How to use moving averages?

Publish Date 23 May 2022
Education / 10 Min Read
Desmond Leong / Last Update 23 May 2022

When learning how to use technical analysis in trading, one of the first things a trader needs to understand is moving averages.

Moving averages can be used in a number of ways, and there are many different types to choose from.

But what are they and how do traders use them? In this guide, we'll explain what moving averages are and how to use them in a trading strategy.

Table of contents

What are moving averages (MA)?

Moving averages are a trend-following indicator - with its values and movement-based off of past prices. This means that the MA cannot warn traders about future price movements, but would come in handy when identifying trend changes. In technical analysis, the moving average (MA) is one of the most commonly used tools.

Traders may be wondering why the MA would be helpful. It is mainly because it smoothes out price action and prevents short-term price fluctuations by filtering out the “noise”.  This means it’s essentially calculating the average of the highs and lows of the price for a set number of periods, using historical data from price movement. This is plotted alongside price on a line, and it constantly updates itself as the price changes.

Types of moving averages

There are 2 main types of moving averages that are commonly used:

  1. Simple Moving Average (SMA)
  2. Exponential Moving Average (EMA)

What is the difference between the simple moving average and the exponential moving average?

The main difference between the SMA and EMA is their speed. This is because in its calculation, the EMA gives more weight to the most recent price action and less weight to older price action. When price changes direction or spikes/dips, the EMA recognises this sooner, while the SMA takes longer to turn when the price turns. 

Given that the EMA is closer to price changes, the SMA produces a smoother line compared to the EMA. However, the EMA will always move more closely with the current market price.

This table below summarises simply when it's best to use the EMA and SMA:

SMA EMA
Best when holding position for long period of time (is not affected by sudden dips or spikes in price) Best for shorter time frame trades (given the quicker speed of recognising price changes)
Great in filtering out noise in the market Good when market is moving quickly

Note: There is also Weighted Moving Average – which essentially functions almost similarly to the Exponential Moving Average.

Why do we need moving averages?

We need the moving average (MA) to identify trends and confirm reversals. We can decipher where the price is trending based on where the MA is in relation to price. 

  • Price above MA = uptrend
  • Price below MA = downtrend
  • Breaking of MA = trend reversal

I’ll explain what we mean in the illustration below:

Price chart on how to understand moving average indicator

As seen from the image above, when the price crosses a moving average, it signals that there is a reversal in trend. Oftentimes, the price will find support at MA when the trend is up, and resistance at MA when the trend is down.

We can broadly decipher that:

  • When the price is above MA, it signals an uptrend and may be a good time to buy
  • When the price is below MA, it signals a downtrend and may be a good time to sell

How to calculate moving averages

Traders may be wondering why there is a need to know how the different moving averages are calculated when they can just pop them onto their charts with a click. We’ll explain why.

Why it’s important to know the moving average calculation

This applies to any other indicator out there - understanding how an indicator works means a trader can adjust and create different strategies as the market environment changes.

It's true, indicators are usually always calculated and plotted nicely onto the graphs for a user. However, by understanding how each moving average is calculated, it will help traders identify the right MA to use, and know what settings to tweak so it yields more accurate results.

Makes sense, right?

How to calculate the different moving averages

As we mentioned above, there are 2 main types of moving averages. They are the Simple Moving Average (SMA) and Exponential Moving Average (EMA).

Let’s say we want to calculate the MAs of a 10 day range.

The SMA will take all the prices within the past 10 days added together, and divided by 10 to give the average. 

The EMA on the other hand, will weigh the difference between the current period's price and the previous EMA and adding the result to the previous EMA - so that the most recent price will take more weight while the older price is weighted less.

Let’s calculate this together with the following data set of 10 prices:

$10, $11, $11, $12, $14, $15, $17, $19, $20, $21

Simple moving average calculation

To calculate the SMA, we add all 10 prices together and divide it by 10 - 

  10 + 11 + 11 + 12+ 14 + 15 + 17 + 19 + 20 + 21 = 150

Then just divide it by the number of periods - in this case: 10.

Hence, we can conclude that the 10-day period SMA is $150/10 = $15

Expontential moving average calculation

To Calculate an EMA, we use this 3-step formula:

  1. Calculate the SMA
  2. Calculate the multiplier for weighting the EMA
  3. Calculate the current EMA

Using the previous data set of 10 values, we have established that the SMA is $15.

Let’s calculate step 2. 

