On March 28th, 2009 I gave a lecture to the Northwest CCI Traders Club on Market Profile. It was my aim to introduce the concept of using market-generated information. This is a concept quite the opposite of what other traders in this group, as well as most traders in general, use to make trading decisions. I’ve been involved in trading for a very long time; in fact I passed my Series 7 exam in 1974 and worked for major Wall Street brokerage firms, as well as working as a CTA in the early 1980s. From the length of time I’ve been involved in the markets I’ve been able to see just about every possible trading methodology out there. The one constant that I see, whether among brokers or wannabe traders include the following traits:
1 – The constant search for someone to give them a trading methodology or trading signals.
Currently this seems to take the form of finding the current hot chat room that has the answers. In the past it was a market letter or advisory service, or someone promising the secret to trading by selling an expensive trading “school.” It is natural to want to believe that someone out there holds the secret to the markets, and that they want to give away or sell that knowledge. It is also a comfort to want to belong to a larger group of like-minded traders. Seeking this type of comfort almost always works against trading success. Expecting someone else to provide the answer is unrealistic. Chat room moderators present themselves as expert and experienced traders. The truth is quite the opposite. Very few have been successful as traders. Some may indeed mean well, but most just want to get into your wallet one way or the other.
2 – Holding on to the belief that a certain indicator or methodology will produce profits even after rigorous objective backtesting proves that profitability is an illusion. It is amazing to see traders that are invested in a particular methodology stubbornly adhere to the claims of great profits if only they just have a little more screen time or take additional classes. It is difficult to give up on an idea when much time and money have already been invested. A key part of becoming a successful trader is knowing when to cut a loss short. No amount of screen time will create a winning approach from an unsound methodology.
3 – Looking outside of market generated information for the answer. I see many traders turning to approaches to timing the market that come from information that has nothing to do with the markets. Many believers of Gann, Elliot, and Fibonacci and those who turn to the moon and tides fall into this category. These traders must know at some level that chat rooms and indicators are not working for them. Instead of turning toward the market, they turn away and try to find a correlation between price action and unrelated causes. This type of approach is as old as there are markets, and has never, ever worked. And it never will, but traders will keep falling for the false claims until common sense returns, or their money runs out.
4 – Forming a belief that a market must reach a certain objective or move in a certain direction. This is actually a result of the first three items. Often an opinion will be formed based on some old tired chart pattern or indicator set-up, and the trader forms the opinion that a certain result must occur. Or it could be an Elliot wave count, or fibonacci retracement level with great confluence of support from past chart points. The market doesn’t really care about any of this. Markets look forward to discount the future. The market can and will do what it wants to do, regardless of the position of the moon, a CCI divergence, or what George Soros says will happen next week. These patterns and formations are there for all to see. The gurus and forecasts on CNBC are all over the internet and known by all. What all can see cannot create an edge. The trader cannot tell a market what it must do. The job of the trader is to listen to what the market intends to do.
The antidote to the conditions above, in my opinion, is to try to understand and to interpret what the market is trying to communicate. And the best way to achieve this is to use the information the market is generating, rather than relying on derivative indicators, useless opinions, or non-market related events.
Refer to the graphic above courtesy of Linda Raschke. The vast majority of traders focus only on #3 – Indicators and Oscillators. Indicators and oscillators can be useful tools, but they cannot predict where a market will go, at least not with enough consistency to generate trading profits over time.
When I first purchased a PC in the early 1980’s, I purchased Compu-Trac software and a huge database of commodity and stock index data. I tested every indicator I could get my hands on, and every trading system that could be programmed into the software. Nothing worked. I could not find any entry/exit rules and indicator combinations that would produce enough profit to overcome trading costs. I tested systems that were being sold for very high prices, systems that were under management at major brokerage firms, systems of my own development, and anything else I could get my hands on. I sought the advice of gurus. I went to trading conference after trading conference to get ideas. I finally met George Lane, the creator of the stochastic indicator, at one of the trading conferences. I talked with him and decided to fly to Chicago to study with him. At the end of the study he said that price was the most important consideration. Volume followed. The indicator, which we had been studying for a week, was last and least in importance, and was only used for confirmation.
