TRADING WITH THE RELATIVE STRENGTH INDEX (RSI) EXPLAINED

Explanation & Definition:

Developed by J. Welles Wilder, the Relative Strength Index (RSI) is a momentum oscillator that measures the speed and change of price movements. The RSI oscillates between zero and 100. According to Wilder, the RSI is considered overbought when it is above 70 and oversold when it is below 30. Signals can also be generated by looking for divergences, failure fluctuations, and centerline crossings. RSI can also be used to identify the overall trend.

Example image:

Image of the EURUSD with RSI indicator

The RSI is an extremely popular momentum indicator that has been featured in a number of articles, interviews and books over the years. In particular, Constance Brown’s book titled Technical Analysis for the Trading Professional addresses the concept of bull and bear market ranges for the RSI. Andrew Cardwell, Brown’s RSI mentor, introduced positive and negative reversals for RSI and also turned the concept of divergence on its head, literally and figuratively.

Wilder introduces RSI in his 1978 book, New Concepts in Technical Trading Systems. This book also includes the Parabolic SAR, the Average True Range, and the Directional Movement Concept (ADX). Although developed before the computer age, Wilder’s indicators have withstood the test of time and remain extremely popular.

Important facts about the RSI indicator:

  • It is an oscillator
  • Momentum indicator
  • Default settings are 30/70
  • If the RSI is above 70 the market is considered overbought
  • If the RSI is below 30, the market is oversold
  • Developed by J. Welles Wilder
  • One of the most popular technical indicators

THE CALCULATION OF THE RSI PRESENTED

To simplify the explanation of the calculation, RSI was broken down into its basic components: RS, average gain and average loss. This RSI calculation is based on 14 periods, which is the default setting suggested by Wilder in his book. Losses are expressed as positive values, not negative values.

The very first calculations for average gain and average loss are simple 14-period averages:

  • First average gain = sum of gains over the last 14 periods / 14
  • First average loss = sum of losses over the last 14 periods / 14

The second and subsequent calculations are based on the previous averages and the current profit loss:

  • Average profit = [(previous average profit) x 13 + current profit] / 14
  • Average loss = [(previous average loss) x 13 + current loss] / 14

Einstellung des RSI

Einstellung des RSI 2

Using the previous value plus the current value is a smoothing technique similar to that used in calculating an exponential moving average. This also means that the RSI values become more accurate as the calculation period increases. MetaTrader uses at least 250 data points before the start date of a chart when calculating RSI values (assuming that there is a lot of data). To accurately replicate our RSI values, a formula needs at least 250 data points.

Wilder’s formula normalizes RS and turns it into an oscillator that fluctuates between zero and 100. In fact, a plot of RS looks exactly like a plot of RSI. The normalization step makes it easier to identify extreme values because the RSI is range bound. When the average gain is zero, the RSI is zero. Assuming a 14-period RSI, an RSI value of zero means that prices moved downward in all 14 periods and there were no gains to measure. The RSI is 100 when the average loss is zero. This means that the prices moved upwards in all 14 periods and there were no losses to measure.

The smoothing process

Note: The smoothing process affects the RSI values. RS values are smoothed after the first calculation. The average loss is equal to the sum of losses divided by 14 for the first calculation. Subsequent calculations multiply the previous value by 13, add the latest value and then divide the sum by 14.

This creates a smoothing effect. The same applies to the average profit. Because of this smoothing, RSI values may differ depending on the total calculation period. 250 periods allow more smoothing than 30 periods, which slightly affects the RSI values. MetaTrader goes back 250 days depending on the period whenever possible. When the average loss is zero, a “division by zero” situation occurs for RS and the RSI is set to 100 by definition. Similarly, if the average profit is zero, the RSI is 0.

What RSI parameters should one use?

The default look-back period for RSI is 14, but it can be lowered to increase sensitivity or increased to decrease sensitivity. It is more likely that the 10-day RSI will reach overbought or oversold levels than the 20-day RSI. Look-back parameters also depend on the volatility of a security. The 14-day RSI of Internet retailer Amazon (AMZN) is more likely to be overbought or oversold than the 14-day RSI of utility company Duke Energy (DUK).

The RSI is considered overbought when it is above 70 and oversold when it is below 30. These traditional levels can also be adjusted to better meet security or analytical needs. Raising the overbought to 80 or lowering the oversold RSI to 20 will reduce the number of overbought/oversold readings. Short-term traders sometimes use the 2-period RSI to look for overbought levels above 80 and oversold levels below 20.

  • The default setting is period 14 and level 30/70
  • Higher levels can be used to get more extreme signals
  • Higher periods can be used to get longer term signals

Which trading platform is suitable for RSI trading?

Nowadays, every online trading platform offers different indicators for analysis. You can also choose different charting displays. Brokers develop their own platforms or use already pre-made software. There is always a race for the best platform.

All screenshots on this page were made with the MetaTrader trading platform. This is offered by many brokers and is completely free. It is available for any device and also offers the RSI indicator.

OVERBOUGHT AND OVERSOLD STRATEGY WITH THE RSI

Wilder considered the RSI to be overbought above 70 and oversold below 30. Chart 3 shows the AUD/USD with a 14-day RSI. This chart shows daily bars in gray with a 1-day SMA in pink to highlight closing prices (since the RSI is based on closing prices). Working from left to right, the currency pair was oversold in December 2019 and found support around 0.646.

