Trend Following Primer: The First Steps

“A back of an envelope algorithm is often good enough to compete with an optimal formula, and certainly good enough to outdo expert judgment.”
Jerry Parker, the most successful TurtleTrader

Michael Covel
Michael Covel

What is trend following trading exactly?

Author Van Tharp offers:

“Let’s break down the term ‘trend following’ into its components. The first part is ‘trend.’ Every trader needs a trend to make money. If you think about it, no matter what the technique, if there is not a trend after you buy, then you will not be able to sell at higher prices … ‘following’ is the next part of the term. We use this word because trend followers always wait for the trend to shift first, then ‘follow’ it.”

Another way of saying trend following from a pro trend trader:

“Systematic managers trade by following non-emotional sets of trading rules often based on mathematical models of market behavior. Systematic managers use their judgment and intuition in designing their market models and trading systems. Discretionary managers, on the other hand, apply judgment and intuition in making every trading decision.”

Yet another view:

“A trend follower attempts to identify developing price patterns with this property and trade in the direction of the trend if and when they occur. They use only the current and historical price of the asset to make trading decisions and the approach can be summarized by the expression follow the herd.”

Still some ask: “What is a trend?”

One of the best explanations comes from top trend follower and one of my mentors, Ed Seykota:

“A trend is a general drift or tendency in a set of data. All measurements of trend involve taking a current reading and a historical reading and comparing them. If the current reading is higher than the historical reading, we have an up-trend. If lower, we have a down-trend. In the improbable event of an exact match, we have a sideways trend. The direction of the trend depends upon the method we use to perform the comparison. Real instruments fluctuate minute-to-minute, day-to-day and year-to-year. We have, therefore an enormous supply of historical points to use to determine trend. As such, we can determine as many instances of trend as we please, in any direction that we please. There is no such thing as the trend; there are countless trends, depending on the method we use to determine a trend. People typically pick a method for determining trend that fits with their current positions and/or view of the market. All methods of defining trends compare various combinations of historical price points. All trends are historical, none are in the present. There is no way to determine the current trend, or even define what current trend might mean; we can only determine historical trends. The only way to measure a now-trend (one entirely in the moment of now) would be to take two points, both in the now and compute their difference. Motion, velocity and trend do not exist in the now. They do not appear in snapshots. Trend does not exist in the now and the phrase, “the trend” has no inherent meaning. When we speak of trends, we are speaking, necessarily, from some or another view of history. There is no such thing as a current trend. When we speak of trends we are necessarily projecting our own definitions. With that in mind, we can proceed to examine ways to define, compute and use trends.”

There are many ways to describe trend following, but they all come back to the same thing: Trend following trading is reactive by nature. It does not forecast or predict markets or price levels. Prediction is impossible. Trend trading demands self-discipline to follow precise rules (no guessing or wild emotions). It involves a risk management system that uses current market price, the equity level in your account and current market volatility. Trend traders use an initial risk rule that determines position size at the time of entry. This means you know exactly how much to buy or sell based on how much money you have. Changes in price may lead to a gradual reduction or increase of your initial trade. On the other hand, adverse price movements may lead to an exit from your entire trade. Historically, a trend trader’s average profit per trade is significantly higher than the average loss per trade.

Trend trading is not a passing fad or hyped-up secret black box either. Beyond mere rules, the human element is core. It takes discipline and emotional control to stick with trend trading through inevitable market ups and downs. Trend following seeks to capture the majority of a market trend, up or down, for profit. It aims for huge profits in all major asset classes — stocks, ETFs, LEAPS® options, bonds, currencies, futures and commodities.

Think of it this way: trend following is the only strategy that you could trade on a desert island. As long as you have market data each day, everything else is useless (i.e. CNBC, news, fundamentals, broker opinions, talking heads, etc.) for making the big money.

Top Reasons for Trend Following Investing

Author Seth Godin said it well:

“Golf is not safe. My grandfather died playing golf. Speaking up is not safe. People might be offended. Innovation is not safe. You’ll fail. Perhaps badly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what are you going to do about it? Hide? Crouch in a corner and work as hard as you can to fit in? That’s not safe, either. Might as well do something that matters instead.”

Key points that further explain systematic trend following trading:

  • Profit in up and down markets: Trend following doesn’t swear an allegiance to a bull or bear market. It follows trends to the end. No matter how ridiculous trends might appear early and no matter how insanely extended they might appear at the end, follow trends. Why? They always go farther than anyone expects. Ignore momentum at your peril.
  • No more buy and hold, analysts, or news: Trend following decision-making doesn’t involve discretion, guesses, gut feelings, or hunches. It’s not day trading or buy and hope. It doesn’t involve passive indexing, in and out trading, or fundamental analysis. No more 24-hour news cycles, daily turbulence, or sensational hype. No black boxes or magic formulas either. Let go of the Holy Grails.
  • No prediction: Trends exist everywhere, always coming and always going. Markets are no different: They trend up and down. That said, no one can predict a market trend, you can only react to one. Trend following never anticipates the beginning or end of a trend. It only acts when the trend changes. There is no need to figure out why a market is trending, just follow it. You don’t need to understand electricity to use it.
  • The big money of letting profits run: Trend following at its best aims to compound absolute returns. It doesn’t shoot for average. The goal is to make the knock your socks off returns, not passbook savings interest. Trend following also has the unique ability to lie and wait for targets of opportunity. That means killing it on unpredictable surprises.
  • Risk management is top priority: Trend following always has defined exit protocols to control injury to your account. Stop losses and proper leverage usage are standard practice. Trend following also has low to negative correlations with most other investment opportunities.
  • Takes advantage of mass psychology: Trend following takes advantage of panicky sheep behavior. Strict discipline minimizes behavioral biases. It solves the eagerness to realize gains and reluctance to crystallize losses. Too many people believe what pleases them. Most behaviors are simply driven by the impulsive moment of now. Trend following wins because of that.
  • Scientific approach to trading: Trend following doesn’t require a belief, but rather it relies on unwavering scientific principles. It has a defined edge just like the MIT card-counting team that beat Vegas casinos. Be the casino, not the hapless player. Trend following uses rigid rules rooted in numbers. Think process not outcome. Remember, frequency of correctness is not the issue, the magnitude of correctness matters. Winning percentage means zilch.
  • Strong historical performance in crisis periods: Trend following is adaptable to differing climates and environments performing best during periods of rising volatility and uncertainty. The unknown will happen again. Are you ready? You have to be able to ride the bucking bronco. Ride the storm out and stay alive.
  • No traditional diversification: Trend following is not restricted to any single market or instrument. A focus on price action allows trend following to be applied to an exceptionally large variety of markets. Price is the one thing that all markets have in common. A trend trading system for treasury bonds should also work on the Euro and stocks. Trend following is robust.
  • No government reliance: Forget Social Security, bailouts, stimulus plans, and roads to nowhere. Those won’t help you to make money; they only help you lose. When the Fed puts on or takes off the training wheels (read: rate manipulation), will you be ready to mint cash or will you sit there and just take it again? If your portfolio is grounded in sound principles you can win no matter what happens.


Listen to interviews with trend following legends.

Read about the origins of trend following.

Read more about trend following systems & training.