How to Use a Trailing Stop-Loss Properly

By Rebecca Lake · July 07, 2023 · 9 minute read

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How to Use a Trailing Stop-Loss Properly

A trailing stop loss allows investors to create a built-in safety mechanism to insulate themselves against downward pricing trends. It’s an important exit strategy that day traders can use to manage their risk.

Understanding how a trailing stop order works and how to use it properly can help cap potential losses when day trading investments.

What Is a Trailing Stop-Loss?

A trailing stop-loss offers a flexible approach to minimizing investment losses. A trailing stop order trails the price of the underlying investment by a percentage or a specific dollar amount. So, if an investor buys shares at $50 each, they might impose a trailing stop limit of 10%. If the stock’s share price dipped by 10% they’d be sold automatically.

To understand trailing stop-loss, it helps to have a basic understanding of how limit orders and stop orders work.

A limit order is an order to buy or sell a security once it reaches a specific price. If the order is to buy, it only gets triggered at or below the limit price. If the order is to sell, the order can only get executed at or above the limit price. Limit orders are typically filled on a first-come, first-served basis in the market.

A stop order, also referred to as a stop-loss order (yet another of the stock order types), is also an order to buy or sell a particular investment. The difference is that the transaction occurs once a security’s market price reaches a certain point. For example, if you buy shares of stock for $50 each, you might create a stop order to sell those shares if the price dips to $40. Once a stop or limit order is executed, it becomes a market order.

Stop orders help you either lock in a set purchase price for an investment or cap the amount of losses you incur when you sell if the security’s price drops. While you can use them to manage investment risk, stop orders are fixed at a certain share price.

💡 Quick Tip: How do you decide if a certain trading platform or app is right for you? Ideally, the investment platform you choose offers the features that you need for your investment goals or strategy, e.g., an easy-to-use interface, data analysis, educational tools.

How a Trailing Stop Order Works

Using a trailing stop to manage investments can help you capitalize on stock market movements and momentum. You determine a preset price at which you want to sell a stock, based on how a particular investment is trending, rather than pinpointing an exact dollar amount.

You can decide where to set a trailing stop limit, based on your risk tolerance and what you expect an investment to do over time. What remains consistent is the percentage by which you can control losses as the investment’s price changes.

Example

So, assume that you purchase 100 shares of stock at $50 each. You set a trailing stop order at 10%. If the share price dips to $45, which reflects a 10% loss, those shares would be sold automatically capping your total loss on the investment at $500.

Now, assume that the stock takes off instead and the share price doubles to $100 with the same 10% trailing stop in place. Your stop order would only be triggered if the stock’s price falls to $90. If you had set a regular stop order at $40 instead, there’d be a much wider margin for losses since the stock’s price has further to fall before shares would be sold. Thus, trailing stops enhanced downside protection compared to a regular stop order.

3 Advantages of Using a Trailing Stop Order

There are several benefits that come with using a trailing stop limit to manage your investments.

1. Tandem Movements

First, trailing stops move in tandem with stock pricing. As a stock’s per share price increases, the trailing stop follows. In the previous example, when the stock’s price doubled from $50 to $90, the trailing stop price moved from $45 to $90. In effect, it’s a hands-off tool — which can be great for some investors.

2. Confidence

Implementing a trailing stop limit strategy can offer reassurance since you know shares will be sold automatically if the stop order is triggered. That can offer investors some confidence in what may be a chaotic market environment. That, for many, can be very valuable.

3. Take Emotion Out of the Equation

Trailing stop limits rely on math rather than emotions when making decisions. That can also help you avoid the temptation to try to time the market and either sell too quickly or hold on to a stock too long, impacting your profit potential.


💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

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How Do You Set up a Trailing Stop Order?

If you’re day trading online, it’s relatively simple to set up a trailing stop loss order for individual securities. Because the orders are flexible, you can choose where you want to set the baseline percentage at which stocks should be sold. For example, if you’re less comfortable with risk you might set a trailing stop at 5% or less. But if you’re a more aggressive portfolio, you may bump the order up to 20% or 30%.

You can also control whether you want buy or sell actions to happen automatically or whether you want to place trades manually. Automating ensures that the trades happen as quickly as possible, but performing them manually may be preferable if you’re more of a hands-on trader.

Example of a Trailing Stop-Loss Order

Though we’ve already given some quick examples of how a trailing stop-loss order might work in a practical sense, let’s run through it again.

Say that you buy 100 shares of Company A stock for $10. You set up a trailing stop-loss order at 10%, meaning that if Company A stock falls to $9 or below, a sell order will automatically be executed. The next week, Company A stock’s value rises to $12 — the trailing stop loss order follows. The week after, Company A’s stock loses 15% of its value, falling from $12 to $10.20.

