Your guide to 5 top stock market index trading strategies
Learn how to trade one of the most popular ways to speculate on the market: indices. In this guide, we’ll teach you the top 5 index trading strategies and how to trade or invest in indices with us.
5 top stock market index trading strategies
Some of the most popular markets in the world are indices, where great gains, and also sizable losses, can be made by those with a good trading strategy. However, what many don’t realise is that certain strategies are better suited to index trading than others.
Remember that the best trading strategy is like a fingerprint – unique to you – and will include the blend of fundamental and technical analysis that fits your trading style, preferred trading indicators and risk management strategy.
This is one of the simplest strategies to understand, in theory – predict correctly which way the market is going and capitalise on an index’s upward or downward spike or a change of direction.
With trend trading, it’s important to establish the direction of a trend before taking a position, as these movements can happen both suddenly (as in the case of a temporary spike) or incrementally.
The most successful trades are ones that get in on a trend while it’s still building and then closing their position as near as possible to the highest amount of take-profit.
To do this, you’d use a number of technical indicators to guard against the potential of making a loss as much as possible. These, for example, might include temporary moves against the prevailing index price trend, which we’ll cover below.
Markets, including indices, never move in a straight line. When a trend in an index price emerges, what will very often happen is something called a ‘pullback’ or a retracement, which is when the index’s pricing temporarily experiences a reversal of direction.
This can either be a temporary uptick in the price of an otherwise downward trending index, or a dip in the price of an upward trending one. The latter is often especially important to watch out for, because trading retracements as a strategy is often used in bullish environments.
Stock markets tend to trend upwards over time, but nonetheless experience volatility. The rule of thumb here is to wait for a momentary drop or rise in the index price. Then, go long (if the index price dropped) or short (if it rose) once the temporary retracement is over. This’ll enable you to buy the momentary price move. For this reason, it’s most often used by scalpers and other shorter-term styles of trading.
It should be noted, though, that indices can also experience a reversal, which is the underlying index’s market price turning from changing its overall direction (from bullish to bearish or vice versa). Therefore, it’s important for you to confirm it’s a temporary move if trading a retracement.
What might at first look like a retracement could actually be a 'reversal', in which case you’d likely prefer to sell the index. This is a fundamental change in the overall direction of an index’s price for a time.
In an uptrend, an index’s price would go through a series of higher highs and higher lows. A reversal of this would be a prevailing downtrend, characterised by the index’s price changing to a series of lower highs and lower lows.
The opposite is also true in the case of a downtrend, where the index trading price would shift to spike into higher and higher peaks, representing an overall shift in the index’s pricing from downward to upward.
Certain indicators, such a moving average, oscillator or channel, may help in isolating trends as well as spotting reversals.
Trading with momentum
The motto of someone with a momentum trading strategy can be summarised as: ‘buy high, sell higher’. A momentum index trading strategy is one in which investors, quite literally going with the flow and buying securities that are rising, then selling them when they look to have peaked.
The aim here is to work with volatility by finding buying opportunities in short-term uptrends and then sell when the securities start to lose momentum. As such, it’s often most suitable if you’re a scalper, day trader or use other shorter-term trading styles.
Similar to trend trading, a breakout trading strategy involves watching indices closely to determine their patterns and rhythms in terms of volumes, volatility and direction. With this knowledge, you’d aim to enter a trend as early as possible when an index’s price breaks through its usual levels of support and resistance, then trade that trend.
If you use this strategy, you’ll look for price points that indicate the start of a period of volatility or a change in market sentiment on an index. You may also place a limit-entry order around the levels of support or resistance you’ve identified, so that any breakout executes a trade automatically.
How to choose the best index to trade
Choosing the right index to trade isn’t easy, and experts differ as to what methodology to use when making your decision. The size of the index, its volatility and overall performance, plus the market hours of the country it’s domiciled in will all affect your decision.
When choosing which index to trade, remember that each one has its own characteristics and represent a different set of stocks. For example, while the S&P 500 index tracks the US’s biggest public companies by market cap, the Russell 2000 index tracks small and medium cap stocks, while the Nasdaq 100 predominantly tracks US technology shares. Even though all three ostensibly track US shares, they have very different focuses.
This is important, because stocks within each index will react differently to economic conditions. Understanding the constituent companies – and how their share prices are influenced by macro and index-related circumstances – is imperative.
With this guiding you, you’d choose an index based on which national economy, global stocks, economic sector or basket of stocks you want to take a position on. As knowledge is power when it comes to trading, you’d likely pick an index representing an industry you know about and in which you’re interested in keeping up with the latest trends and news. You’d also take into account your risk appetite, as different indices experience different levels of volatility.
Ultimately, there is no ‘best index’ in the world from an absolute, objective perspective. There is often, however, the best index for you – something only you can determine through thorough research, analysis and practice.