This at least had me consider viewing indicators from a more realistic perspective. It is easy to attach greater significance to indicators than they deserve. Most indicators have relatively simple code and can only do, or indicate, so much. It is unrealistic to think that a simple formula derived from price can actually lead the function from which it is derived. It is silly to think it can. It is also a mathematical impossibility. As much as I’ve tried to convince other traders of this, I get disbelief and an argument to the contrary. It is difficult to argue a mathematical fact to those who believe in the tooth fairy. Now I just smile and hope they don’t give away all their money to those who know better. To be fair this concept of leading indicators had to have a basis for its origin. I believe that many think certain indicators can lead because at times, when the market is in a very cyclical mode, and if an indicator such as a stochastic has the correct input parameter, it can turn ahead of price. But it is important to remember that the indicator is not leading price. It is derived from price. It is to assume a lot that the market is trading in a nearly perfect sine wave, and that the indicator happens to have the perfect lookback period to track and turn up at its half cycle to give the appearance of leading. If the market were cyclically as stable as a light wave, then one could use an indicator with great success. In the real world, in real markets, this approach is doomed to failure. To believe otherwise is to believe in fantasy. Markets are constantly changing. They do not represent a stable sine wave. The cycles are constantly changing, and at times disappearing as trends develop. With that being said, indicators can still be a useful tool just like a hammer can be useful if you are building a house. But a hammer cannot build a house by itself, and a hammer isn’t of much use in laying the foundation.
If one were to accept some of the concepts as stated above, then what is the best method to gain insight into what the actual market is trying to communicate? Most traders would probably agree that volume might have some importance in the overall picture of market structure. But how does one look at volume? A bar chart will show the total volume of trading during the trading session. It can be useful to know if overall volume is increasing or declining. But how does one know what the volume represents? Is it just a large fund buying or selling for some reason unrelated to the developing structure? Is it shorts covering or new longs entering? Is it earnings related? Is it arb activity in the pits or new money entering long term positions? One can look at intra-day price bars such as on a five-minute chart, with volume bars under the prices. But every day will show a similar pattern of heavy volume at the beginning and end of each day, with a dip in the middle, drawing a pattern similar to the shape of a bowl. How does this help?
Peter Stiedlmayer developed a method of representing the distribution of volume during the trading day. He attempted to create a visual representation of the thought process of traders in the trading pits. Instead of using actual trade volume, he displayed a representation of volume as price over time. This is an important distinction. As price movement is displayed over time, a bell curve develops, and the areas of price acceptance and price rejection are readily apparent. Areas of market balance and imbalance become clearly visible. Changes in the direction of value provide more insight than changes in the closing price.
Refer to the graphic above. The yellow bars are 30-minute price bars of the S&P 500 ETF, or SPY. Each half-hour period is assigned a letter. As each period is completed, the next 30-minute period is assigned the next letter in the alphabet. Some vendors start each trading instrument with the letter “A” while some vendors fix each half-hour increment to the same letter. In the latter case, if a market started the trading day later, such as the grains, the first time period would be the letter “C.” I doesn’t matter which method is used as long as the letters increment. Next, if you collapse all the price bars to the left, you would have the bell curve graphic as shown on the left side of the chart. You can see that the prices that were revisited the most during the day will have the thickest part of the bell curve, and those that were spikes at higher and lower levels were represented by thin rows of letters. The purple line to the left of the graphic represents where approximately 70% of the volume took place. In Market Profile terminology, it is called the value area. This is close to where one standard deviation of the activity took place. The thicker dot in the middle of the purple line is called the point of control. This is the closest point to the middle of the value area where the most activity took place. The blue row of letters is the opening price, and the red row is the closing price. The first two time periods, in this case A and B, are referred to as the initial balance. Different vendors will display these concepts in slightly different ways, but all market profile graphics will contain these basic elements. Some vendors will display an actual count of the letters above and below the point of control. I prefer to keep my profiles as lean as possible. Scaling can be changed to allow the entire group of profiles to display within the size of the chart. Obviously each letter cannot represent a one-penny price change on a high-priced stock trading in one-cent increments, or you would need a monitor ten feet tall to encompass the complete profile. Changing scale does little to alter the use of the profile, although some timing sensitivity can be lost if the resolution is set with too large a price increment.
