By Cory Janssen, Chad Langager and Casey Murphy
Technical analysis and fundamental analysis are the two main schools of thought in the financial markets. As we've mentioned, technical analysis looks at the price movement of a security and uses this data to predict its future price movements. Fundamental analysis, on the other hand, looks at economic factors, known as fundamentals. Let's get into the details of how these two approaches differ, the criticisms against technical analysis and how technical and fundamental analysis can be used together to analyze securities.
Charts vs. Financial Statements
At the most basic level, a technical analyst approaches a security from the charts, while a fundamental analyst starts with the financial statements. (For further reading, see Introduction To Fundamental Analysis and Advanced Financial Statement Analysis.)
By looking at the balance sheet, cash flow statement and income statement, a fundamental analyst tries to determine a company's value. In financial terms, an analyst attempts to measure a company's intrinsic value. In this approach, investment decisions are fairly easy to make - if the price of a stock trades below its intrinsic value, it's a good investment. Although this is an oversimplification (fundamental analysis goes beyond just the financial statements) for the purposes of this tutorial, this simple tenet holds true.
Technical traders, on the other hand, believe there is no reason to analyze a company's fundamentals because these are all accounted for in the stock's price. Technicians believe that all the information they need about a stock can be found in its charts.
Fundamental analysis takes a relatively long-term approach to analyzing the market compared to technical analysis. While technical analysis can be used on a timeframe of weeks, days or even minutes, fundamental analysis often looks at data over a number of years.
The different timeframes that these two approaches use is a result of the nature of the investing style to which they each adhere. It can take a long time for a company's value to be reflected in the market, so when a fundamental analyst estimates intrinsic value, a gain is not realized until the stock's market price rises to its "correct" value. This type of investing is called value investing and assumes that the short-term market is wrong, but that the price of a particular stock will correct itself over the long run. This "long run" can represent a timeframe of as long as several years, in some cases. (For more insight, read Warren Buffett: How He Does It and What Is Warren Buffett's Investing Style?)
Furthermore, the numbers that a fundamentalist analyzes are only released over long periods of time. Financial statements are filed quarterly and changes in earnings per share don't emerge on a daily basis like price and volume information. Also remember that fundamentals are the actual characteristics of a business. New management can't implement sweeping changes overnight and it takes time to create new products, marketing campaigns, supply chains, etc. Part of the reason that fundamental analysts use a long-term timeframe, therefore, is because the data they use to analyze a stock is generated much more slowly than the price and volume data used by technical analysts.
Trading Versus Investing
Not only is technical analysis more short term in nature than fundamental analysis, but the goals of a purchase (or sale) of a stock are usually different for each approach. In general, technical analysis is used for a trade, whereas fundamental analysis is used to make an investment. Investors buy assets they believe can increase in value, while traders buy assets they believe they can sell to somebody else at a greater price. The line between a trade and an investment can be blurry, but it does characterize a difference between the two schools.
Some critics see technical analysis as a form of black magic. Don't be surprised to see them question the validity of the discipline to the point where they mock its supporters. In fact, technical analysis has only recently begun to enjoy some mainstream credibility. While most analysts on Wall Street focus on the fundamental side, just about any major brokerage now employs technical analysts as well.
Much of the criticism of technical analysis has its roots in academic theory - specifically the efficient market hypothesis (EMH). This theory says that the market's price is always the correct one - any past trading information is already reflected in the price of the stock and, therefore, any analysis to find undervalued securities is useless.
There are three versions of EMH. In the first, called weak form efficiency, all past price information is already included in the current price. According to weak form efficiency, technical analysis can't predict future movements because all past information has already been accounted for and, therefore, analyzing the stock's past price movements will provide no insight into its future movements. In the second, semi-strong form efficiency, fundamental analysis is also claimed to be of little use in finding investment opportunities. The third is strong form efficiency, which states that all information in the market is accounted for in a stock's price and neither technical nor fundamental analysis can provide investors with an edge. The vast majority of academics believe in at least the weak version of EMH, therefore, from their point of view, if technical analysis works, market efficiency will be called into question. (For more insight, read What Is Market Efficiency? and Working Through The Efficient Market Hypothesis.)
There is no right answer as to who is correct. There are arguments to be made on both sides and, therefore, it's up to you to do the homework and determine your own philosophy.
Can They Co-Exist?
Although technical analysis and fundamental analysis are seen by many as polar opposites - the oil and water of investing - many market participants have experienced great success by combining the two. For example, some fundamental analysts use technical analysis techniques to figure out the best time to enter into an undervalued security. Oftentimes, this situation occurs when the security is severely oversold. By timing entry into a security, the gains on the investment can be greatly improved.
Alternatively, some technical traders might look at fundamentals to add strength to a technical signal. For example, if a sell signal is given through technical patterns and indicators, a technical trader might look to reaffirm his or her decision by looking at some key fundamental data. Oftentimes, having both the fundamentals and technicals on your side can provide the best-case scenario for a trade.
While mixing some of the components of technical and fundamental analysis is not well received by the most devoted groups in each school, there are certainly benefits to at least understanding both schools of thought.
In the following sections, we'll take a more detailed look at technical analysis.
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