Conditional orders for stock trades

[The basic concept of ‘price diligence’ was inserted on 3/20/2015.  The MockTrades planner was updated on 12/11/2014]

Introduction

Individual investors typically use a market order to buy and sell stocks, ETFs, and REITs.   Market orders activate the trade immediately at the next available price; this controls the time rather than the price.  You can exert more control over trading conditions by placing a conditional (a.k.a. advanced, automated) order.  Conditional orders are considered a form of ‘price diligence’ because they specify the share’s price for activating the trade at any time during approximately 60-90 days, depending on your brokerage firm’s expiration date.  The conditional order controls the price rather than the time of the trade.  After reading this article, you may wish to download SmallTrade’s MockTrades4 for free; it’s uniquely designed to account for market volatility when planning a conditional order.

The trading arena; a simplified description

Stocks and other securities are traded for cash by an auction process in the stock market.  The participants are investors who make offers, brokers who generate orders, and traders who finalize the orders.  Individual investors submit offers to brokers through a computer terminal or by direct communication.  Use of the computer terminal gives the illusion of directly participating in the auction process, but there are several intermediary steps occurring at the speed of light along with a few brief delays.  The first delay is at the brokerage firm where all offers are filtered, recorded, and transmitted to traders in the stock market.  At any moment in the stock market, there are millions of orders to buy and sell securities.

The broker’s computer program, called a trading platform, provides investors with a market quote plus commands for placing a trading order.  The market quote reports a current purchasing price (“ASK”), sales price (“BID”), last-traded price, and latest number (a.k.a. volume, quantity) of traded shares (a.k.a. units).  Valid trading orders are announced to all market participants and filled at the next available price. The next available price is determined by an auction of the available shares for which a trader serves as the auctioneer.  The price can fluctuate between trades and is not protected from fluctuation until the order is filled.  Brokers and traders are always paid a fee for their services.  Custodians are hired by brokers to store traded securities in electronic accounts on behalf of the investors.

Trading orders

As an individual investor, you may place one of several types of trading orders in your broker’s trading platform.  The simplest, called a market order, merely specifies the number of shares to be traded.  The market order is filled immediately unless a time delay is imposed by an undersupply of available shares.

A limit order specifies the preferred price of the trade.  This order is filled when the next available price either matches the limit price or provides a better price {in other words, the limit price is YOUR minimum selling price or maximum purchasing price}.  There is only one opportunity for the limit order to be filled after it is placed in the market.  In rare instances, an unusual market event may shift the next available price out of your limit’s price range, in which case the order is cancelled without an exchange of cash for shares.  Your only recourse is to place a new limit order.  The limit order is used to protect from shifting prices.

Stop and stop-limit orders are useful for protecting against losses of investment capital.  The stop is a specific price at which your trading order will be submitted as a market order.  Your stop is stored in the exchange’s computer until it is submitted or expires at the end of a time period called the time-in-force (“TIF”).   The market order is then filled immediately at the next available price, which may shift to a better or worse price than the stop’s price.  The stop-limit is a specific price at which your trading order will be submitted to the stock exchange as a limit order.  It too has an expiration date.  The limit order protects your trading price until the order is filled, cancelled by the expiration date, or cancelled by an unusual market event. Your only recourse to a cancelled order is to place a new stop-limit order.

Trailing stop orders provide opportunities to seek a better trading price in the market.   The trailing stop is a specific point spread (1 point equals $1) by which the stop price will trail the movement of market prices toward a better price.  In general, the trailing stop can move toward a better price but won’t move toward a worse price.  The trailing price resides above or below the market’s price by the cash value of the point spread.  The trailing price adjusts upward with market prices when you offer to sell shares and downward when you offer to buy shares.  Reversal of the market price initially stops the adjustment of the trailing price and eventually triggers the submission of a market order.   The trailing stop order is stored in the brokerage firm’s computer until its expiration date or the submission of a market order.

Setting the stop

Trading platforms are designed to set stops above the ASK and below the BID of a market quote.  For example, when you offer to purchase shares with a stop or trailing stop order, a market order is submitted when the market’s ASK increases to the stop price.  Or when you offer to sell shares with stop-limit order, a limit order is submitted when the market’s BID decreases to the stop price.

The likelihood that daily fluctuations in market price will trigger any type of stop order depends on the width of the margin between the stop price and market price.  Exceptionally narrow margins may trigger an order the same day and exceptionally wide margins may cause the order to expire before being triggered.  The width of the margin depends on your trading strategy.  What is your acceptable price range for buying and selling a security?  Do you prefer using the same margin for all stops or customizing the margin based on price volatility?  The SmallTrades MockTrades4 is a free, useful worksheet (in Microsoft’s Excel™ format) for customizing the stop margin of your trading order.

Applications

Stop and stop limit orders are typically used to protect against capital losses when market prices are declining.  Trailing stop orders can help maximize a sales price or minimize a purchase price.   Examples of these applications can be found online in the educational materials of brokerage firms.  This user-friendly version, “Secure your position”, was a free download provided by the Commonwealth Securities Limited (“CommSec”), Sydney, web site.

Copyright © 2014 Douglas R. Knight

 

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