3 Ways The Exchanges Screw With Your Stop Orders


There are a number of topics that come up on a regular basis among traders, but the most common discussions usually revolve around the theory that markets are rigged.

Well, I can tell you with 100% certainty, they are rigged. Plain and simple, the markets, specifically the exchanges, are totally geared towards screwing the retail investor.

So instead of engaging in a quixotic attempt to change things, educated yourself as to how it is rigged, and then use that knowledge to your advantage.

In that spirit, let me fill you in on the three most common ways you can get screwed when using stop orders.

*Note: when referring to stop orders going forward I’m referencing a standard, plain vanilla stop order, opposed to a stop limit order.*

Triggering stops without a trade at your stop price

Here’s an example;  XYZ is currently trading at $20.50, and you have a stop order in to sell at $20.00. Price approaches your stop, it gets triggered and you are filled at $20.05. But when you look at your chart you notice that the low price of the day is $20.04.

So how was your stop triggered?

When you put a stop order in, what you are doing is placing a market order, which for lack of a better word is in a “suspended” state.  It is not active until your stop, or trigger price, is hit. Once it is, your market order is then live and acts like any other market order.

But what you might not know is that there does not have to be an actual trade at your stop price to trigger the market order.  Only a quote needs to be shown at your stop price to trigger your order, which can then be filled at wherever price the market is trading at.

Reprioritizing your order

When there are two stop orders at the same price sitting on an exchange, the priority goes to the one that was placed first.  So if XYZ is trading at $20.50, and there are two stop market orders at $20.00, when price comes down and triggers those stops, the one that was placed first will get filled before the other one.

However, this all changes if there are also stop limit orders at the same price. Stop limit orders at the same price as a stop order will get priority, and will be filled first, even if they were placed after the stop order.  In fact, stop limit orders below the price of stop market order can still get priority over a stop order.

The “philosophy” behind this exchange rule is that by placing a stop order you are accepting the possibility of getting filled “where the market is trading”. But with a stop limit order, you are only willing to accept a fill at a specific price or better.

If price is falling fast and triggers a $20.00 stop order, turning it into a market order, then continues to $19.98 before filling that market order, a stop limit at $19.98 will get filled first. And if there is no more liquidity at that price and it drops to $19.96 before filling the market (formerly stop) order, limit orders at $19.96 will get priority over it as well.

As you can see, in a fast market, especially in thin stocks, your stop order can trigger, drop significantly and remain open, while stop limit orders get filled in front of it.

Midday stop hunting

Often, during the middle of the day, you’ll see stocks dip and run stops, usually below obvious support levels, only to reverse immediately and begin climbing.  This occurs because there is a tendency for liquidity to dry up during the middle of the day, which means less volume is needed to move a stock.

I hear complaints all the time from traders who lament their stops being run, usually adding “and this stock trades seven million shares a day,” the implication being that the stock is too liquid to manipulate.

But what they don’t realize is that the majority of volume takes place in the first and last 30 minutes of the trading day. Sometimes 50% or more of a stock’s total daily volume takes place during these time periods.  That leaves 5.5 hours of relatively light volume, where price can more easily be manipulated towards pockets of stops.

There is a common theme running through all three of these issues. Can you guess what it is?

The exchanges run on volume, so for them, the more the better. And in the three scenarios above, the framework is designed to create as much volume as possible.

  1. If price can’t trade low enough to trigger a transaction, just throw a quote out, trigger the stops, and unlock the volume.
  2. *insert heavy sarcasm tone* What a tragedy it would be if falling prices bypassed limit orders, failing to trigger a trade? So why not facilitate the best opportunity to create transactions by prioritizing limit orders over market (formerly stop) orders, which don’t have to be filled at a specific price?
  3. And low volume periods during the day allow easier price manipulation and the ability to “clear out” areas where stops congregate.

As you can see, the exchanges are not on your side. Trade accordingly.

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