Above is another graphic explaining the concept of price over time with the resulting standard deviation bell curve. Graphic courtesy of Markets in Profile.
It might be helpful to think of the developing bell curve in terms of an auction, which is really what the market is. Picture an auction for a rare automobile with hundreds of bidders representing volume. Actual volume in this illustration would actually be one, as there is only one car being sold, but for the sake of argument, visualize volume being the number of bidders. If the auctioneer starts the bidding at $20,000 for the rare car, every hand would go up. Everyone in that room would be willing to purchase the car at that price, which everyone would believe to be far below value. As the price increases, at some point some of the hands go down. There is less volume at the higher prices, as some of the bidders perceive price is getting ahead of value. As price continues to climbs, more and more bidders drop out. Therefore, the high prices begin to shut off activity. At a certain price the transaction is complete with the seller responding to the high price by selling the car, with the buyer paying higher than anyone else was willing to pay. Value was probably established at some point in the middle of the bell curve, but the winning bidder had to pay far over what the auction determined to be fair value. If the auctioneer had suddenly put a price far too high, all activity would have shut off and prices would have had to come back down in order to facilitate the trade. Of course, in stock and commodity markets the trade is more two sided than a traditional auction, but the concept of the markets being an auction is still important to keep in mind.
Stiedlmayer created categories for various types of trading days. It is often the case where a particular trading day won’t match a particular category precisely. There is often overlap between various day structures. But it is important to try to understand what type of structure is developing and what the implications are of each.
Please click on the thumbnail to the left to blow up the chart. (Note: chart will open in separate window so can be arrange by the side of this text.) The first and most basic day structure is the Normal Day. It is characterized by a wide-ranging initial balance, or first two time periods of the day. It is thought that the initial balance was the pit locals trying to establish value for the day. On a normal day the bell curve will develop generally within the range of the initial balance, with little outside influence to tip the market much beyond the initial balance. When a market extends beyond the established range development up to that point in the day, it is called range extension. On a normal day there is often limited range extension, that is the market may extend beyond the initial balance by a small amount, and then return back into the value area. Some days will show little or no range extension. In current markets that often have around-the-clock trading with much of the trading activity from computer terminals rather than in a trading pit, some concepts seem to require some updating. However, the trading implications of these concepts, even if not precisely accurate in the current market, still seem to be valid. I wide range in the first hour of the day session still seems to imply a normal day.
If you click on the thumbnail to the right you’ll see another example of a normal day. You can see a wide range in the A and B periods. There was a small range extension in the D period, but prices quickly returned back into the value area. The bell curve formed with a skew to the lower part of the range. The implication of value developing lower might make the trader watch out for weakness the following day, which is exactly what happened in the case. One subtle but important distinction in that last section are the words “watch out for.” Notice I did not say “predict.” If you trade markets long enough you will become disenchanted with any sort of predictions. The Market Profile does not predict. Rather, it communicates intention. One must be open to trying to interpret the clues for possible scenarios. A prediction implies a scenario where the traders is telling the market what it must do, rather than listening to the market and following what it is telling the trader what it is trying to do. This might seem like a trivial point, but it is a very important point and key to successfully using the Market Profile.
The thumbnail on the left (please click to enlarge) shows the next day structure. It is called a normal variation day. This day structure is characterized by a still wide, but somewhat smaller initial balance. In this case the initial balance represent closer to half the finished profile, with range extension early enough in the day to create a fairly normal bell curve. When watching this day structure develop, it is not known that the day will result in a normal variation day until it is well into development. But there are some clues. If you notice the open in the A period. It is well below the value area of the previous day and prices quickly rejected those lower prices. The range of the A period and subsequent B period was fairly wide, however there was little rotation and development, as prices were quick to reject the lower prices and prices started to build value in the range of the previous day value area. When range extension occurred in the D period prices quickly moved to the upper range of the previous value area and began rotating, thus building a value area encompassing the initial balance as well as later time periods. In fact in this case the value area was built without any of the prices from A period. The rejection of the lower prices and the building of value higher in the day structure and slightly higher than the previous day value area had implications for continuation higher the next day. Again, not a prediction of higher prices, but a reason to be watching for continuation.
