You’ve probably seen it mentioned in various trading forums. It may have even happened to you a few times. It’s enough to make your head explode. What is it? It’s called Stop Hunting.
Here’s a typical trading situation. You’re convinced that the USD/JPY is heading up. You’ve entered a long position at 123.40 and you’ve set your stop at 123.05, slightly below an obvious double bottom. You set your initial target at 124.50, giving you more than a 3:1 ratio of reward to risk. Unfortunately, the trade begins to go against you and breaks down through the support. Your stop is hit and you’re out of the trade. You’re sure glad you had that stop in place! Who knows how far it could drop now that it’s broken that support, right?
Wrong. Guess what happens next. You got it…after taking out your stop, the price turns right back around and heads north, just as you originally thought it would. As you watch from the sidelines, the pair moves up past 124.00, then 125.00, and never looks back. Just maddening. You start to think, "If only I had set the stop just a little lower. What lousy luck!" But is this really just a case of bad luck?
Let me relate one of my own recent trading experiences. Based on a statistical trading tool that I use, I went short the AUD/USD at around 0.7530 and placed a stop up at 0.7570 which was above a local top. I was looking for the price to decline to below 0.7300 over the next few weeks. Within a day or so the price spiked up, took out my stop and then moved back down into the consolidation area at around 0.7540. Now, because of this last spike, there were two local highs on the chart near 0.7570. Not to be deterred from my trade, I re-entered my short position in the 0.7530 area, and this time I put my stop at 0.7580, just above the last spike. After all, what were the chances that the price would break through that resistance again? Well as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened! The price spiked up and hit my stop again, knocking me out of the trade for a second time. And even more frustrating, as soon as my stop was hit, the price turned right back down again in the direction I had originally anticipated!
Ian Fleming’s character, Goldfinger, once said,
"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action." (Play James Bond music here…)
However, I wasn’t actually paranoid enough to think that someone was specifically picking off only my stop orders of course. First of all, my trades were so small that no one would bother trying to pick them off, and secondly I was doing these trades in a practice demo account! But I bet I wasn’t the only dunderhead that was putting my stops in that obvious position just above the recent highs. There were probably quite a few buy-stop orders in that price area, and it certainly looked to me like someone was gunning for those stops. This hypothetical someone may have been a stop hunter.
So what’s a stop hunter and what’s all this stuff about picking off stop orders? A stop hunter is a market player that attempts to trigger the stop orders of other traders for their own benefit. They generally have the capability to move the market by a small degree for a short period. The stop hunter may be a FOREX broker’s dealing desk which is trading in competition with its customers or it may simply be a large player in the market; a bank, a hedge fund or whatever.
Stop hunters operate best in an environment where most traders believe that the market is about to move in a certain direction. As traders take positions, the inexperienced ones (like me in the trade above) will place their stops at obvious places in order to cut losses if the price moves in the other direction. The stop hunters know where the amateurs are probably placing these stops, so they try to move the market enough to trigger them. This may allow a stop hunter to enter a trade at a good price before the market begins its move in the direction that everyone expects.
For example in my short trade above, there were a lot of indications that the market was headed down. Stop hunters knew that a lot of traders had taken short positions, and had probably positioned their buy-stops up at the 0.7570 area. So why should these savvy stop hunters enter a short position at 0.7530 when so many willing amateurs were willing to buy from them at 0.7570? So they proceeded to push the price up to 0.7570, and when my buy-stop order was triggered up there, guess who I was buying from? Exactly…the stop hunters who were selling to me at a great price (for them). Now I was out of the market, and they had taken over my short position at a price 40 pips above where I entered it. I had a 40 pip loss, while they entered at a price that was 40 pips better than they otherwise could have. Then, when the market headed down as we all expected it would, the stop hunters were laughing all the way to the bank while I was sitting on the sidelines pulling out what little hair I have left!
Note that a situation in which everyone expected the market to move up would work in just the opposite fashion. The amateurs would have their sell-stops at some obvious point below the market, and the stop hunters would push the market down in order to trigger those sell-stop orders. Then the amateurs would be selling out of their long positions in a panic while the stop hunters were buying from them at great prices in expectation of the coming move north.
The type of stop hunting that I’ve just described is used in situations where most market participants expect the price to move in a certain direction. In this situation, both the savvy stop hunters and the amateurs have the same market opinion; they are not battling each other in a contest of bulls vs. bears. The stop hunters are just trying to take over the positions of the amateurs at a good price.
There is another situation in which stop hunters try to move the market toward a group of stops in the hope that triggering the stops will push the market further in the same direction, thus triggering even more stops and so forth in a snowball effect. This is how some short term panics and rallies are created. In this case, the stop hunters have taken positions in the opposite direction from the amateurs, and are simply trying to trigger the stops to get the amateurs to panic and keep the ball rolling in that direction. My guess is that this tactic is more prevalent in less liquid markets like stocks and futures as opposed to FOREX.