The formula for calculating the weighting multiplier looks like this:

Weighting Multiplier = 2 ÷ (selected time period+1) 

In our case, 

Weighting Multiplier = 2 ÷ (10+1) 

= 0.1818 

= 18.18%

Using this, we can now calculate our EMA using this formula:

EMA = Price(t) × k + EMA (y) × (1−k)

where:

t=today

y=yesterday

N=number of days in EMA

k=2÷(N+1)

Adding our figures into the formula, 

EMA = Price(t)×k+EMA(y)×(1−k)

= 21 x 0.1818 + 15 x (1-0.1818)

= 3.8178 + (15 x 0.8182)

= 16.0908

A quick comparison:

Last price SMA EMA
21 15 16.0908

We can see that the EMA is closer to the last price than the SMA. This is due to the fact that the rise in price in our data set was calculated with a heavier weightage in the EMA than the SMA.

What time periods should we use in calculation?

In the example above, we calculated both the SMA and EMA with 10 days worth of data. This makes it a 10-period SMA / EMA.

When calculating moving averages, the time period used should depend on how closely the trader wants to follow the trend.

This table should provide a good estimate:

Short term trend 10 - 30 periods
Mid term trend 50 periods
Long term trend up to 200 period

Most traders use 50-day, 100-day and 200-day periods as they help identify the most significant long-term support and resistance levels. Using a larger number of periods allows more data to be studied, allowing for a more unbiased view of the overall trend.

Of course, study the charts well before deciding how many periods work best for the technical analysis being conducted. We will cover more about that in the next chapter!

Natural moving average

In this section, we will explain what the natural moving average is and how it differs from the SMA and EMA which we discussed earlier.

What is the natural moving average and why do you need it?

We believe that each market has its own unique characteristics. This means that using generic default settings may not yield accurate results. In order to accurately derive conclusions from the trends in the market, there should be a unique moving average to cater specifically to that market. 

As we mentioned earlier, many traders stick with the default 50, 100, 200-time frames. However, this will not always be accurate. Natural moving average enthusiasts believe that by finding a market’s natural moving average, they are able to catch the support and resistance areas more accurately. This is done with a combination of the Golden Ratio (Fibonacci Numbers) and past price movements. 

How do I use the Natural Moving Average?

It is important to note that Natural Moving Averages only work in trending markets. It does not work in a sideways moving market.

It is also important to note that the Natural Moving Average is not a different way of calculating the Moving Average, but an application of the existing Moving Averages. This means that this concept can be applied to both the SMA and the EMA. 

The natural moving average is Fibonacci-based. All that is needed to know is that Fibonacci is a mathematical sequence that is strong to the golden ratio – these numbers have been proven to be naturally-occurring, most pleasing to the eye, etc. These numbers are ingrained into the core of our earth and being, and Fibonacci essentially projects that market movements are likely to follow this sequence (or at least have a tendency to be drawn towards them). Learn more about Fibonacci here.

In order to use the natural moving average, traders must first know the Fibonacci numbers. 

The Fibonacci Numbers are:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657, 46368, 75025, 121393, 196418, 317811, ...

What traders essentially have to do is to apply each Fibonacci number by trial and error into the chart’s EMA or SMA time-frame settings. (Whether they use the EMA or SMA depends on which one they feel is most applicable to the asset they are analysing.)

By trial and error, traders identify which Fibonacci number provides the MA line with most number of price touches, without price breaking above/below it. Also, the price should not be too far away from the line – if that is the case, the time frame used may be too large.

Let’s illustrate this with USDJPY, 8hr chart as an example:

8 hour chart of USDJPY

Step 1

First, let’s identify the trends. As mentioned before, the natural moving average only works in trending markets.

Identify trends of natural moving average

As seen above, 4 main trends have been identified using the Golden arrows.

Step 2

Now, take note of the placement of these trends, as a trader will have to put on a Moving Average indicator and start toggling the time-frame settings to find which number will produce a line that best follows the market.

For this example, we will use the Exponential Moving Average Indicator.

Step 3

Once the indicator is on the chart, begin testing the Fibonacci numbers to look for the Natural Moving Average. The Natural Moving Average should not be too tight nor too loose – since the MA functions as a support or resistance line, the MA should sit nicely along the trends with as many points as possible bouncing off it.

Setting up EMA on trading chart

By default, the length (or time frame) is set at 9. Observing the blue line in relation to the candlesticks in the graph, this line is too tight – it is moving too closely to price. As we learned previously that MA should help us reduce the “noise” in the market, having a small time frame does not reduce the noise. From this, we know we need to try a bigger time frame.

Here are some Fibonacci numbers bigger than 9 that we can try:

13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

Step 4

For a start, let’s try 89. 

The screenshot below shows what the EMA looks like when the period is set at 89

Period of 89 using EMA

As we can tell, 89 is probably too wide a time frame as the price does not touch the start, middle and end points of the big trend identified by Golden arrows 2 and 3. So we are ruling out both 89 and 144. And next,

13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144

Step 5

Let’s try a smaller time frame to see if it may be better. The screenshot below shows the EMA with a 34 time frame.

