The moving average convergence divergence (MACD) indicator and the relative strength index (RSI) are two popular momentum indicators used by technical analysts and day traders. While they both provide signals to traders, they operate differently. The primary difference between lies in what each is designed to measure.

Key Takeaways

  • The MACD and RSI are both popular technical indicators that track price momentum of a stock or other security.
  • MACD is calculated by subtracting the 26-period EMA from the 12-period EMA, and triggers technical signals when it crosses above (to buy) or below (to sell) its signal line.
  • The RSI compares bullish and bearish price momentum plotted against the graph of an asset's price, where signals are considered overbought when the indicator is above 70% and oversold when the indicator is below 30%.

MACD

The MACD is primarily used to gauge the strength of stock price movement. It does this by measuring the divergence of two exponential moving averages (EMAs), commonly a 12-period EMA and a 26-period EMA. A MACD line is created by subtracting the 26-period EMA from the 12-period EMA, and a line showing a nine-period EMA of that calculation is plotted over the MACD's basic representation as a histogram. A zero line provides positive or negative values for the MACD. Essentially, greater separation between the 12-period EMA, and the 26-period EMA shows increased market momentum, up or down.

MACD Example
MACD Example.

Relative Strength Index

The RSI aims to indicate whether a market is considered to be overbought or oversold in relation to recent price levels. The RSI calculates average price gains and losses over a given period of time; the default time period is 14 periods. RSI values are plotted on a scale from 0 to 100. Values over 70 are considered indicative of a market being overbought in relation to recent price levels, and values under 30 are indicative of a market that is oversold. On a more general level, readings above 50 are interpreted as bullish, and readings below 50 are interpreted as bearish.

RSI example
RSI Example.

RSI vs. MACD

The RSI and MACD are both trend-following momentum indicators that show the relationship between two moving averages of a security’s price. The MACD is calculated by subtracting the 26-period EMA from the 12-period EMA. The result of that calculation is the MACD line. A nine-day EMA of the MACD called the "signal line," is then plotted on top of the MACD line, which can function as a trigger for buy and sell signals. Traders may buy the security when the MACD crosses above its signal line and sell, or short, the security when the MACD crosses below the signal line.

The RSI aims to indicate whether a market is considered to be overbought or oversold in relation to recent price levels. The RSI calculates average price gains and losses over a given period of time; the default time period is 14 periods with values bounded from 0 to 100.

The MACD measures the relationship between two EMAs, while the RSI measures price change in relation to recent price highs and lows. These two indicators are often used together to provide analysts a more complete technical picture of a market.

These indicators both do measure momentum in a market, but because they measure different factors, they sometimes give contrary indications. For example, the RSI may show a reading above 70 for a sustained period of time, indicating a market is overextended to the buy side in relation to recent prices, while the MACD indicates the market is still increasing in buying momentum. Either indicator may signal an upcoming trend change by showing divergence from price (price continues higher while the indicator turns lower, or vice versa).

Other Considerations

Because two indicators measure different factors, they sometimes give contrary indications. For example, the RSI may show a reading above 70 for a sustained period of time, indicating a market is overextended to the buy side in relation to recent prices, while the MACD indicates the market is still increasing in buying momentum. Either indicator may signal an upcoming trend change by showing divergence from price (price continues higher while the indicator turns lower, or vice versa).

While both are considered momentum indicators, the MACD measures the relationship between two EMAs, while the RSI measures price change in relation to recent price highs and lows. These two indicators are often used together to provide analysts a more complete technical picture of a market.