Should we Continue Taking Trend Signals after Whipsaws?

The stock market has been a tough place for trend-following since January 2022, which is when the S&P 500 first triggered a bearish trend signal. The bearish signal in question is the humble 5/200 day SMA cross. There were whipsaws in the first quarter of 2022 and then an extended downtrend from April 11th until January 23rd. The 5-day SMA crossed above the 200-day SMA on January 24th and this cross remains bullish until proven otherwise. Despite whipsaws in 2022, this moving average cross warrants our attention because a bearish cross could foreshadow a move to new lows.

The chart below shows the S&P 500 with the 5-day SMA and 200-day SMA. The indicator window shows Percent Above MA (5, 200, 0), which is part of the TIP Indicator Edge plugin. This indicator shows the percentage difference between the 5 and 200 day SMAs. Currently, the 5-day is 1.77% above the 200-day. A cross below zero would signal a bearish moving average cross.

Prior signals resulted in whipsaws so why should we respect this cross? Whipsaws are part of the process for trend-following indicators. We can reduce the whipsaws by smoothing the close with a 5-day SMA, but we cannot totally illuminate them. Traders looking to catch big trends must learn to live with the whipsaws. It is the cost of doing business for trend-followers. We have to take the signal to catch the trends. Let’s crunch some numbers.

A simple trend following indicator can help us maintain returns and greatly reduce drawdowns. The table below shows performance metrics for buy-and-hold, the close/200-day cross and the 5/200 day cross. Over the last 20 years, buying and selling 5/200 cross signals worked 47% of the time (Win%) and the Compound Annual Return (CAR) was 6.71%. The average of the 5 largest drawdowns was 16%. Buy-and-hold had a higher Compound Annual Return (CAR), but the average drawdown was almost twice that of the 5/200 cross. Buy-and-hold went through a 55% drawdown in February 2009 and a 33% drawdown in March 2020.  


This is as simple as it gets for trend-following and determining the direction of the most important benchmark for the US stock market. The S&P 500 is the most widely followed index, it is the most used index for benchmarking returns and the 200-day SMA is the most widely used long-term moving average. The state of the S&P 500 is also something to consider when trading stocks and ETFs. In general, I want to be long stocks when the S&P 500 is in an uptrend and out when the S&P 500 is in a downtrend. Even though there is chance of a whipsaw, a 5/200 cross would be bearish and I would respect this signal.

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