It is nearly impossible to talk about chart patterns on stocks without eventually discussing the very common Head and Shoulders (H&S) pattern. An H&S pattern is a reversal pattern that forms after an uptrend. A textbook H&S pattern starts to form when a stock rallies to a point and then pulls back to a particular level (shoulder #1). Next, the stock will rally again, but this time to a higher peak (head) than the previous shoulder. After forming the head, the stock will pull back to the same support as the first shoulder did. Finally, the stock rallies a 3rd time, but not as high as the head (shoulder #2). The level that has been created by all 3 of the pullbacks is simply a support level referred to as the “neckline”. The formation of an H&S pattern warns of a potential reversal of the uptrend into a possible downtrend.
As with any chart pattern, a trader will usually not want to act on the pattern until the stock “confirms” the pattern. Confirmation is the break of the key level that has been created by the pattern. In the case of an H&S, confirmation would be when the stock breaks the neckline (support).
What some new traders do not know is that H&S patterns can also form upside-down after an uptrend as well. This pattern is a little more rare and would be called an Inverse Head and Shoulders pattern. It would also be considered a continuation pattern, not a reversal pattern, and the neckline would be a resistance rather than a support. To see such a pattern formed, please take a look at the 1-year chart of MSI (Motorola Solutions, Inc.) below with my added notations:
After moving higher for more than a year, MSI formed what appeared to be an Inverse H&S (blue). I have noted the head (H) and the shoulders (S) to make the pattern more visible. (For future reference, if you imagine this pattern flipped upside down you would have a regular H&S pattern.) MSI’s neckline was at the $48 level (navy). MSI confirmed the pattern by breaking up through the $48 resistance/neckline last week and the stock should be moving higher from here.
Chart patterns can also provide price targets. Simply take the height of the overall pattern and add or subtract that amount to or from the breakout or breakdown point to get the minimum price objective. For example, since the H&S pattern for MSI is $10 high ($48 – $38), MSI should climb to a minimum of $58 ($48 + $10) now that the pattern has confirmed. Chart pattern price targets are certainly not guarantees, but they are often fulfilled.
Lastly, keep in mind that simple is usually better. Had I never pointed out this Inverse H&S pattern, one would still think this stock is moving higher simply because it broke through the $48 resistance level. In short, whether you noticed the pattern or not, the trade would still be the same: On the break above the key $48 level, which was also a new 52-week high.
The Tale of the Tape: After a long uptrend, MSI formed an Inverse Head & Shoulders pattern and confirmed it last week. A long trade could be entered on a pullback to the $48 level with a stop placed under that level. A break back below $48 would negate the forecast for MSI’s move higher.
Before making any trading decision, decide which side of the trade you believe gives you the highest probability of success. Do you prefer the short side of the market, long side, or do you want to be in the market at all? If you haven’t thought about it, review the overall indices themselves. For example, take a look at the S&P 500. Is it trending higher or lower? Has it recently broken through a key resistance or support level? Making these decisions ahead of time will help you decide which side of the trade you believe gives you the best opportunities.
No matter what your strategy or when you decide to enter, always remember to use protective stops and you’ll be around for the next trade. Capital preservation is always key!
Christian Tharp, CMT