The graphic to the right, when you enlarge it will show the next day structure. This appears similar, at first glance, to the normal day structure. However, there are differences that make this a neutral day. The main difference is that the initial balance is somewhat smaller, similar to the normal-variation day. However, the range extension does not extend far enough to allow development of the bell curve above or below the initial balance. Instead, prices return into the initial balance, and most often will try a range extension on the opposite end of the developing structure. Again prices will fail to extend far enough to allow rotation to change the developing value area. Thus, a normal shaped bell curve begins to develop in the middle of the range, with only moderate range extension on either side. This example is quite symmetrical. No two profiles are the same, so there will always be some variations and possibly overlap with other types of day structures. Another characteristic of the neutral day is the close proximity of the open and the close. A candlestick chart would often show a doji, perhaps with similar implications depending on where the doji occurred within the price trend. However the market profile graphic contain much more useful information than the candlestick. One more important characteristic of the neutral-day is that quite often the value area will overlap with the previous day. In this example the value area of the following day also overlapped, which would not have been apparent by looking at a price bar. As the name would suggest, there is little forward price implication from the neutral day.
The chart to the left shows the next day structure. It is the non-trend day. This is characterized by a narrow range day with a fat profile. There seems to be random rotation with little price movement on either side of the profile, thus developing a short and fat profile. These days can occur prior to a fed announce, prior to long weekends or holidays, or at market exhaustion points. Most traders will simply complain that the market is choppy and untradable on these days. They will often look for excuses to leave the market alone and focus on something else. This is often a big mistake. On non-trend days the Market Profile trader, in other words, the aware and astute trader, should be on the lookout for clues and ready for a breakout. It is when the market is making a narrow range that a large range, and possibly trend day, will occur in the next day or two. If you study enough charts it will become evident that small range days often precede large range days, sometimes with major trends following. And conversely, large range days often exhaust the buying or selling power, and smaller range days are seen the next day. Often the direction of the breakout of the non-trend day is difficult to anticipate. However, since a range expansion is likely, it is best to be ready with a plan for when the breakout occurs, which is often the very next day.
The next day structure is the trend day. A trend day will usually begin with a small initial balance, much the same in appearance to the non-trend day. However, early in the day structure range extension occurs. This range extension does not allow a value area to develop in the initial balance, and the range extension continues throughout the day. There are often periods of single prints on the profile. Most important, there is very little rotation from time period to time period. In other words, each half-hour segment drive prices further in the direction of the trend. Sometimes one of the time segments will have a bit of rotation in the opposite direction, but price usually will resume the trend. The range of a trend day is wide and the profile, absent rotation, is thin. Obviously the open will occur at one end of the trend day, and the close will be near the opposite end. Often a bar on a candle or traditional bar chart will appear to resemble a trend day, but often these days, when viewed with the Market Profile, will actually not be a true trend day. An example would be a day that rotates back and forth all morning, developing a fat profile, and then some news enters the market late in the day extending the range. This type of day would have a different implication than a true trend day.
It is easy to spot a trend after the fact. But during the early stages of development, it is often difficult to determine whether the developing structure is that of a trend day or a non-trend day. A non-trend day wills often have range extension, with what might look like the start of a trend day, but prices fail to extend and return back into the initial balance. If enough rotation occurs and the profile begins to become wide, especially with small range extensions on either side, a non-trend day is usually forming. But one clue to anticipate the greater likelihood of a developing trend day is to look at the prior days. If range has been contracting, and the prior day is a neutral day, or even a non-trend day, range expansion is a likely consequence. Range extension following such contraction should be monitored closely. The market may have been in balance, but it is possible new information is causing the balance to be upset. The market will then drive to a new price level to facilitate trade. That drive to a new price level can often be persistent, thus causing the one time frame price movement, and the long, thin profile.
