How to Trade the MACD

Moving average convergence divergence (MACD) is one of the most popular technical indicators in trading. The MACD is appreciated by traders worldwide for its simplicity and flexibility, as it can be used as a trend or momentum indicator and signal opportunities to enter and exit positions.

Learn more about MACD and some of the strategies used by traders.

Key Takeaways

  • Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD) is a trend-following momentum indicator that shows the relationship between two moving averages of a security’s price. 
  • Traders use the MACD to identify when bullish or bearish momentum is high to identify entry and exit points for trades.
  • MACD is used by technical traders in stocks, bonds, commodities, and FX markets.

MACD: An Overview

The concept behind the MACD is fairly straightforward. Essentially, it calculates the difference between an instrument's 26-day and 12-day exponential moving averages (EMA). In calculating their values, both moving averages use the closing prices of whatever period is measured.

On the MACD chart, a nine-period EMA of the MACD itself is also plotted. This line is called the signal line, which acts as a trigger for buy and sell decisions. The MACD is considered the "faster" line because the points plotted move more than the signal line, which is regarded as the "slower" line.

The MACD histogram is a visual representation of the difference between the MACD and its nine-day EMA—not highs and lows. The histogram is positive when the MACD is above its nine-day EMA and negative when the MACD is below its nine-day EMA. The point on the histogram where momentum is zero is the zero line.

If prices change rapidly, the histogram bars grow longer as the speed of the price movement—its momentum—accelerates and shrinks as price movement decelerates.

MACD chart

Trading Divergence

Divergence refers to a situation where factors move away from or are independent of others. Regarding MACD, it is a situation where price action and momentum are not acting together. For instance, divergence can indicate a period where the price makes successively lower highs, but the MACD histogram shows a succession of higher lows. In this case, the highs are moving lower, but price momentum is slowing, foreshadowing a decline that eventually follows.

By averaging up their short, the trader eventually earns a handsome profit, as the price makes a sustained reversal after the final point of divergence.

MACD Crossover Strategy

A crossover occurs when the signal and MACD line cross each other. The MACD generates a bullish signal when it moves above its own nine-day EMA and sends a sell signal (bearish) when it moves below its nine-day EMA.

MACD Crossover

MACD Zero-Cross Strategy

When the MACD crosses from below the zero line, it is considered a bullish signal. Traders generally take long positions when this occurs.

If it crosses from above the zero line, it is considered a bearish signal by traders, who then enter short positions to take advantage of falling prices and increasing downward momentum.

MACD zero-cross

In both cases, the longer the histogram bars , the stronger the signal. When there is a strong signal, it is more likely—but not guaranteed—that the price will continue in the trending direction.

Example of a MACD Trading Strategy

We'll use our zero-cross image for an example of trading the zero-cross. As trading proceeds, you observe the MACD initially crossed the zero line from below, then crossed again from above. A trader might notice the histogram bars moving down with the MACD, indicating a possible reversal and opportunity for a short trade.

When the line crossed from above, the trader could take a short position and net a profit when the prices began to climb again.

The zero-cross strategy could be used again top take a long position when the MACD crosses the zero line from below. At the point circled in out image, prices have been rising and momentum is up. The trader could take a long position at this point.

Drawbacks of MACD

Like any oscillator or indicator, the MACD has drawbacks and risks. One of the most significant risks is that a reversal signal can be a false indicator. For instance, the zero-cross image above has a point where the MACD crosses from below and back again in one trading session. If a trader entered a long position when the MACD crossed from below, they would be left with a losing stock if prices continued to fall.

MACD does not function well in sideways markets. If prices generally move to the side when they stay within a range between support and resistance. MACD tends to drift toward the zero line because there is no up or down trend—where the moving average works best.

Additionally, the MACD zero-cross is a lagging indicator because the price is generally above the previous low before the MACD crosses the line from below. This can cause you to enter a long position later than you might have been able to.

What Is the Best MACD Strategy?

There are several strategies for trading the MACD. The best depends on your preferred trading style and which one you're comfortable using.

Which Indicator Works Best With the MACD Strategy?

In general, most traders use candlestick charts and support and resistance levels with MACD.

Why Does MACD use 12 and 26?

MACD uses 12 and 26 as the default number of days because these are the standard variables most traders use. However, you can use any combination of days to calculate the MACD that works for you.

The Bottom Line

Moving average convergence divergence is one of the most-used oscillators because it has been proven to be a reliable method for identifying trend reversals and momentum. There are various strategies for trading MACD, but it's best to find one that works for you and your trading plan.

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