a multiyear high in September (3) while price is still trading under the prior year’s high, triggering a bullish divergence that predicts the strong December breakout.

Celgene (CELG) tops out in early 2014 just below 90 (1) and enters a correction that shows extensive distribution. It starts to recover in April, gaining ground in a steady uptick that lifts price into the previous high in June while OBV fails to reach that level. The stock grinds sideways for two months in an symmetrical triangle and breaks out (2), lifting toward 100 but OBV continues to lag, grinding well below the high posted earlier in the year. This divergence forces the uptrend to stall and undercut the breakout level, shaking out hopeful buyers while OBV makes a slow and steady recovery, finally joining price at a new high in November (3).

Stocks can easily break out or break down when OBV lags price behavior but the divergent action waves a red flag that predicts whipsaws until price turns to meet OBV or OBV turns to meet price. This testing behavior tracks the second phase of the action/reaction resolution cycle outlined in Master A Breakout With Three Step Market Mechanics. That’s why traders should look for OBV to match lead price before they take risk on new breakout or breakdown positions.

The Bottom Line

On-Balance Volume shows the intent of market players, often before price action generates a buy or sell signal. Use it as an entry filter whenever a security is testing a major support or resistance level.

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