BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- The stop loss. ask any active trader or investor what they think of stop losses, and you’re bound to get a unique, passionate answer. Some market participants won’t enter a trade without them, while others vow to never use a stop loss again.

Even if some investors decry stop losses, if used properly stops can be an incredibly effective tool to limit risk and increase the occurrence of profitable trades.

Today, we’ll take a look at how to effectively use stop losses from a technical perspective.

First, though, let’s take a look at exactly what a stop loss is. Stop losses, or stops, are sell orders that trigger if and only if a stock reaches a predetermined condition. That condition may be a set price, a set percentage decline, or a set absolute (dollar value) decline. They’re used for one of two reasons: to avoid losing too much money (this is known as a protective stop), or to lock in gains.


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    To fulfill that task, there are also a few different kinds of stop loss orders. The traditional stop loss order sends your broker a market order when it’s triggered, whereas the stop-limit order not surprisingly sends a limit order. As you might expect, stop-limit orders can often secure you a better fill price on your stock -- but only when they get filled. For a stock that’s quickly crashing, a market order may be your only option.

    Another type of stop order is the trailing stop, which is used primarily to lock in gains. As your position increases in value, your trailing stop ratchets higher and higher -- but it only triggers if your percent-decline or dollar value decline conditions are met.

    The Value of Stops for Technical Traders

    It doesn’t surprise me that stop losses are so controversial. For a fundamentals-only investor, stops can be downright terrifying. The oft-described stop loss nightmare comes from the fear that an investor will get stopped out only to see shares rocket in the ensuing weeks and months. Part of the problem is that fundamental investors can only base their stop loss levels on how much pain they’re willing to take. If you’re not willing to take more than a 10% hit on a stock, that’s where you place your stop -- regardless of the market conditions.

    For technical analysts though, stops are perfectly suited to this style of trading. That’s because technicians base stop levels on key areas of support and resistance (in the case of a short-side trade, of course), areas that act as intermediate price floors and ceilings for shares of a given stock. That’s even more significant because generally a broken support level or trend line means that the technical setup is broken and it’s time to get out of shares.

    Fundamental investors see deteriorating company values -- such as debt increases or revenue drops -- as a reason to unload shares; because technical investors use market conditions to determine whether a trade is still worth owning, stops make a lot of sense to use.

    Picking Out Your Stop-Loss Levels

    Implementing stop losses on your trades isn’t as difficult as it first appears. I’ve long held that any trader worth his salt has his exit strategy in mind before ever placing that first trade. You should be well aware of the conditions that break your technical setup ahead of time. Not surprisingly, you’ll want to place your stop loss at those levels.

    To learn more about determining support and resistance levels for your stops, check out the primers on Support and Resistance, Moving Averages and Trend Line Support.

    Of course, picking stop loss levels becomes tougher in practice. Intraday whipsaws can trigger stops even if shares trade low for just a few minutes on a given day. To combat that, placing stops several percentage points below a support level is an effective method. While it’ll mean that you get a lower fill price if a stop does get hit, the chances of seeing that stop violated are significantly lower.

    Another effective way to use stops is by not using stop loss orders at all. Instead of using “hard stops” (real orders that can trigger on a certain price break), attentive traders may want to consider mental stops that are tied to alerts generated by your trading platform. While more subjective than hard stops, some experience in the markets can often help you determine whether that intraday stop violation is likely to hold, or whether it’s just a whipsaw. Deciding to only honor stops when a stock closes below your condition prices is another way to accomplish this same objective.

    Mental stops can spare you some unnecessary losses, but they also require experience and attentiveness to the markets. If you have a day job, opt for the peace of mind that hard stops provide -- just keep them from being too close to your support levels.

    While stop losses will likely continue to elicit impassioned opinions from investors for the foreseeable future, knowing the specifics on implementing stops can help limit your risk, lock in your gains, and take some of the emotional impact out of your next trade. Next week, we’ll add to your technical repertoire with another primer that will bring you closer to implementing technical analysis for your portfolio.

    In the mean time, do you have a burning technical analysis question? Get it answered by heading to Stockpickr Answers.

    -- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.


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    Jonas Elmerraji, based out of Baltimore, is the editor and portfolio manager of the Rhino Stock Report, a free investment advisory that returned 15% in 2008. He is a contributor to numerous financial outlets, including Forbes and Investopedia, and has been featured in Investor's Business Daily, in Consumer's Digest and on