Indicator and strategy: what’s the difference?

Trading strategies and technical indicators are among the basic trading tools. It’s impossible to trade without an accurate strategy, while the strategy can’t be built without applying technical indicators. Although the concepts are related, should we compare them? Keep reading to find out the difference between these concepts.  

Definition

Here are the definitions of both concepts:

  • A ​​trading strategy is a set of rules based on technical tools (indicators, lines, etc.) and fundamental factors to enable the forecasting of price movements. 
  • A technical indicator is a tool based on mathematical calculation. It measures the historical price data to provide signals on the upcoming price direction and its intensity. 

So, the technical indicator is a tool used to build a trading strategy. Thus, these terms can’t be compared. 

It was discovered that technical analysis rules could be used when trading NASDAQ Composite and Russell 2000 indices. However, such rules don’t exist for DJIA and S&P 500. Rules of technical analysis may even improve unprofitable trades. Still, a trader should remember that there are no rules or approaches that would guarantee 100% profitability. 

Goal

A trading strategy is used to increase the chance of a successful trade and limit the time a trader must spend on one trade. 

Technical indicators provide signals on the upcoming price movements as well as their intensity. 

Creation 

A trading strategy is built on a set of conditions. The conditions are formed by fundamental factors and/or technical indicators. The technical indicator is the most common tool for creating a trading strategy, as it allows the trader to define accurate points for opening and closing a trade. Fundamental analysis can also be used to determine market conditions. However, it doesn’t allow the trader to set exact levels. 

The calculation of a technical indicator is based on a mathematical formula that mostly considers historical price data. 

Basic terms

Let’s consider the key terms that are used for any trading strategy and technical indicator. 

Trading strategy

The trading strategy includes trade filters and trade triggers. 

  • A trade filter is a condition that may trigger a trade. 
  • A trade trigger is a certain condition that tells a trader to open a position. As both terms are interconnected, let’s consider an example. 

Imagine you use a breakout trading strategy based on the head-and-shoulders chart pattern. A trade filter is an event when the price breaks below the neckline of the pattern. This tells a trader to be ready to open a short position. However, this can be a fakeout. So, the trader needs a confirmation that will trigger the trade opening. This confirmation can occur when the price closes below the neckline. 

Every effective strategy must include entry and exit points. 

  • Entry point. An entry point is the level at which a trader opens a position. It’s a single point that allows traders to enter the market at the early stages of trend formation. 
  • Exit point. An exit point is the level at which a trader closes a position. It’s presented by two points as there is no guarantee the open trade will be successful. These are take-profit and stop-loss orders. 
  • A take-profit is a level at which the trade is closed with returns. 
  • A stop-loss is a level at which the trade is closed with a loss. 

Traders shouldn’t enter the market if they don’t set both levels. Otherwise, they increase their chance of loss incredibly.

Technical indicators

There are five major types of technical tools:

  1. Trend indicators. This category consists of indicators used to analyze the price trend (bullish, bearish, horizontal) within a certain period. 
  2. Momentum indicator. This type includes indicators that measure the speed of a price movement over a certain period. 
  3. Relative strength indicators. These indicators measure market fluctuations in buying and selling pressure. 
  4. Mean reversion indicators. These tools help evaluate the size of a price swing before the price retraces. 
  5. Volume indicators. These indicators aim to define the strength of buyers and sellers on the market by calculating trades.  

There is another classification. Indicators can be leading and lagging. 

  • A lagging indicator provides delayed signals and confirms the formed trend.
  • A leading indicator provides signals on the upcoming price movement and allows traders to enter the market at the beginning of the trend. 

Examples

As it’s already known, technical indicators provide signals on price directions. These signals are basic, and they are written in a certain way. For example, when the RSI indicator breaks above the 20 level, it’s a signal to open a long trade. However, this is only an application of a technical indicator that can’t be called a strategy.

The trading strategy should include accurate information. Let’s transform the rule above into the trading strategy:

  1. The RSI indicator with the period of 14 should be applied to the H4 timeframe.
  2. The price should move within a strong downtrend. 
  3. The RSI line should break above the 20 level. As the RSI is a leading indicator, there should be a confirmation. Look for a reversal candlestick pattern. Set a take-profit order at recent highs. 
  4. A stop-loss order should be placed several points below recent lows (the number of points depends on the volatility level and the size of the trade). 

Takeaway

“Trading strategy” and “technical indicator” are interconnected terms. However, they can’t be compared. A strategy is built on a technical indicator, while the indicator provides signals on the price direction to set accurate entry and exit points. To trade successfully, a trader should start with learning a technical analysis which includes candlestick and chart patterns as well as indicators. Traders will be able to use trading strategies or even develop their own only after they learn effective indicators.

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