Stock Oscillator: Types & How to Use Them for Technical Analysis

By Colin Dodds · September 01, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Stock Oscillator: Types & How to Use Them for Technical Analysis

A stock oscillator is an equation or software program used by traders to help them decide when to buy or sell a given stock. It works by identifying trends in a stock’s price along with other metrics, then using that data to help determine whether the stock is overbought — making it a good time to sell it — or oversold, in which case it might be a good time to buy.

Investors typically use oscillators at times when the trend for a stock’s price is unclear, either because it’s in a sideways trading pattern, or because the markets themselves are choppy. An oscillator will show underlying trends in other quantifiable aspects of the stock, such as its buying or selling volume, which may indicate if the stock is likely to move up or down in the near future.

Investors may have access to oscillators through their brokerage account or trading programs. Because oscillators are mathematical, it’s even possible for savvy investors to program them directly into a spreadsheet.

Stock Oscillators and Technical Analysis

Stock oscillators are valuable tools in technical analysis, an approach taken by investors to try to forecast the ways a stock might perform based on its current data and past movements. (Though it’s worth remembering that past performance is no guarantee of future success or failure.)

As a strategy, technical analysis involves looking at a wide range of data and indicators, such as a stock’s price and trading volume, to locate opportunities and risks.

But technical analysis typically doesn’t involve researching the underlying companies, their industries, or any macroeconomic trends that might drive the success or failure of those underlying companies. Rather, it solely analyzes the stock’s performance to find patterns and trends.

As such, these tools are mostly used by short-term traders who plan to hold onto a stock for days or weeks, rather than long-term investors who plan to hold a stock for periods of years.

Recommended: 5 Bullish Indicators for a Stock

How Do Stock Oscillators Work?

While every oscillator differs, they all tend to identify a normal range for a given stock, using specific criteria to determine if the stock is overbought or oversold based on that range.

Oscillators can help identify buying or selling opportunities. But they can also mislead investors if a stock undergoes a price breakout, which is when an event occurs that effectively resets the trading range of a stock higher or lower.

During a breakout, an oscillator may show that the stock is overbought or oversold for a long period of time. For this reason, many traders consider oscillators best used in sideways or choppy markets.

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Types of Trading Oscillators

There are a number of different types of trading oscillators. Here’s what to know about them.

Relative Strength Index (RSI)

The Relative Strength Index (RSI) works by taking measurements of a stock’s recent price changes to determine if it’s overbought or oversold. It’s a popular tool for investors looking for entry and exit points of a given stock position.

The RSI measures the speed and size of a stock’s price movements, and calculates the momentum using the ratio of higher closing prices to lower closing prices. In this oscillator, stocks that have more frequent or larger positive changes receive higher scores. Investors typically chart RSIs over a 14-day timeframe, and rate stocks on a scale from 0 to 100, though they may create custom timeframes.

The oscillator selects a “horizontal channel,” which is a common RSI score for a stock, then marks out price bands above and below that band at which the stock may be considered overbought or oversold.

Moving Average Convergence/Divergence (MACD)

The MACD is an oscillator traders use to understand the momentum of a given stock. It uses the moving average of a stock to determine where a stock is trading over a set period of time. Most investors prefer 12-day and 26-day time spans for their MACDs, but they can also create their own custom MACD measurements with time spans that better fit their own particular trading strategies.

The MACD compares the moving average of the short- and long-term moving average to see if those averages are getting closer (converging) or farther apart (diverging).

If the MACD of a given stock is positive, that means its short-term average is higher than its long-term average, which indicates that the stock’s price is on an upswing. A higher MACD indicates more pronounced momentum in that upswing. On the other hand, a negative MACD indicates that a stock is trending downward.

Recommended: What Is MACD?

Commodity Channel Index (CCI)

The CCI is a momentum-based oscillator that investors use to spot price extremes and possible price reversals, and to understand the strength of price trends for commodities, currencies, and stocks. The CCI measures the variation of a security’s price from its statistical mean.

So when the indicator goes above zero, that indicates the price is above the security’s historical average price. When it’s below zero, the price is below the historical average.

The CCI assigns scores that tend to fall between +100 and -100, but the indicator is unbound. CCI scores over +100 mean that a stock may be overbought, while scores below -100 indicate that a stock may be oversold, but there are no fixed points that indicate one condition or the other.

Stochastic Oscillator

A stochastic oscillator, or “sto indicator,” compares a stock’s average price levels to its current price levels to determine if a stock is overbought or oversold.

Specifically, a stochastic oscillator compares a stock’s closing price to a range of the security’s highest and lowest prices over a period of time that the trader can set. By changing the time frame of the oscillator, traders can adjust its sensitivity to recent market fluctuations.

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Pros of Using Oscillator Indicators

There are a number of potential benefits to using oscillator indicators.

•   Using multiple oscillators may help investors better understand how a particular stock is trading.

•   Oscillators may provide useful alerts that a stock is nearing a price at which an investor may consider buying or selling it.

•   Stock oscillators may be highly effective in helping investors identify overbought or oversold conditions in a specific stock.

•   Oscillators may be highly effective tools in sideways or choppy markets, where a stock’s trading price remains within a fixed range.

Cons of Using Oscillator Indicators

There are also potential drawbacks to using oscillator indicators.

•   While oscillators can be effective in helping investors identify overbought or oversold conditions in a specific stock, whether a stock is overbought or oversold is not necessarily a clear signal to buy or sell it.

•   In strong bull or bear markets, an oscillator signal that a stock is overbought or oversold may be misleading.

•   Oscillator signals only offer stock price information, and not the bigger picture of what’s happening with the company or its industry.

The Takeaway

Stock oscillators are one set of tools in technical analysis, which also employs close reading and interpretation of charts, as well as other technical indicators. Oscillators may help investors determine if a stock is overbought or oversold, even if the price of a stock isn’t giving clear indications.

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Photo credit: iStock/svetikd

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