S calping is a trading style that specializes in profiting off of small price changes and making a fast profit off reselling. In day trading, scalping is a term for a strategy to prioritize making high volumes off small profits.
Scalping requires a trader to have a strict exit strategy because one large loss could eliminate the many small gains the trader worked to obtain. Thus, having the right tools—such as a live feed, a direct-access broker, and the stamina to place many trades—is required for this strategy to be successful. Read on to find out more about this strategy, the different types of scalping, and tips about how to use this style of trading.
How Stock Scalping Works
Scalping is based on an assumption that most stocks will complete the first stage of a movement. But where it goes from there is uncertain. After that initial stage, some stocks cease to advance, while others continue advancing. A discounter intends to take as many small profits as possible. This is the opposite of the "let your profits run" mindset, which attempts to optimize positive trading results by increasing the size of winning trades. This strategy achieves results by increasing the number of winners and sacrificing the size of the wins.
It's not uncommon for a trader with a longer time frame to achieve positive results by winning only half, or even less, of their trades–it's just that the wins are much bigger than the losses. A successful stock scalper, however, will have a much higher ratio of winning trades versus losing ones, while keeping profits roughly equal or slightly bigger than losses.
The main premises of scalping are:
- Lessened exposure limits risk: A brief exposure to the market diminishes the probability of running into an adverse event.
- Smaller moves are easier to obtain: A bigger imbalance of supply and demand is needed to warrant bigger price changes. For example, it is easier for a stock to make a $0.01 move than it is to make a $1 move.
- Smaller moves are more frequent than larger ones: Even during relatively quiet markets, there are many small movements a scalper can exploit.
Scalping can be adopted as a primary or supplementary style of trading.
Spreads in Scalping vs. Normal Trading Strategy
When scalpers trade, they want to profit off the changes in a security's bid-ask spread. That's the difference between the price a broker will buy a security from a scalper (the bid price) and the price the broker will sell it (the ask price) to the scalper. So, the scalper is looking for a narrower spread. But in normal circumstances, trading is fairly consistent and can allow for steady profits. That's because the spread between the bid and the ask is also steady (supply and demand for securities is balanced).
Scalping as a Primary Trading Style
A pure scalper will make a number of trades each day—perhaps in the hundreds. A scalper will mostly utilize tick, or one-minute charts, since the time frame is small, and they need to see the setups as they take shape as close to real-time as possible. Supporting systems such as Direct Access Trading (DAT) and Level 2 quotations are essential for this type of trading. Automatic, instant execution of orders is crucial to a scalper, so a direct-access broker is the preferred method.
Scalping as a Supplementary Style
Traders with longer time frames can use scalping as a supplementary approach. The most obvious way is to use it when the market is choppy or locked in a narrow range. When there are no trends in a longer time frame, going to a shorter time frame can reveal visible and exploitable trends, which can lead a trader to pursue a scalp. Another way to add scalping to longer time-frame trades is through the so-called "umbrella" concept. This approach allows a trader to improve their cost basis and maximize a profit. Umbrella trades are done in the following way:
- A trader initiates a position for a longer time-frame trade.
- While the main trade develops, a trader identifies new setups in a shorter time frame in the direction of the main trade, entering and exiting them by the principles of scalping.
Based on particular setups, any trading system can be used for the purposes of scalping. In this regard, scalping can be seen as a kind of risk management method. Basically, any trade can be turned into a scalp by taking a profit near the 1:1 risk/reward ratio. This means that the size of the profit taken equals the size of a stop dictated by the setup. If, for instance, a trader enters his or her position for a scalp trade at $20 with an initial stop at $19.90, the risk is $0.10. This means a 1:1 risk/reward ratio will be reached at $20.10.
Scalp trades can be executed on both long and short sides. They can be done on breakouts or in range-bound trading. Many traditional chart formations, such as cups and handles or triangles, can be used for scalping. The same can be said about technical indicators if a trader bases decisions on them.