Period of 34 using EMA

As seen in the screenshot, price bounces off the EMA at multiple points (in yellow boxes) within a trend. Where a trend is continuing, the price does not break the EMA. This seems to be most accurate at the downtrend, as we can see from the circled portions – 2 of the 3 are on the downtrends.

From this, we can safely say that in a downtrend, 34 is a strong natural moving average for USDJPY in this particular time frame. Note that prices change over time and we, as traders should remain adaptable and flexible to any market condition.

This is a pretty straightforward concept, but also a very useful one. Once traders grasp it, they can apply it to any graph out there.

How to use moving averages

Find out in the next section how to use moving averages and the main ways traders use an MA to identify signals.

Types of interpretation for moving averages (MA)

There are 3 main ways of using the Moving Averages for signal generation:

  1. Price Crossover
  2. Moving Average Crosses
  3. Indicator Crosses

Each of these crossovers can be used in both bullish and bearish scenarios. The differences between these 3 ways are the matching of different elements with the Moving Average (MA). 

Price Crossover

This method is the combination of the Price data and the Moving Average. It is the simplest and most popular method of interpreting a moving average.

Price crossover moving average

In the example above, using the USD/JPY chart at the 2 hour timeframe, with a 50-period SMA represented by the Blue line. When the candle indicated by the red arrow closes beneath the blue line, price continues to head in a bearish direction. And when the candle indicated by the green arrow closes above the blue line, the price continues to head in a bullish direction.

Moving Average Crossover

This method is the combination of Multiple Moving Averages. Where a signal to take action is generated when the lines cross each other on the price charts.

Moving average crossover

In this example above, we are using 2 Moving averages. A 20-period Moving average (Orange-Line) has been added on top of the 50-period Moving average (Blue-Line). You can see that the orange line moves closer to the price. And the signal for bullish momentum is spotted when the orange line crosses above the blue, and bearish momentum is spotted when the orange line crosses under the blue.

Indicated by the yellow boxes on the image, how many bullish and bearish momentum are spotted? (Hint: 2 bullish, 2 bearish)

Indicator Crossover

Last but not least, we have the indicator crossover which is a combination of putting a Moving Average (MA) into an indicator.

In this example, we have a Rate of Change(20-period) indicator underneath the price chart. And now, we will be adding a 50-period MA into the ROC indicator window, instead of the price chart.

Using the ROC indicator and MA on USDJPY chart

The 50-period moving average is represented by the smooth red line, while ROC is represented by the Light Blue line. And a signal is generated every time ROC crosses the 50-period moving average.

Bearish signal identified using ROC indicator and MA

A bearish signal is generated when the ROC crosses above the 50-period MA, notice how the price continues to drop further as ROC remains under the 50-period MA.

Bullish signal identified using ROC indicator and MA

A bullish signal is generated the moment ROC crosses back above the 50-period moving average. Traders can also adjust the sensitivity of the Moving Average and Rate-of-Change to generate more signals if the market is not trending in big moves like this example.

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FAQ


Why is the moving average indicator so popular?

The moving average indicator is one of the most popular indicators in technical analysis, used by investors and traders alike. This is partly due to the fact that moving averages are relatively simple to understand and use, requiring minimal knowledge of statistics or other complex mathematical concepts. But the popularity of moving averages can also be attributed to the fact that they can be a highly effective forecasting tool, providing valuable information about likely future trends in prices.


What is the best moving average indicator for forex traders?

There is no single moving average indicator that is universally considered to be the best for forex traders. Each indicator excels at certain trading objectives, and selecting the right one for a traders needs will depend on their preferred trading strategy and risk tolerance. One popular moving average indicator is the simple moving average, which tracks an average value of a price over a set period of time. This type of moving average is ideal for identifying trends in short-term price movements and can be especially useful when used together with other indicators or technical analysis tools.


What is the best moving average crossover combination?

When it comes to moving average indicators, there are a number of different combinations that can be used to achieve better trading results. Perhaps the most popular moving average crossover combination is a moving average of 10 days combined with a moving average of 20 days. Both moving averages are typically plotted on a graph, with prices moving up and down over time to indicate market trends. When these two moving averages intersect in such a way that the shorter moving average crosses above the longer moving average, this is called a bullish crossover.



Desmond Leong

Market Analyst, Axi

Desmond Leong runs an award-winning research team (2019, 2020, 2021 Finalists for Best FX Research and Best Equity Research) advising the largest banks and brokers on where the markets are heading. He specialises in technical analysis with a focus on Fibonacci, chaos theory, correlations, market structure and Elliott Wave. He is incredibly passionate in helping people become better traders, working closely with Axi on educational content like the eBooks series.

 

 

The information is not to be construed as a recommendation; or an offer to buy or sell; or the solicitation of an offer to buy or sell any security, financial product, or instrument; or to participate in any trading strategy. Readers should seek their own advice. Reproduction or redistribution of this information is not permitted.


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