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I. Volatility Breakout
II. Trend Following
III. Reversals
IV. Confirmed Breakout
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Chapter 16

Method I — Volatility Breakout

Years ago the late Bruce Babcock of Commodity Traders Consumers Review interviewed me for that publication. After the interview we chatted for a while--the interviewing gradually reversed--and it came out that his favorite commodity trading approach was the volatility breakout. I could hardly believe my ears. Here is the fellow who had examined more trading systems--and done so rigorously--than anyone with the possible exception of John Hill of Futures Truth and he was saying that his approach of choice to trading was the volatility-breakout system? The very approach that I thought best for trading after a lot of investigation?

Perhaps the most elegant direct application of Bollinger Bands® is a volatility breakout system. These systems have been around a long time and exist in many varieties and forms. The earliest breakout systems used simple averages of the highs and lows, often shifted up or down a bit. As time went on average true range was frequently a factor.

There is no real way of knowing when volatility, as we use it now, was incorporated as a factor, but one would surmise that one day someone noticed that breakout signals worked better when the averages, bands, envelopes, etc., were closer together and the volatility breakout system was born. (Certainly the risk-reward parameters are better aligned when the bands are narrow, a major factor in any system.) 

Our version of the venerable volatility breakout system utilizes BandWidth to set the precondition and then takes a position when a breakout occurs. There are two choices for a stop/exit for this approach. First, Welles Wilder's Parabolic3, a simple, but elegant, concept. In the case of a stop for a buy signal, the initial stop is set just below the range of the breakout formation and then incremented upward each day the trade is open. Just the opposite is true for a sell. For those willing to pursue larger profits than those afforded by the relatively conservative Parabolic approach, a tag of the opposite band is an excellent exit signal. This allows for corrections along the way and results in longer trades. So, in a buy use a tag of the lower band as an exit and in a sell use a tag of the upper band as an exit.

The major problem with successfully implementing Method I is something called a head fake--discussed in the prior chapter. The term came from hockey, but it is familiar in many other arenas as well. The idea is a player with the puck skates up the ice toward an opponent. As he skates he turns his head in preparation to pass the defender; as soon as the defenseman commits, he turns his body the other way and safely snaps his shot. Coming out of a Squeeze, stocks often do the same; they'll first feint in the wrong direction and then make the real move. Typically what you'll see is a Squeeze, followed by a band tag, followed in turn by the real move. Most often this will occur within the bands and you won't get a breakout signal until after the real move is under way. However, if the parameters for the bands have been tightened, as so many who use this approach do, you may find yourself with the occasional small whipsaw before the real trade appears.

Figure 16.1
Head fake, 250 days. The head fake spells opportunity for the canny trader.

Some stocks, indices, etc are more prone to head fakes than others. Take a look at past Squeezes for the item you are considering and see if they involved head fakes. Once a faker…

For those who are willing to take a non-mechanical approach trading head fakes, the easiest strategy is to wait until a Squeeze occurs--the precondition is set--then look for the first move away from the trading range. Trade half a position the first strong day in the opposite direction of the head fake, adding to the position when the breakout occurs and using a parabolic or opposite band tag stop to keep from being hurt.

Where head fakes aren't a problem, or the band parameters aren't set tight enough for those that do occur to be a problem, you can trade Method I straight up. Just wait for a Squeeze and go with the first breakout.

Volume indicators can really add value. In the phase before the head fake look for a volume indicator such as Intraday Intensity or Accumulation Distribution to give a hint regarding the ultimate resolution. MFI is another indicator that can be useful to improve success and confidence. These are all volume indicators and are taken up in Part IV.

The parameters for a volatility breakout system based on The Squeeze can be the standard parameters: 20-day average and +/- two standard deviation bands. This is true because in this phase of activity the bands are quite close together and thus the triggers are very close by. However, some short-term traders may want to shorten the average a bit, say to 15 periods and tighten the bands a bit, say to 1.5 standard deviations. 

There is one other parameter that can be set, the look-back period for the Squeeze. The longer you set the look-back period--recall that the default is six months--the greater the compression you'll achieve and the more explosive the set ups will be. However, there will be fewer of them. There is always a price to pay it seems.

Method I first detects compression through The Squeeze and then looks for range expansion to occur and goes with it. An awareness of head fakes and volume indicator confirmation can add significantly to the record of this approach. Screening a reasonable size universe of stocks--at least several hundred--ought to find at least several candidates to evaluate on any given day.

Look for your Method I setups carefully and then follow them as they evolve. There is something about looking at a large number of these setups, especially with volume indicators, that instructs the eye and thus informs the future selection process as no hard and fast rules ever can. I present here five charts of this type to give you an idea of what to look for. 

Figure 16.2
Method I example, 200 days. A 2 percent BandWidth -  a real Squeeze.

Figure 16.3
Method I example, 100 days. A 10 percent BandWidth is still a Squeeze. Look for the lowest reading in six months, not an absolute level.

Figure 16.4
Method I example, 300 days. A Squeeze can be high or low on the chart, it doesn matter.

Figure 16.5
Method I example, 100 days. Squeeze, and Squeeze again.

Figure 16.6
Method I example, 120 days. The first leg is 5 to 40 percent, then over 40 percent, on the second leg. note the peaks mark important highs.

  • Use the Squeeze as a set up
  • Then go with an expansion in volatility
  • Beware the head fake
  • Use volume indicators for direction clues
  • Adjust the parameters to suit yourself


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