WHAT IS THE ADX INDICATOR? – EXPLANATION & EXAMPLES

The Average Directional Index (ADX), Minus Directional Indicator (-DI) and Plus Directional Indicator (+DI) represent a group of directional indicators that form a trading system developed by Welles Wilder. Although Wilder designed his Directional Movement System with commodities and daily prices in mind, these indicators can also be applied to stocks.

ADX indicator in the chart

Positive and negative directional movements form the backbone of the Directional Movement System. Wilder determined directional movement by comparing the difference between two consecutive lows to the difference between their respective highs.

The Plus Directional Indicator (+DI) and the Minus Directional Indicator (-DI) are derived from smoothed averages of these differences and measure trend direction over time. These two indicators are often collectively referred to as the Directional Indicator (DMI).

The Average Directional Index (ADX), in turn, is derived from smoothed averages of the difference between +DI and -DI; it measures the strength of the trend (regardless of direction) over time.

ADX Indicator Explanation

When these three indicators are used together, chartists can determine both the direction and the strength of the trend.

Wilder introduces the directional movement indicators in his 1978 book, New Concepts in Technical Trading Systems. This book also details the Average True Range (ATR), the Parabolic SAR system, and the RSI. Although they were developed before the computer age, Wilder’s indicators are incredibly detailed in their calculations and have stood the test of time.

CALCULATION OF ADX INDICATOR:

Directional movement is calculated by comparing the difference between two consecutive lows to the difference between their respective highs.

A directional movement is positive (plus) if the current high minus the previous high is greater than the previous low minus the current low. This so-called plus directional movement (+DM) is then equal to the current high minus the previous high if it is positive. A negative value would simply be entered as zero.

A Directional Movement is negative (minus) if the previous low minus the current low is greater than the current high minus the previous high. This so-called Minus Directional Movement (DM) is equal to the previous low minus the current low, provided it is positive. A negative value would simply be entered as zero.

Example with period 14

The calculation steps for the Average Directional Index (ADX), Plus Directional Indicator (+DI) and Minus Directional Indicator (-DI) are based on the Plus Directional Movement (+DM) and Minus Directional Movement (-DM) values calculated above and the Average True Range. The smoothed versions of +DM and -DM are divided by a smoothed version of Average True Range to reflect the true magnitude of the movement.

Note: The Average True Range (ATR) is not described because there is a whole article on it(here). Basically, the ATR is Wilder’s version of the two-period trading range.

The following calculation example is based on Wilder’s recommended setting of a 14-period indicator:

  1. Calculate the true trading range (TR), plus directional movement (+DM), and minus directional movement (-DM) for each period.
    Smooth these periodic values using Wilder’s smoothing techniques. These are explained in detail in the next section.
  2. Divide the smoothed 14-day Plus Directional Movement (+DM) by the smoothed 14-day True Range to find the 14-day Plus Directional Indicator (+DI14).
  3. Multiply by 100 to move the decimal point two places. This +DI14 is the green Plus Directional Indicator (+DI) line drawn along with the ADX line.
  4. Divide the smoothed 14-day minus directional movement (-DM) by the smoothed 14-day true range to get the 14-day minus directional indicator (-DI14).
  5. Multiply by 100 to move the decimal point two places. This -DI14 is the red minus Directional Indicator (-DI) line drawn along with the ADX line.
  6. The Directional Movement Index (DX) is equal to the absolute value of +DI14 minus -DI14 divided by the sum of +DI14 and -DI14. Multiply the result by 100 to move the decimal point over two places.
  7. After all these steps, it is time to calculate the ADX (Average Directional Index) line.
  8. The first ADX value is simply a 14-day average of DX. Subsequent ADX values are smoothed by multiplying the previous 14-day ADX value by 13, adding the most recent DX value, and dividing this sum by 14.

Smoothing Techniques for the ADX Indicator

It is important to understand the impact of all smoothing performed in the ADX, +DI, and -DI calculations. Due to Wilder’s smoothing techniques, it may take approximately 150 data periods to obtain true ADX values. Wilder uses similar smoothing techniques in its RSI and Average True Range calculations. ADX values that use only 30 periods of historical data do not match ADX values that use 150 periods of historical data. ADX values that include 150 days or more of data remain consistent.

The first technique is used to smooth the +DM1, -DM1, and TR1 values of each period over 14 periods. As with an exponential moving average, the calculation must start somewhere, so the first value is simply the sum of the first 14 periods. As shown below, the smoothing begins with the second 14-period calculation and continues throughout.

