Trading 101 and Beyond: The Head and Shoulders Pattern and Why You Should Never Ignore it

The “Head and Shoulders” pattern (H&S henceforth) is perhaps one of the most widely used and misused technical patterns out there. Figure 1 depicts an example of a H&S pattern (tops – white ellipses; neckline – bright blue trendline).

Figure 1. REGN Daily Chart

It is without a doubt the pattern’s name that makes people smirk when they hear market commentators referring to it. After all, why would anyone invest/trade their hard-earned money using a pattern that has the same name as the most popular anti-dandruff shampoo? I am personally never thrilled to discuss the pattern. Imagine advising a portfolio manager, who relies entirely on fundamental analysis, that they should immediately sell one of their favourite names because the stock has broken its “neckline”… Patterns such as the double/triple top seem to be never questioned, whereas the H&S pattern gets ridiculed left, right and center, even though their implications are not that much different.

The former takes into consideration that the same level has served as resistance on more than one occasion (i.e. market participants realize that a security is too “expensive” at a certain price and a horizontal resistance is formed). Double/triple tops have an implied target of the distance between the “resistance” level (marked by the double or triple top) and the interim low (the lowest level within the pattern) projected down from the interim low (see Figure 2; double top – violet horizontal trendline; interim low – bright blue horizontal trendline; target – yellow vertical line).

Figure 2. MRK Daily Chart.

Hypothetically, if the stock had bounced up one more time before moving lower, a H&S would have been observed (tops – white ellipses; neckline – bright blue trendline; target – yellow vertical line in Figure 3). The only difference between the two is the slight change in the implied target, which is simply dictated by the slope of the neckline. That is, had the neckline been flat, the target from the H&S would have been identical to the one obtained from the double top.

Figure 3. MRK Hypothetical Daily Chart

While double/triple tops seem to be understood by most market participants, the H&S pattern is often disregarded. In the next section, I discuss why, on the contrary, the pattern should never be ignored.

The H&S Pattern

A textbook H&S pattern occurs in an uptrend and has three peaks, with the middle one being the highest. The neckline connects the two interim lows (i.e. the lows on each side of the “head”) and is used as the trigger to sell. Similarly, an inverse H&S transpires in a downtrend and has three troughs, with the middle one being the lowest. The neckline connects the interim highs and is used as the trigger to initiate long positions. So what makes this pattern so important? Two things.

Note, at a first glance the two don’t have much to do with the pattern so just bear with me.

  1. Prices tend to trend, and the trend should be considered active until there have been definite signals that a reversal has occurred. Yes, this is one of the six tenets of Dow Theory. A quick glance at S&P 500’s monthly chart reveals that the tenet could very well hold true (Figure 4). With the exception of 2016, the index always appeared to trend for extended periods. That is, the index was either posting higher highs and higher lows (uptrend) or lower highs and lower lows (downtrend) until eventually reversing. So how is this related to the H&S pattern? Let’s recall that a H&S pattern occurs in an uptrend and, by definition, includes one lower high – the right “shoulder”. So unless the neckline has a very steep slope, a break below it, in most cases, would lead to a lower low. A lower high (the right “shoulder”) and a lower low (the subsequent move below the neckline) implies a downtrend. But as the chart depicts, there were a total of only three periods where the index posted lower highs and lower lows (i.e. the dot-com bust, the “Great Recession”, and the sideways move in 2016). Therefore, the H&S pattern should not occur frequently on charts of “trending” securities, similar to that of S&P 500. Of course, unless prices are indeed reversing. We will return to this chart shortly to examine the pattern’s track record.

Figure 4. S&P 500 Monthly Chart

  1. Stock prices are significantly more volatile than their underlying drivers. This proposition has been a topic of discussion for many years, with Robert Schiller pointing out to this phenomenon in his papers “Do Stock Prices Move Too Much to be Justified by Subsequent Changes in Dividends” in 1980 and “The Volatility of Stock Market Prices” 7 years later. He concludes that stock prices deviate significantly more than the expected changes in real dividends. For more details on the subject, you can refer to Shiller’s texts. Market volatility, particularly since the “Great Recession”, is indicative of markets exhibiting bouts of extreme volatility, which cannot be explained by fundamental drivers. The “Flash Crashes” of 2010 and 2015, and the several late-day selloffs during the February and mid-March corrections in 2018 are only some of the examples of such volatility. In the context of H&S patterns, as market volatility exacerbates each move during a trend, a change in trend (i.e. a completed H&S pattern) should be followed by a swift move in the direction of the new trend.

All in all, the combined implication from the above two points is that market participants can profit tremendously by initiating positions at the onset of a new trend (i.e. when a trend reversal occurs) because 1) markets will move in the direction of the new trend for a prolonged period (as markets tend to trend), and 2) each move during the new trend will be of large magnitude (as markets are significantly more volatile than their underlying drivers).

