A ‘head and shoulder’ formation is one of the most famous technical formations in price charts, probably because it is one of the most common formations. The name comes from the way that the chart formation looks like the sillouette of a person’s upper torso.
The head and shoulder formation consists of a rally (the head) separated by two smaller rallies (the shoulders), preceding and following it. As with all technical formations, the fractal nature allows for it to occur on a variety of time lines, from minute charts to weekly and monthly charts.
The slope of the neckline can also vary, being horizontal, downward or upward sloping. In all cases, the effect is the same. Upon completion, the expectation is for lower prices:
Volume is also an integral part of this pattern. Typically volume is heaviest during the left shoulder, or first tentative rally. Then during the more successful rally that follows (head), volume recedes. And the final, smaller rally has equal or lower volume. As you can see from the chart of the S&P 500, the head and formation that has printed recently follows these volume conventions exactly.
If the Head and Shoulder formation completes, then the target would be 820 for the S&P 500 Index (SPX). I got that by taking 885 as the neckline and 950 as the top of the ‘head’ and then projecting the difference downward. Depending on how you drew the line you may have gotten a slightly different number but I’m sure it would cluster around the same level.
Although instantly recognizable to the trained human eye, this chart formation is extremely challenging to quantify. But there have been more than a few who have taken a crack at it. Over the years I’ve read a handful of research reports that show the results are surprisingly positive. Even those who are skeptical of the efficacy of technical analysis in general, have accepted that a head and shoulder formation is very reliable.
Interestingly, this technical pattern is printing not only in the important Standard & Poors 500 but in the Russell 2000 (small caps) and the Dow Jones Industrial. But not in the Nasdaq Composite as the tech sector’s high relative strength has powered this index to higher highs. On the other hand, you could argue for a double top pattern in the Nasdaq which is equally bearish.
The important thing right now is to watch for the completion of the head and shoulders pattern. If it breaks the neckline, then the projection stands. However, such a formation is not guaranteed to complete. If we have a head and shoulder failure - that is prices break the neckline but do not go lower, then usually what follows is an explosive rally as many people who expected lower prices are caught on the wrong side and have to cut their losses.
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