First TR14 = Sum of the first 14 periods of TR1
Second TR14 = First TR14 – (First TR14/14) + Current TR1
Subsequent values = Prior TR14 – (Prior TR14/14) + Current TR1

The second technique is used to smooth the DX value of each period and finish with the Average Directional Index (ADX). First, calculate an average for the first 14 days as a starting point. The second and subsequent calculations will use the smoothing technique below:

First ADX14 = 14 period average of DX
Second ADX14 = ((First ADX14 x 13) + Current DX value)/14
Subsequent ADX14 = ((Previous ADX14 x 13) + Current DX value)/14

INTERPRETATIONS OF THE ADX:

The Average Directional Index (ADX) is used to measure the strength or weakness of a trend, not the actual direction. Directional movement is defined by +DI and -DI. In general, bulls have the advantage when +DI is greater than -DI, while bears have the advantage when -DI is greater. Crosses of these directional indicators can be combined with ADX for a complete trading system.

Before looking at some signals with examples, keep in mind that Wilder was a commodity and currency trader. The examples in his books are based on these instruments, not stocks. However, this does not mean that his indicators cannot be used with stocks. Some stocks have similar price characteristics to commodities, which tend to be more volatile when trends are short and strong. Stocks with low volatility may not generate signals based on Wilder’s parameters. Chartists will likely need to adjust indicator settings or signal parameters according to the characteristics of the security.

Measuring the strength of the trend

At its simplest, the Average Directional Index (ADX) can be used to determine whether a security is trending or not. This determination helps traders choose between a trend-following system or a non-trend-following system. Wilder assumes that a strong trend exists when the ADX is above 25 and that no trend exists when the ADX is below 20. There appears to be a gray area between 20 and 25. As mentioned above, chartists may need to adjust settings to increase sensitivity and signals. The ADX also has a fairly large lag due to all the smoothing techniques. Many technical analysts use 20 as the key level for ADX.

Strong trend measurement with ADX

The chart above shows Nordstrom (JWN) with the 50-day SMA and the 14-day Average Directional Index (ADX). The stock moved from a strong uptrend to a strong downtrend in April-May, but the ADX remained above 20 as the strong uptrend quickly turned into a strong downtrend. There were two non-trend periods as the stock formed a bottom in February and August. After the August bottom, a strong trend emerged as the ADX moved above 20 and stayed above 20.

Trend directions and crossovers:

Wilder presented a simple system for trading these directional movement indicators. The first requirement is that the ADX trades above 25. This ensures that prices are trending. However, many traders use 20 as a key level. A buy signal occurs when +DI crosses above -DI.

  • ADX should trade above 20 or 25

Wilder based the initial stop on the low of the signal day. The signal remains in effect as long as this low holds, even if +DI crosses back below -DI.

ADX Trend Crossing

Wait for this low to be broken before exiting the signal. This bullish signal is strengthened when the ADX turns up and the trend strengthens. Once the trend develops and becomes profitable, traders must include a stop loss and a trailing stop in case the trend continues. A sell signal is triggered when -DI crosses above +DI. The high on the day of the sell signal becomes the initial stop loss.

The chart above shows the S&P500 with the three directional movement indicators. Note that 20 is used instead of 25 to qualify ADX signals. A lower setting means more possible signals. The green dotted lines indicate buy signals and the blue dotted lines indicate sell signals. Wilder’s initial stops were not incorporated to focus on the indicator signals.

As the chart clearly shows, there are numerous +DI and -DI crosses. Some occur at ADX above 25 to confirm signals. Others occur to invalidate signals. As with most of these systems, there are good signals and bad signals. The key, as always, is to incorporate other aspects of technical analysis.

ADX im EURUSD Tageschart
ADX in the EURUSD Daily Chart

The chart above shows the EUR/USD with 2 signals over a 12 month period. These 2 signals were quite good provided profits were taken and trailing stops were used. The Wilder’s Parabolic SAR could have been used to set a trailing stop loss. Of course, depending on the market, other signals may come up.

Summary and conclusion of the Average Directional Index

The Directional Movement System indicator calculations are complex, interpretation is straightforward, and successful implementation requires practice. +DI and -DI transitions are quite common, and chartists must filter these signals with complementary analysis. Setting an ADX requirement reduces the signals, but this over-smoothed indicator tends to filter as many good signals as bad ones.

In other words, chartists might consider relegating ADX to the background and focusing on Directional Movement Indicators (+DI and -DI) to generate signals. These crossover signals will be similar to those generated by pulse oscillators. Therefore, chartists will need to look elsewhere for confirmation help. Volume-based indicators, basic trend analysis, and chart patterns can help distinguish strong crossover signals from weak crossover signals. For example, chartists can focus on +DI buy signals when the larger trend is up, and -DI sell signals when the larger trend is down.

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