Going back to the monthly S&P 500’s chart, it is evident that nearly all major trends had terminated with a H&S pattern (tops and bottoms – white ellipses; necklines – bright blue trendlines in Figure 5).

Figure 5. S&P 500 Monthly Chart

Of course, the pattern has also given false signals. Zooming in (Figure 6 –S&P 500 weekly chart), two such occasions catch the eye – the 2016 consolidation (already visible on the monthly chart, Figure 5) and earlier in 2010. On both occasions, the index broke below the neckline of a H&S pattern (neckline – yellow trendlines, break below necklines – yellow arrows) but did not subsequently trend in the opposite direction (i.e. a trend reversal did not lead to a prolonged movement in the opposite direction).

Figure 6. S&P 500 Weekly Chart

However, had one gone short upon both signals, they would have had an opportunity to reverse and go back long shortly after. Not surprisingly, it was inverse H&S patterns that gave clues that the topping patterns in Figure 6 are giving false signals (lows – bright blue ellipses; necklines – bright blue trendlines in Figure 7).

Figure 7. S&P 500 Weekly Chart (same period as in Figure 6 – 2009 to May 22, 2018)

Overall, using the pattern would have led to catching practically all major tops and bottoms over the last 20 years, and being whipsawed on two occasions. Not a bad track record given how quickly one could have been able to close and reverse in both 2010 and 2016.

Formation of the Pattern

So how exactly does a H&S pattern form? Imagine a prolonged uptrend where each subsequent rally takes prices to a new high and each subsequent pullback terminates at a higher level. As prices tend to trend (point #1 above), prices are expected to move way past fundamental values before they reverse. Market volatility (point #2) only exacerbates the extent of each move. It is only after prices have reached extreme levels, in relation to their true drivers, that they are unable to make a new high (yellow trendline in Figure 8).

Figure 8. Hypothetical Uptrend with One Lower High 

This is not a reversal as of yet. A reversal of a trend requires not only a lower high but also a lower low. For example, if the subsequent low terminates at a higher level, followed by a new high, the uptrend will be considered intact (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Hypothetical Uptrend Continuation

However, had the subsequent down-move terminated at a lower level, the security would be considered in a downtrend (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Hypothetical Uptrend Reversal

As seen in Figure 5, in most cases, once markets eventually reverse, they start trending in the opposite direction. That is, markets trend higher to reach extreme “expensive” readings before they reverse and trend downwards until they become extremely “cheap”.

Unfortunately, most of the technical analysis literature on the subject describes the pattern with a very stringent set of rules. Those rules, while aiming to make interpretation of the pattern objective, may lead to untimely entry & exit, and ultimately to unprofitable trading.

Traditional & Alternative Interpretations of the H&S Pattern

Traditional Interpretation #1: The H&S pattern is a reversal pattern (i.e. H&S can only point to falling prices and inverse H&S – to rising prices). This is perhaps one of the two greatest myths about the pattern. Most traditional texts discuss the action of prices breaking through the “head” of the pattern as simply one of the three ways to negate the pattern’s original reversal signal (the other two being -1) breaking back above the neckline, and 2) breaking above the right shoulder). This completely ignores the fact that a “failed” H&S pattern may often give a continuation signal that is more potent than a reversal signal generated by a “completed” H&S pattern. Given that markets trend for extended periods, there are various examples of “failed” H&S patterns pointing to a continuation of the ongoing trend before the eventual reversal takes place. Let’s look at a few examples. First, Figure 11 depicts Aphria’s (APH.TO) price action since mid- 2016. The stock formed a “tentative” H&S pattern from November 2016 to August 2017 (tops – white ellipses, neckline – green trendline). APH never broke below the neckline, and instead broke through the head in late 2017, giving one of its most potent buy signals, with the stock tripling over the next few months.

Figure 11. APH.TO Daily Chart

More recently, a client of mine requested a technical overview of New Flyer Industries (NFI.TO). Over the last 3 years, the stock had formed several tentative H&S patterns (tops – white ellipses; necklines – green trendlines in Figure 12). Similar to Aphria, the necklines were never broken, and the subsequent breaks above the “heads” of the pattern resulted in major buy signals.

Figure 12. NFI.TO 2-Day Chart

Going back to the S&P 500’s weekly chart, the index formed a tentative H&S pattern in 2012 (tops – white ellipses, neckline – green trendline in Figure 13), but instead of breaking the neckline, it broke the head and continued its advance.

Figure 13. S&P 500 Weekly Chart

Credit for this alternative interpretation goes to Fregal Walsh, who had published a paper on the subject in the 2015 IFTA Annual Journal.

