Moving Average

By Vikram 12 Comments 27 Nov 2018
Moving Average

An Introduction

Moving Averages smooth the price data to form a trend following indicator. They do not predict price direction, but rather define the current direction with a lag. Moving averages lag because they are based on past prices. Despite this lag, moving averages help smooth price action and filter out the noise. They also form the building blocks for many other technical indicators and overlays, such as Bollinger Bands, MACD and the McClellan Oscillator.

Moving averages are one of the core indicators in technical analysis, and there are a variety of different versions. SMA is the easiest moving average to construct. It is simply the average price over the specified period. The average is called “moving” because it is plotted on the chart bar by bar, forming a line that moves along the chart as the average value changes.

The two most popular types of moving averages are:-

  • Simple Moving Average (SMA)
  • Exponential Moving Average (EMA)
These moving averages can be used to identify the direction of the trend or define potential support and resistance levels.

Here’s a chart with both an SMA and an EMA on it:-

SMA and an EMA

Simple Moving Average Calculation

A simple moving average is formed by computing the average price of a security over a specific number of periods. Most moving averages are based on closing prices. A 5-day simple moving average is the five-day sum of closing prices divided by five. As its name implies, a moving average is an average that moves. Old data is dropped as new data comes available. This causes the average to move along the time scale. Below is an example of a 5-day moving average evolving over three days.

Daily Closing Prices: 11,12,13,14,15,16,17

First day of 5-day SMA: (11 + 12 + 13 + 14 + 15) / 5 = 13

Second day of 5-day SMA: (12 + 13 + 14 + 15 + 16) / 5 = 14

Third day of 5-day SMA: (13 + 14 + 15 + 16 + 17) / 5 = 15

The first day of the moving average simply covers the last five days. The second day of the moving average drops the first data point (11) and adds the new data point (16). The third day of the moving average continues by dropping the first data point (12) and adding the new data point (17). In the example above, prices gradually increase from 11 to 17 over a total of seven days. Notice that the moving average also rises from 13 to 15 over a three-day calculation period. Also, notice that each moving average value is just below the last price. For example, the moving average for day one equals 13 and the last price is 15. Prices the prior four days were lower and this causes the moving average to lag.

Exponential Moving Average Calculation

Exponential moving averages (EMAs) reduce the lag by applying more weight to recent prices. The weighting applied to the most recent price depends on the number of periods in the moving average. EMAs differ from simple moving averages in that a given day’s EMA calculation depends on the EMA calculations for all the days prior to that day. You need far more than 10 days of data to calculate a reasonably accurate 10-day EMA.

There are three steps to calculating an exponential moving average (EMA). First, calculate the simple moving average for the initial EMA value. An exponential moving average (EMA) has to start somewhere, so a simple moving average is used as the previous period’s EMA in the first calculation. Second, calculate the weighting multiplier. Third, calculate the exponential moving average for each day between the initial EMA value and today, using the price, the multiplier, and the previous period’s EMA value. The formula below is for a 10-day EMA.

Initial SMA: 10-period sum / 10

Multiplier: (2 / (Time periods + 1) ) = (2 / (10 + 1) ) = 0.1818 (18.18%)

EMA: {Close – EMA(previous day)} x multiplier + EMA(previous day).

Simple vs Exponential Moving Averages

Even though there are clear differences between simple moving averages and exponential moving averages, one is not necessarily better than the other. Exponential moving averages have less lag and are therefore more sensitive to recent prices – and recent price changes. Exponential moving averages will turn before simple moving averages. Simple moving averages, on the other hand, represent a true average of prices for the entire time period. As such, simple moving averages may be better suited to identify support or resistance levels.

Moving average preference depends on objectives, analytical style, and time horizon. Chartists should experiment with both types of moving averages as well as different timeframes to find the best fit. The chart below shows IBM with the 50-day SMA and the 50-day EMA . Both peaked in late March, but the decline in the EMA was sharper than the decline in the SMA. The EMA turned up in mid-May, but the SMA continued lower until the end of June.
You can see in the chart below:-

Simple vs Exponential Moving Averages

Trend Identification

The same signals can be generated using simple or exponential moving averages. As noted above, the preference depends on each individual. These examples below will use both simple and exponential moving averages. The term “moving average” applies to both simple and exponential moving averages.

The direction of the moving average conveys important information about prices. A rising moving average shows that prices are generally increasing. A falling moving average indicates that prices, on average, are falling. A rising long-term moving average reflects a long-term uptrend. A falling long-term moving average reflects a long-term downtrend.

Trend Identification

The chart above shows 3M (MMM) with a 150-day exponential moving average. This example shows just how well moving averages work when the trend is strong. The 150-day EMA turned down in May 2018 and again in June 2018. Notice that it took a 15% dcline to reverse the direction of this moving average. These lagging indicators identify trend reversals as they occur (at best) or after they occur (at worst). MMM continued lower into June 2018 and then surged 40-50%. Notice that the 150-day EMA did not turn up until after this surge. Once it did, however, MMM continued higher the next 12 months. Moving averages work brilliantly in strong trends.


The advantages of using moving averages need to be weighed against the disadvantages. Moving averages are trend following, or lagging, indicators that will always be a step behind. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. After all, the trend is your friend and it is best to trade in the direction of the trend. Moving averages ensure that a trader is in line with the current trend. Even though the trend is your friend, securities spend a great deal of time in trading ranges, which render moving averages ineffective. Once in a trend, moving averages will keep you in, but also give late signals. Don’t expect to sell at the top and buy at the bottom using moving averages. As with most technical analysis tools, moving averages should not be used on their own, but in conjunction with other complementary tools. Chartists can use moving averages to define the overall trend and then use RSI to define overbought or oversold levels.

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