What is a Trailing Stop Loss Order?

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New York Stock ExchangeThere are two mistakes that most people routinely make. They let emotions play too big a role in their decision making and they fail to adequately plan for the worst case scenario before the worst case scenario actually happens. These two mistakes aren’t a big deal when you’re planning dinner, but they can be disastrous when it comes to investing in the stock market. Reacting emotionally to the market can lead to bad decisions, which is compounded by the fact that we react to worst case scenarios rather than plan for them!

Fortunately in investing, we can use some of the tools to protect ourselves against it. I’ve recently been reading more about it and one of the best ideas I’ve seen is the use of stop loss orders and trailing stop loss orders to your advantage.

Stop Order

A stop order is an order to buy or sell once the price of the underlying stock reaches a specified price, called the “stop price.” Once it reaches the stop price, the order is put out on the open market. A buy stop order is an order to buy a stock after it reaches the stop price, which is always set to be higher than the current market price. A sell stop order is an order to sell a stock after it reaches the stop price, which is always set to be lower than the current market price.

You can also make it a stop-limit order by setting a limit price in addition to a stop price. The stop price activates the order and it becomes an ordinary limit buy or sell order.

Stop Loss Order

A stop loss order is just a name given to a sell order with a stop price. They use “stop loss” as a way to indicate the purpose of the order, since you are usually trying to stop a loss. The idea is that you set a stop price under the current market price for a sell order. If the stock falls to or below the stop price, you sell the stock in the market as a market order.

In general, a stop loss order is setup as a percentage of the current market price and is used to remove emotion from the decision making. You buy a share of Bargaineering (BRG) at $10 and decide you want to, at most, lose 10% of your investment. You would make the purchase and then set a stop loss order at 10% less than the share price, or $9. If BRG ever falls to $9, then you would sell the stock at market price. If it goes up, as it probably would :), then you keep holding on.

Why a stop loss order? It’s recommended that you set up these types of orders when you are not going to be able to review your stocks on a regular basis. If you go away on vacation and can’t check your stocks for a while, a stop loss order can be used to protect you against a sudden drop you can’t respond to. It’s also said that these orders remove some of the emotion out of the process.

Trailing Stop Loss Order

A trailing stop loss order is a stop loss order that adjusts as the stock increases in price but doesn’t adjust when the stock decreases in price. In our case of BRG, let’s say the price goes up to $100. Your existing stop loss order with a stop price of $9 is probably not going to do you any good. With a trailing stop loss order, as the stock rocketed up to $100, the 10% trailing stop would adjust upward in lock step. At $100 a share, the stop loss order would have a stop price of $90 (10% under the share price). If the shares fall to $95 a share, the stop price remains $90.

This has two benefits. The first is that you don’t have to monitor the stock on a daily basis. Second, you have essentially locked in the gains. If the stock falls under $90, then your broker would execute a sale and you still collect the proceeds from your then unrealized gains.

This was a very simple discussion of stop loss and trailing stop loss orders, so if you want to learn more I recommend you do a little more digging online about the various strategies and techniques you can employ using these orders. I think it’s important to understand the vocabulary so you can speak the language, hopefully I’ve achieved that here.

If you have insights or thoughts to add, please do so in the comments!

(Photo: brianglanz)

{ 16 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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16 Responses to “What is a Trailing Stop Loss Order?”

  1. zapeta says:

    I’ve never heard of a trailing stop loss order. Seems like something that would be good in a volatile market, especially if you need to preserve capital and gains for the short term.

  2. neil says:

    Can you recommend any good online brokers that will allow you to use a trailing stop loss?

    • Jim says:

      That’s a good point, I haven’t been able to find one. 🙂

      • Rick Morley says:

        Actually, I’m pretty sure most respectable brokerages do. My own brokerage, Zecco, lists both “Stop Limit” and “Trailing Stop” as options in the Order Type dropdown.

        I’ll admit I never actually used them, since they don’t fit in my own trading strategy. Nevertheless, the options are there.

      • Mark says:

        Thinkorswim (now owned by TDAmeritrade)

  3. Jim:

    Good description of an important concept.

  4. eric says:

    I think I should buy some BRG….

  5. Jimmyj says:

    I don’t understand something. IRT the buy stop order. Why would you set it to be higher than the current market price. Wouldnt you want to set an order to buy lower than the current price? Am I reading that wrong or misunderstanding something?

    • Rick Morley says:

      People do this to profit off sudden upward movements. For example, let’s say that stock XYZ has been trading in a range of $8 – $10. The $10 mark is a resistance level. And the stock won’t really rise above that mark.

      But let’s say that XYZ has an earnings report coming out. Their earnings report shows a much higher-than-expected profit. The stock will then likely rise above the previous resistance. Maybe it will rise to $13.

      You would set a buy-stop order at (maybe) $10.25. So as soon as it tops the resistance level, it has gained some significant upwards momentum. So your buy-stop order triggers at 10.25 and you profit on the rise all the way up to $13.

      • Rick Morley says:

        I forgot. There is another common use for buy-stop orders. They protect against losses when you short a stock.

        So if you short XYZ at $10, and (as in the blog post) want to limit your losses to 10%, set a buy-stop order at $11. So now when XYZ has their earnings report and rises up to $13, your maximum loss is $1.

  6. Bill says:

    Etrade lets you place trailing stops based on fixed dollar amount or by percentage drop.

  7. Alan says: also allows you to do trailing stop orders.

    So if I understand this right…Lets say i have 1k shares of stock XYZ @ $1 each. I set a trailing stop for 10%.

    The stock rises to $2, then the limit would be at $1.80 if the price goes down below $1.80 it’d sell automatically?

  8. Good stuff Jim. Whatever you do, never use market, unless you absolutely don’t care what price you’re going to get hit or lifted at.

  9. Scott says:

    Can you do this with lobster meals that are listed as “market price” on the menu? 😉

  10. 444 says:

    I love trailing stop orders. Etrade offers them using percentages or dollar/cents amounts.

    I have to continually remind myself not to fall in love with my stocks. I have to remember that my holdings are nothing put a pile of money. When the market is unkind to me, my stocks do not come over to rub my back and give me an Advil. They can and should be sold on a ruthless basis when prudent (I don’t always practice what I preach, but I’m working on it.)

  11. carole says:

    Ameritrade has an Order Types Tutorial under their Education tab which offers good explanations and examples of the various types of orders.

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