RSI Trading Strategy

Note that the low developed after the oversold level. The low may be a process – this currency pair did not bottom immediately after the oversold level. From the oversold levels, the RSI moved above 70 in mid-December and became overbought.

The first three overbought levels indicated consolidations. The fourth coincided with a significant high. The RSI then moved from overbought to oversold in January. A few weeks later, AUD/USD finally bottomed around 0.5585; the final low did not coincide with the first oversold reading.

Like many momentum oscillators, overbought and oversold readings for the RSI work best when prices are moving sideways within a range. Chart 4 shows EUR/USD trading between 1.2000 and 1.17918 from September 1 to September 3, 2020. The currency pair peaked shortly after the RSI reached 70 and bottomed shortly after The currency pair reached 30.

EURUSD RSI Trading

Recognizing divergences in the market

According to Wilder, divergences signal a potential turning point because the directional momentum does not confirm the price. A bullish divergence occurs when the underlying makes a lower low and the RSI makes a higher low. The RSI does not confirm the lower low and this shows increasing momentum.

A bearish divergence occurs when the underlying makes a higher high and the RSI makes a lower high. The RSI does not confirm the new high, and this shows decreasing momentum. Chart 5 shows Ebay (EBAY) with a bearish divergence from August to October. The stock moved to new highs in September-October, but the RSI forms lower highs for the bearish divergence. The subsequent breakdown in mid-October confirmed the weakening momentum.

RSI bearish divergence

A bullish divergence formed in January-March. The bullish divergence formed as eBay hit new lows in March and the RSI remained above its previous low. The RSI reflected less downward momentum during the February-March decline. The mid-March breakout confirmed the improvement in momentum. Divergences tend to be more robust when they form after an overbought or oversold reading.

RSI bullish divergence

Before getting too excited about divergences as great trading signals, it is important to note that divergences are misleading when the trend is strong. A strong uptrend can have numerous bearish divergences before actually making a top. Conversely, bullish divergences can occur in a strong downtrend – and yet the downtrend continues.

Failed swings in the indicator

Wilder also considered failure swings as strong indicators of an impending reversal. Failure swings are independent of price action, focusing solely on the RSI for signals and ignoring the concept of divergences. A bullish failure swing forms when the RSI moves below 30 (oversold), bounces above 30, pulls back, holds above 30, and then breaks its previous high. It is basically a move to oversold levels and then a higher low above the oversold level.

The next chart shows an uptrend in the EUR/USD:

RSI failed swings

A bearish failed swing forms when the RSI moves above 70, pulls back, bounces, fails to cross 70, and then breaks its previous low. It is basically a move to overbought levels followed by a lower high below those levels.

Trend Trading Strategy with the RSI

In “Technical Analysis for Professional Traders,” Constance Brown suggests that oscillators do not move between 0 and 100. This also happens to be the name of the first chapter. Brown identifies a bull market area and a bear market for the RSI. In a bull market (uptrend), the RSI tends to fluctuate between 40 and 90, with the 40-50 zones serving as support.

See the following chart:

RSI Trend Trading

There should be an intact trend. This can often be observed in stocks or stock indices. So-called pullbacks/corrections in the market are suitable for entry. Profits are taken by traders causing a fall in price. The market will never go only in one direction.

For an entry can be observed in the RSI now that it approaches the 30 line again. However, the market is still in an uptrend. Traders should check, however, if they are not trading against a support or resistance. This can give false signals.

Summary: The RSI is helpful for any trading strategy

The RSI is a versatile momentum oscillator that has proven its worth in the past. Despite the changes in volatility and markets over the years, the RSI is as relevant today as it was in Wilder’s day. While Wilder’s original interpretations are useful in understanding the indicator, the work of Brown and Cardwell takes RSI interpretation to a new level.

Adjusting to this level requires some rethinking on the part of traditionally trained chartists. Wilder considers overbought conditions ripe for reversal, but overbought can also be a sign of strength. Bearish divergences still generate some good sell signals, but chartists need to be cautious about strong trends when bearish divergences are actually normal.

Although the concept of positive and negative reversals seems to undermine Wilder’s interpretation, the logic makes sense, and Wilder would hardly dismiss the value of placing more emphasis on price action. Positive and negative reversals put the price action of the underlying security first and the indicator second, as well they should. Bearish and bullish divergences put the indicator first and the price action second. By placing more emphasis on price action, the concept of positive and negative reversals challenges our thinking about momentum oscillators.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the RSI?

The RSI is a momentum oscillator and technical indicator. This analyzes the past periods of the chart and is displayed in a bulky window. The RSI is one of the most popular indicators and is suitable for trend determination and trend reversal. It shows overbought and oversold markets.

What is oversold?

An oversold market is one that is in an uptrend and could reverse. A trend will never go in one direction all the time, because corrections due to profit taking happen more often. Oversold means that the price is too expensive and traders no longer want to pay the current price. Sellers now predominate and the market reverses

How does the RSI indicator work?

The RSI is a technical indicator calculated by a formula. The past candlesticks or periods are analyzed and thus the result of the RSI is calculated. The RSI shows levels at which the market is overbought or oversold (30/70 level) and can be set by the trader.

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