Traditional Interpretation #2:  The first counter move after the pattern is completed should terminate at the neckline. In other words, after the break of the neckline and the initial move in the opposite direction of the prior trend, prices are expected to reverse and halt at the neckline before reversing again in the direction of the breakout (first counter move after pattern completion terminates at the neckline – yellow trendline in Figure 14).

Figure 14. Traditional Theory for First Counter-move after a H&S Completion

While this certainly is the case for most broken trendlines (i.e. support turns into resistance and vice versa), this is yet another stringent guideline in the context of the H&S pattern , which can certainly lead to missed opportunities. On one hand, prices may never retrace back to the neckline, meaning one may never enter in the direction of the breakout if they were to wait for a retest. On the other hand, prices would often not only retrace back to the neckline, but would also move back above/below it before eventually reversing in the direction of the breakout. Using the same monthly chart of S&P 500, it is evident that out of the 5 major H&S patterns, on 4 occasions (patterns 1, 2, 3 & 4 in Figure 15), the index never retested the neckline after breaking it. Notice that this was the case irrespective of the direction or the slope of the neckline.

Figure 15. S&P 500 Monthly Chart

In the last inverse H&S pattern (#5), the index reached the neckline but before bouncing higher it broke below it (Figure 16).

Figure 16. S&P 500 2-day Chart

I am certainly not implying that subsequent retests of the neckline are insignificant. Often enough, if the specific technical backdrop of a security warrants it, I use the neckline as either a potential entry or a negation level. Rather, I am suggesting that if one is certain of a trend reversal, they should not religiously wait for a retest of the neckline. Also, sometimes, the neckline could be broken back (i.e. the security moves back within the pattern) but this not necessarily mean that one should close all positions. Figure 17 shows one of many such examples, where a stock (ATD.B.TO) moved back above the neckline of the H&S pattern (green trendline) for a week before plummeting over the next few months.

Figure 17. ATD.B.TO Daily Chart

Entry

Traditional technical analysis theory suggests that one should wait for the neckline to be broken before initiating a trade. To a large degree, entering upon a close below/above the neckline is a reasonable entry strategy. After all, as we saw in Figures 11, 12 & 13, the pattern could very well be consolidating before breaking the “head” of the pattern and continuing its prior trend. In that case, a premature entry in the expectation that the neckline will be broken will result in an unprofitable trade. Thus, on a systematic basis (and without considering any other technical developments), waiting for a close beyond the neckline is advised (H&S tops – white ellipses;  neckline – blue trendline; target – vertical blue line; entry – blue arrow in Figure 18).

Figure 18. WMT Daily Chart

Unfortunately, this entry often leads to trades with a very unfavourable risk-reward profile, as by the time the neckline is broken on a closing basis the stock may have already moved significantly away from the top of the pattern (i.e. from the negation level which determines the risk of the trade). One way to tackle this is to wait for a corrective move in the opposite direction of the breakout before initiating a trade. This scenario was already covered in the previous section, where it was shown that the first corrective move after the break of the neckline may terminate 1) prior to retesting the neckline, 2) at the neckline, or 3) beyond the neckline (yellow lines in Figure 19 indicating possible scenarios for the first counter-move after the neckline is broken; eventual move in the direction of the breakdown – red line).

Figure 19. Possible Scenarios for First Counter-move after a H&S Completion

Having done extensive work on “price gaps”, I had found that if a gap transpires during the formation of the head or the right shoulder, or upon breaking out of the pattern (i.e. breaking the neckline), a probable scenario is that price will pull back to pre-gap levels, giving a K-Divergence signal. See my primer on gaps for more details on how to trade the gap phenomenon and my “K-Divergence” paper in the 2018 IFTA Annual Journal for details on the specific H&S trading application.

Exit

Naturally, one exit strategy is to close positions once the pattern reaches its implied target (i.e. the distance from the head to the neckline projected from the neckline break – see Figures 3 & 18 for examples). It is noteworthy that the suggested target is considered to be a “minimum” projection from the point of pattern completion. Simply looking at S&P 500’s monthly chart, it is evident that the minimum target was exceeded on every occasion (target – purple vertical lines in Figure 20).

Figure 20. S&P 500 Monthly Chart

Not surprisingly, as index’s constituents are more volatile than the index itself, they form the pattern much more frequently. When it comes to individual stocks, the minimum target can be used to close at least half of the position. WMT’s chart (Figure 18 above) shows just that – an S&P 500 constituent completing a H&S pattern (and meeting its minimum downside target in May) without the index completing a topping pattern during the same period.

Conclusion 

Hopefully, the above discussion has at the very least made you just a little bit less skeptical about the infamous Head and Shoulders pattern. If you have any questions or if you would like to see a more thorough description/explanation for any of the sections in this article, feel free to do so in the comment section below.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.