On the other hand, if a narrow initial balance begins to form after a large trend day, the power behind the move may have exhausted or overshot. The developing price structure could be one of pause and regaining balance. In that case a non-trend or neutral day could develop. The are no specific or mechanical rules to follow. There is an art to trading and much study and experience should improve ones ability to judge the developing day structure.
A variation on the trend day is the double distribution trend day. This day starts off much like a trend day, however there begins to be rotation with a bell curve beginning to develop during much of the day. It appears that more of a normal variation day will result. But then new information enters the market and range extension occurs and drives prices to a new area. At some point the move is shut off, usually overshooting, and then another bell curve begins to develop. The resulting profile will have two areas of price rotation, which are usually separated by an area of single prints. These days can often occur on Fed days, or days where a surprise announce or event occurs. The market goes from balance, to imbalance as the news drive the market to a new level, and then back to some sort of balance as the news is digested.
Another important market profile concept is to define the type of buying or selling in relation to the previous value area. This is especially important when trying to position a trade in the early part of the trading session. If a market opens above the previously established value area, buyers are said to be initiating buying. They are taking charge and trying to propel prices to a higher level. Those selling to the initiating buyers or said to be responsive sellers. In other words, they are responding to higher prices. And conversely, if a market opens below the previously established value area, the sellers are taking charge and the activity is called initiating selling. There must be buyers to take the other side of the trade, and that activity is called responsive buying. Both scenarios are illustrated in the slide to the right, that is if you click the thumbnail to enlarge.
An important point to keep in mind, and is apparent on most profiles, is the concept of price rejection at the extremes. On both ends of the middle two profiles are areas of single prints. On the profile to the left showing responsive selling, it is clear that prices in A period rejected the attempt to move higher. Buying activity was shut off, and the responsive sellers took the lead. This area of single prints at the top of the profile is called a selling tail. Candlestick people might call this an upthust. It means the same. It has bearish implications. On the same profile, but later in the session, there was a small area of single prints in the N period. Prices overshot just a bit to the downside, with prices closing just a bit up from the lows. This would normally be called a buying tail, however in strict Market Profile terms, a buying tail cannot happen on the last time period of the day. Had those single prints occurred during M period, those prints would have been a buying tail. You can see an example of this in the profile to the right where initiating selling occurred with a buying tail in M period. Price, in this case, drove to a level low enough to shut off selling and attract some responsive buyers, thus creating the buying tail, confirmed by subsequent prints in the next time period.
Along the same lines as buying and selling tails is the open drive. Often when a market opens, price will make a large range, directional move in the first time period. You can see on the chart to the left that A period opened with a gap up, and price quickly shut off any further buying activity, and responsive sellers took charge right from the open to drive prices back into the previous value area. The open drive can be either responsive or initiating. It seems more examples are responsive, as prices often overshoot on the open from overnight news, and then quickly go the other way. It seems with 24 hours trading that any news causing gaps would be handled by the constant trading activity rather than pent-up demand from the market opening after being closed when the news was announced. However, many of the concepts of Market Profile that were formulated long before 24 hours trading still seem to be true. The profiles in this article were from data in 2009.
The slide to the right displays about eight full day profiles for your study. I have included notes of some relevant points on the chart. Notice how the five days in the middle of the chart show overlapping value areas, with prices generally in balance and not moving in a directional way. The first day in that five-day series, February 20th, saw price close higher than the open. Bar or candlestick traders might have viewed the higher close as rejection of the attempt at lower prices. Market Profile traders might have viewed the lower value area with caution, despite the late day strength. The gap higher into the area of the previous price rejection might have been reason to attract responsive sellers. Once price range extended down in C period, also driving down through the previous days value area, it was clear that the day structure would be bearish. Value areas tried to move back up toward resistance in subsequent days until market finally gave up late on the 26th.