The stop-loss order kicked in when the stock lost 10%, so your shares were sold at $10.80, saving you $0.60 per share, for a total of $60.

Again, this can be helpful if investors want to “lock in” their gains and cash out stocks with a positive return.

Are There Any Downsides of Using a Trailing Stop?

Investing is risky by nature, and no strategy is foolproof. While trailing stops can help minimize losses without placing a cap on profits, there are some downsides to consider.

Accessibility

Depending on which brokerage account you’re using, you may face limits on which investments you can use trailing stop loss strategy with. Some online brokerages don’t allow any type of stop loss trading at all.

Potential to Lock-in Losses

If a stock you own experiences a two-day slide in price, your stop loss order might require your shares be sold. If on the third day, the stock rebounds with a 20% price increase, you’ve missed out on those gains and locked in your losses. If you want to repurchase the stock you’ll now have to do so at a higher price point, and you’ve missed your chance to buy the dip.

Velocity Challenges

If share prices drop too quickly there may be some lag time before your trailing stop order can be fulfilled. In that scenario, you might end up incurring bigger losses than expected, regardless of where you placed your stop price limit.

No Market for the Security

It’s possible an investor finds themselves holding a stock that nobody wants — meaning that it has no liquidity, and can’t be traded. This is unlikely, but in this case, a stop-loss order couldn’t execute as there’s no one to trade with.

Market Closure

If you’ve set up trailing stop-loss orders, they can’t and won’t execute when the market is closed. Security prices can go up and down after-hours, but market orders can only be executed during normal operating hours for stock exchanges.

Using a market-on-open order may be another tool to consider if investors are concerned about this scenario.

Gaps

On the same note as market closures, pricing gaps — which may occur due to after-hours pricing movements, for instance — can and do occur. A stop-loss order may not help in those cases, and investors may lose more than anticipated as a result.

How to Use a Trailing Stop-Loss Strategy

Using trailing stops is better suited as part of a short-term trading strategy, rather than long-term investing. Buy-and-hold investors focused on value don’t need to worry as much about day-to-day price movements.

With that in mind, there are a few things to consider before putting trailing stop orders to work. A good starting point is your personal risk tolerance and the level of loss you’d be comfortable accepting in your portfolio. This can help determine where to set your trailing stop loss limit.

Again, if you’re a more conservative investor then it might make sense to set the percentage threshold lower. But if you have a larger appetite for risk, you could go higher. You can also tailor thresholds to individual investments to balance out your overall risk exposure.

Technical Indicators

Becoming familiar with technical indicators could help you become more adept at reading the market so you can better gauge where to set trailing limits. Unlike fundamental analysis, technical analysis primarily focuses on decoding market signals regarding trends, momentum, volatility and trading volume.

This means taking a closer look at a security’s price movements and understanding how it’s trending. One indicator you might rely on is the Average True Range (ATR). The ATR measures how much a security moves up or down in price on any given day. This number can tell you where to set your trailing loss limit based on whether price momentum is moving in your favor.

In addition to ATR you might also study moving averages and standard deviation to understand where a stock’s price may be headed. Moving averages reflect the average price of a security over time while standard deviation measures volatility. Considering these variables, along with your risk tolerance and overall investment goals, can help you use trailing losses in your portfolio correctly.

Applying Your Stock Trading Knowledge With SoFi

Whether you plan to use trailing stop strategies in your portfolio or not, making sure you’re working with the right brokerage matters. Ideally, you’re using an online brokerage that offers access to the type of securities you want to invest in with minimal fees so you can keep more of your portfolio gains.

Keep in mind, though, that utilizing stop-loss orders isn’t foolproof, and that there can be pros and cons to doing so. It’s also a somewhat advanced tool to incorporate into your strategy — if you don’t feel like you fully understand it, it may be worth discussing with a financial professional.

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For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

FAQ

How does a trailing stop-loss work?

A trailing stop-loss is a built-in mechanism that automatically sells an investor’s holdings when certain market conditions are met — specifically, when a stock loses a predetermined amount of value.

What is a disadvantage of a trailing stop-loss?

There are several potential disadvantages to using trailing stop-losses, including the fact that they won’t execute during market closures. Securities may lose value during that time, and traders could experience a pricing gap as a result.

What is a good trailing stop-loss percentage?

A good stop-loss percentage will depend on the individual investor’s risk tolerances, but many investors would likely be comfortable with a 5% or 10% trailing stop-loss.


Photo credit: iStock/akinbostanci

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