Should I buy today? What will prices be tomorrow, next week, or next year? Wouldn't investing be easy if we knew the answers to these seemingly simple questions?
The term "technical analysis" is a complicated sounding name for a very basic approach to investing. Simply put, technical analysis is the study of prices, with charts being the primary tool.
The roots of modern-day technical analysis stem from the Dow Theory, developed around 1900 by Charles Dow. Stemming either directly or indirectly from the Dow Theory, these roots include such principles as the trending nature of prices, prices discounting all known information, confirmation and divergence, volume mirroring changes in price, and support/resistance.
Charles Dow's contribution to modern-day technical analysis cannot be understated. His focus on the basics of security price movement gave rise to a completely new method of analyzing the markets.
The human element
The price of a security represents a consensus. It is the price at which one person agrees to buy and another agrees to sell. The price at which an investor is willing to buy or sell depends primarily on his expectations. If he expects the security's price to rise, he will buy it; if the investor expects the price to fall, he will sell it. These simple statements are the cause of a major challenge in forecasting security prices, because they refer to human expectations. As we all know firsthand, humans are not easily quantifiable nor predictable. This fact alone will keep any mechanical trading system from working consistently.
Because humans are involved, much of the world's investment decisions are based on irrelevant criteria. Our relationships with our family, our neighbors, our employer, the traffic, our income, and our previous success and failures, all influence our confidence, expectations, and decisions.
Security prices are determined by money managers and home managers, students and strikers, doctors and dog catchers, lawyers and landscapers, and the wealthy and the wanting. This breadth of market participants guarantees an element of unpredictability and excitement.
If we were all totally logical and could separate our emotions from our investment decisions, then, fundamental analysis the determination of price based on future earnings, would work magnificently. And since we would all have the same completely logical expectations, prices would only change when quarterly reports or relevant news was released. Investors would seek "overlooked" fundamental data in an effort to find undervalued securities.
The hotly debated "efficient market theory" states that security prices represent everything that is known about the security at a given moment. This theory concludes that it is impossible to forecast prices, since prices already reflect everything that is currently known about the security.
The future can be found in the past
If prices are based on investor expectations, then knowing what a security should sell for (i.e., fundamental analysis) becomes less important than knowing what other investors expect it to sell for. That's not to say that knowing what a security should sell for isn't important--it is. But there is usually a fairly strong consensus of a stock's future earnings that the average investor cannot disprove.
Technical analysis is the process of analyzing a security's historical prices in an effort to determine probable future prices. This is done by comparing current price action (i.e., current expectations) with comparable historical price action to predict a reasonable outcome. The devout technician might define this process as the fact that history repeats itself while others would suffice to say that we should learn from the past.
The roulette wheel
Only a minority of technicians can consistently and accurately determine future prices. However, even if you are unable to accurately forecast prices, technical analysis can be used to consistently reduce your risks and improve your profits.
"There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it, and when he can."
A casino makes money on a roulette wheel, not by knowing what number will come up next, but by slightly improving their odds with the addition of a "0" and "00." Similarly, when an investor purchases a security, he doesn't know that its price will rise. But if he buys a stock when it is in a rising trend, after a minor sell off, and when interest rates are falling, he will have improved his odds of making a profit. That's not gambling--it's intelligence. Yet many investors buy securities without attempting to control the odds.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to know what a security's price will be in the future to make money. Your goal should simply be to improve the odds of making profitable trades. Even if your analysis is as simple as determining the long-, intermediate-, and short-term trends of the security, you will have gained an edge that you would not have without technical analysis.