Again, this slide shows about eight days of profiles with notes on the chart. The bottom of this move was interesting. On March 6th price tried to drive down, bringing the value area lower, however there was a late day rally with a close back up near the open. Price was able to close above the previous point of control and well into the previous value area. The following opening, if higher, could have set up a bullish day. However the following day, March 9th, price opened lower, but still into the value area. There was no drive lower. In fact, price rallied all through the initial balance and drove the value area higher despite price being mostly negative for the day. A late day sell-off created a weak close. A bar or candle trader would have most likely viewed the day as negative, especially being an inside day during a longer term market decline. However, Market Profile traders would have seen the higher value area and have been on alert for the next opening to see if there would be initiating selling or buying. The market opened higher, right above the previous value area and point of control, and the initial balance became an open drive higher to kick-start a substantial move higher.
The last slide to the right again has eight days of profiles with commentary on the chart. Some additional points on the chart: notice on March 12th that price opened right at the previous point of control, and A period had a buying trail, which was evident once B period pushed higher. This buying tail reaffirmed the buying tail in J period in the previous profile. On March 13th price tried to regain balance during the session, with value area driving higher. On March 16th the value area continued to push higher despite the lower close. The responsive buying tail in A period on March 17th indicated that this market has more work on the upside. The overlapping to slightly lower value area would be sign of caution depending on the next days open. In this case the value area and point of control held with a narrow initial balance, range extension higher, and a buying tail in C period. See additional notes on the chart.
The preceding overview of the Market Profile is only meant to be an introduction to the methodology. It is by no means intended to be a complete trading approach. Much time and study is required to learn this approach. It probably requires more time and study than most traders are willing to spend. One would not read a short summary on the principles of aviation and then try to fly solo in a single engine airplane. The results would certainly be disastrous. The same applies to trading, although far too many traders begin a trading approach without adequate preparation and without a plan.
In summary, the Market Profile is one way, and one of the best ways in my opinion, to listen to and interpret the market’s intention. Many traders may prefer to view the market with traditional bar charts, or to simply read the tape, or trade from the action in the pits. In fact, many of the most successful traders of all time did not have the advantage of the computer and the market profile graphic. However, the concepts and thought process that the Market Profile represents were still in use by many of these traders. The concepts that Market Profile illustrates so well is the important consideration, even if one prefers a different method to display market activity. Market Profile often does not give specific entry and exit points. That is probably why the vast majority of traders rely on indicators. It is difficult to backtest objectively the Market Profile concepts. Indicators can easily be put into a formula and numbers can be crunched on past data in seconds. But remember that the vast majority of traders lose money. The greatest traders have a market understanding that goes beyond the obvious. Again, there is no edge in what everyone knows. For those who rely on indicators, chat room gurus, and non-market generated information, I wish you good luck in your trading. You WILL need it. For those willing to pursue the difficult path of market understanding, you have a much better chance of creating your own luck, with a much better chance of success.
I was going to include a large reference section, but decided against it. If one wishes to pursue this direction of study, one will find many resources. I just Google Market Profile Charts and came up with over 19 million hits. Of course many of those entries may be unrelated to trading, but many are. Two names to include in your searches are James Dalton and J. Peter Steidlmayer. Both are good. Dalton is probably the easier and more skilled educator. The person I studied with was Steidlmayer, the originator of Market Profile. They both have excellent books on the subject. Another excellent resource is the CBOT website. There you can download and print out for free the Market Profile Handbook, which expands in great detail many of the concepts in this article.
For TradeStation users, the code for the Market Profile, along with instruction, is easy to find in the Easy Language forum. It is not the same as the TradeStation activity bars. It is not included with TradeStation, but is a separate indicator, with several versions in ELD form. Market Profile should not be considered an indicator, but in TradeStation it must be inserted as an indicator. There are also third party plug-ins. Ninja Trader also has a plug-in that can be purchased. CQG was the first vendor that offered the profile, and was the platform that Steidlmayer preferred at least when I studied at his Market Logic School in 1987. Many vendors offer superior profiles to what is available in TradeStation, but the TradeStation profile suits me.
Here are links to a few books from Amazon: