What is a Reversal?

A reversal is a change in the price direction of an asset. A reversal can occur to the upside or downside. Following an uptrend, a reversal would be to the downside. Following a downtrend, a reversal would be to the upside. Reversals are based on overall price direction and are not typically based on one or two periods/bars on a chart. Certain indicators, such a moving average or trendlines, may help in isolating trends as well as spotting reversals.

Key Takeaways

  • A reversal shows that the price direction of an asset has changed, from going up to going down, or from going down to going up.
  • Traders try to get out of positions that are aligned with the trend prior to a reversal, or they will get out once they see the reversal underway.
  • Reversals typically refer to large price changes, where the trend changes direction. Small counter-moves against the trend are called pullbacks or consolidations.
  • When it starts to occur, a reversal isn't distinguishable from a pullback. A reversal keeps going and forms a new trend, while a pullback ends and then the price starts moving back in the trending direction.

What Does a Reversal Tell You?

Reversals often occur in intraday trading and happen rather quickly, but they also occur over days, weeks, and years. Reversals occur on different time frames which are relevant to different traders. An intraday reversal on a five-minute chart doesn't matter to a long-term investor who is watching for a reversal on daily or weekly charts. Yet, the five-minute reversal is very important to a day trader.

An uptrend, which is a series of higher swing highs and higher lows, reverses into a downtrend by changing to a series of lower highs and lower lows. A downtrend, which is a series of lower highs and lower lows, reverses into an uptrend by changing to a series of higher highs and higher lows.

Trends and reversals can be identified based on price action alone, as described above, or other traders prefer the use of indicators. Moving averages may aid in spotting both the trend and reversals. If the price is above a rising moving average then the trend is up, but when the price drops below the moving average that could signal a potential price reversal.

Trendlines are also used to spot reversals. Since an uptrend makes higher lows, a trendline can be drawn along those higher lows. When the price drops below the trendline, that could indicate a trend reversal.

If reversals were easy to spot, and to differentiate from noise or brief pullbacks, trading would be easy. But it isn't. Whether using price action or indicators, many false signals occur and sometimes reversals happen so quickly that traders aren't able to act quickly enough to avoid a large loss.

Example of How to Use a Reversal

trend reversal on price chart using price action and trendlines
Trend Reversal on Price Chart. Investopedia 

The chart shows an uptrend moving with a channel, making overall higher highs and higher lows. The price first breaks out of the channel and below the trendline, signaling a possible trend change. The price then also makes a lower low, dropping below the prior low within the channel. This further confirms the reversal to the downside.

The price then continues lower, making lower lows and lower highs. A reversal to the upside won't occur until the price makes a higher high and higher low. A move above the descending trendline, though, could issue an early warning sign of a reversal.

Referring to the rising channel, the example also highlights the subjectivity of trend analysis and reversals. Several times within the channel the price makes a lower low relative to a prior swing, and yet the overall trajectory remained up.

Difference Between a Reversal and a Pullback

A reversal is a trend change in the price of an asset. A pullback is a counter-move within a trend that doesn't reverse the trend. An uptrend is created by higher swing highs and higher swing lows. Pullbacks create the higher lows. Therefore, a reversal of the uptrend doesn't occur until the price makes a lower low on the time frame the trader is watching. Reversals always start as potential pullbacks. Which one it will ultimately turn out to be is unknown when it starts.

Limitations In Using Reversals

Reversals are a fact of life in the financial markets. Prices always reverse at some point and will have multiple upside and downside reversals over time. Ignoring reversals may result in taking more risk than anticipated. For example, a trader believes that a stock which has moved from $4 to $5 is well positioned to become much more valuable. They rode the trend higher, but now the stock is dropping to $4, $3, then $2. Reversal signs were likely evident well before the stock reached $2. Likely they were visible at before the price reached $4. Therefore, by watching for reversals the trader could have locked in profit or kept themselves out of a now losing position.

When a reversal starts, it isn't clear whether it is a reversal or a pullback. Once it is evident it is a reversal, the price may have already moved a significant distance, resulting in a sizable loss or profit erosion for the trader. For this reason, trend traders often exit while the price is still moving in their direction. That way they don't need to worry about whether the counter-trend move is a pullback or reversal.

False signals are also a reality. A reversal may occur using an indicator or price action, but then the price immediately resumes to move in the prior trending direction again.