Scalpers seek to profit from small market movements, taking advantage of a ticker tape that never stands still. For years, this fast-fingered day-trading crowd relied on Level 2 bid/ask screens to locate buy and sell signals, reading supply and demand imbalances away from the National Best Bid and Offer (NBBO)—the bid/ask price that the average person sees. They would buy when technical conditions pushed the ask price lower than normal and sell when technical conditions pushed the bid price higher than normal, booking a profit or loss minutes later as soon as balanced conditions returned to the spread.
Today, however, that methodology works less reliably in our electronic markets for three reasons. First, the order book emptied out permanently after the 2010 flash crash because deep standing orders were targeted for destruction on that chaotic day, forcing fund managers to hold them off-market or execute them in secondary venues.
Second, high-frequency trading (HFT) now dominates intraday transactions, generating wildly fluctuating data that undermines market depth interpretation. Finally, the majority of trades now take place away from the exchanges in dark pools that don't report in real-time.
Scalpers can meet the challenge of this era with three technical indicators custom-tuned for short-term opportunities. The signals used by these real-time tools are similar to those used for longer-term market strategies, but instead, they are applied to two-minute charts. They work best when strongly trending or strongly range-bound action controls the intraday tape; they don't work so well during periods of conflict or confusion. You'll know those conditions are in place when you're getting whipsawed into losses at a greater pace than is usually present on your typical profit-and-loss curve.
- Scalpers seek to profit from small market movements, taking advantage of the constant market activity.
- Scalpers can meet the challenge of this era with three technical indicators that are custom-tuned for short-term opportunities.
- Scalping strategies work best when strongly trending or strongly range-bound action controls the intraday tape; they don't work so well during periods of conflict or confusion.
1. Moving Average Ribbon Entry Strategy
Place a 5-8-13 simple moving average (SMA) combination on the two-minute chart to identify strong trends that can be bought or sold short on counter swings, as well as to get a warning of impending trend changes that are inevitable in a typical market day. This scalp trading strategy is easy to master. The 5-8-13 ribbon will align, pointing higher or lower, during strong trends that keep prices glued to the 5- or 8-bar SMA.
Penetrations into the 13-bar SMA signal waning momentum that favors a range or reversal. The ribbon flattens out during these range swings, and price may crisscross the ribbon frequently. The scalper then watches for realignment, with ribbons turning higher or lower and spreading out, showing more space between each line. This tiny pattern triggers the buy or sell short signal.
2. Relative Strength/Weakness Exit Strategy
How does the scalper know when to take profits or cut losses? 5-3-3 Stochastics and a 13-bar, 3-standard deviation (SD) Bollinger Band used in combination with ribbon signals on two-minute charts work well in actively traded markets, like index funds, Dow components, and for other widely held issues like Apple Inc. (AAPL).
The best ribbon trades set up when Stochastics turns higher from the oversold level or lower from the overbought level. Likewise, an immediate exit is required when the indicator crosses and rolls against your position after a profitable thrust.
You can time that exit more precisely by watching band interaction with price. Take profit into band penetrations because they predict that the trend will slow or reverse; scalping strategies can't afford to stick around through retracements of any sort. Also, take a timely exit if a price thrust fails to reach the band but Stochastics rolls over, which tells you to get out.
Once you're comfortable with the workflow and interaction between technical elements, feel free to adjust standard deviation higher to 4SD or lower to 2SD to account for daily changes in volatility. Better yet, superimpose the additional bands over your current chart so that you get a broader variety of signals.
3. Multiple Chart Scalping
Finally, pull up a 15-minute chart with no indicators to keep track of background conditions that may affect your intraday performance. Add three lines: one for the opening print and two for the high and low of the trading range that set up in the first 45 to 90 minutes of the session. Watch for price action at those levels because they will also set up larger-scale two-minute buy or sell signals.
In fact, you'll find that your greatest profits during the trading day come when scalps align with support and resistance levels on the 15-minute, 60-minute, or daily charts.
What Is Scalping in the Stock Market?
Scalping is a short-term trading strategy that seeks to profit from small price movements in stocks throughout the day. Scalpers may be high-frequency traders who enter and exit several trades within a matter of minutes or even seconds, trying to capitalize on fleeting market inefficiencies, liquidity imbalances, and volatility. The goal of scalping is to accumulate a series of small gains that can add up to a significant profit over time.
Can Anybody with a Brokerage Account Engage in Scalping?
While anyone can attempt scalping, it is a trading strategy that requires a specific skill set, discipline, and experience. Successful scalpers will use specialized trading tools and often employ algorithms to identify and automate trades. As such, it is not recommended for beginners, as the fast-paced nature of scalping can lead to significant losses for those who lack the necessary knowledge and emotional control. Additionally, scalping demands constant attention to the market and may not suit traders with limited time or those who prefer a more passive approach. Finally, since scalping involves many intraday trades, it can rack up trading fees and taxable events.
Is Scalping Legal?
Yes, scalping involves short-term trading and is completely legal and allowed by exchanges and brokerages.
How Can Scalpers Limit their Risk Exposure?
Since scalping involves very short holding periods, the main risk is that the price of a stock will move against a trade in the very short term. To minimize this risk, scalpers often set tight stop-loss orders to exit a trade quickly if it goes against them.
The Bottom Line
Scalpers can no longer trust real-time market depth analysis to get the buy and sell signals they need to book multiple small profits in a typical trading day. Fortunately, they can adapt to the modern electronic environment and use the technical indicators reviewed above that are custom-tuned to very small time frames.