To get you started in your search, here are some of the world’s most popular indices for traders:
|FTSE 100||The 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange by market cap|
|Dow Jones Industrial Average (called Wall Street on our platform)||The 30 largest US stocks by market cap on both the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange|
|S&P 500 (called the US 500 on our platform)||The 500 largest public companies in the US by market cap|
|Nasdaq (called the US Tech 100 on our platform)||Primarily made up of the largest public companies in the US tech sector|
|DAX 40 (called the Germany 40 on our platform)||The 40 largest companies on the German stock exchange by market cap|
|Hang Seng (called the Hong Kong HS50 on our platform)||The largest companies on the Hong Kong stock exchange by market cap|
|Russell 2000 (called the US Russell 2000 on our platform)||The 2000 ‘biggest’ small and mid-cap public companies in the US, weighted by market cap|
|VIX (called the Volatility Index on our platform)||The better-known name of the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, which is regarded as a barometer of market volatility|
How economic events affect indices
Macroeconomic events greatly affect an index’s pricing in most cases. This is because of the nature of indices. While a company’s share price will be affected by internal company news and external events in the wider economy, indices’ performance tracks the share price of many stocks.
Anything that may affect the performance of companies' fundamentals on both macro and micro level (like the cost of borrowing, inflation, employment levels, that company’s latest earnings, their industry’s supply chain shocks, and more) could produce changes in the index level.
In fact, economic events have such a material impact on indices that economists and analysts consider many a barometer for the financial health of a sector, a country, and even the world.
Good news will increase investor confidence, possibly indicating an upward spike. Conversely, bad news could result in investors pulling out of stocks to transfer wealth into 'safe havens' like gold. This lessened demand could see a drop in stock prices, and therefore drops in the index.
Using financial calendars will help you keep an eye on these kinds of events. However, it’s important to bear in mind that different indices will respond differently to economic variables – so reading the headlines isn’t enough.
We also provide trading signals on a wide variety of markets. Trading signals are actionable ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ suggestions sent to you, based on emerging chart patterns and key levels being met, so you can use your knowledge of economic events and how they affect an index to your advantage.
How to trade or invest in indices
- Select your preferred index
- Conduct thorough market research
- Choose whether you want to trade or invest
- Open a live account or practise on a demo
- Take steps to manage your risk
- Place your deal and monitor your position
When trading with us, you can go long or short on our range of indices using spread bets or CFDs. Spread betting and CFD trading are both leveraged types of trading, meaning you put down a fraction of your trade’s total value as an initial outlay. This outlay is called your margin, and is a small percentage of the trade’s total size, while the rest of the amount is essentially borrowed from the lender (that’s us.)
Leverage means you only need a small amount to open a larger position, but it also carries greater risk of both profits and losses. This is because both will be calculated based on the full trade size, not your margin amount.
You can also trade on indices with longer hours than any other provider in the UK with our out-of-hours index trading. Harness index volatility from 11pm on Sunday until 10pm on Friday and trade FTSE 100, Wall Street, Germany 40 and HS50 from 8am Saturday to 10.40pm Sunday (all UK time).
Trade indices on the spot
You can speculate on indices in real time via spot (cash) trading. Here, you’ll get continuous, up-to-the-second pricing to take a position on your index’s current price as soon as market moves happen.
Trade futures on indices
If you want to take a more macro, long-term view, you can trade index futures using spread bets and CFDs. This means you can speculate long or short on an index. You’ll then enter into an agreement with the broker (that’s us) to exchange an underlying market (your index’s market price) for a fixed amount at or by that futures contract’s expiry date.
Trade options on indices
A different type of agreement you can enter into to speculate on indices is trading options. This is a contract that gives you the right, but not the obligation, to speculate on which direction an index’s price will move in a certain timeframe, by a certain expiry date.
With us, you can trade with options on some of the biggest stock indices in the world, including the FTSE 100 and Wall Street.
It’s important to note that options are leveraged products like CFDs and spread bets are. This means profits can be magnified – as can your losses, if you’re selling options. When buying call options as spread bets or CFDs with us, you’ll never risk more than your initial payment when buying, just like trading an actual option. However, when selling call or put options your risk is potentially unlimited (although your account balance will never fall below zero).1
Invest in indices
Unlike with companies, you can’t take ownership of any actual shares with indices. However, if you want to invest, you still can, via an index-tracking ETF.
Exchange traded funds (ETFs) track the performance of their benchmark index. Just like shares, it’s on an exchange and you’ll own the asset (in this case, the investment fund) outright. However, where shares only allow you to invest in one company, ETFs give you broad exposure of an entire index’s performance.
You can also invest directly in the shares of the companies listed on any given index – we have over 17,000 to choose from.
5 top stock market index trading strategies summed up
- There are 5 most popular index trading strategies. These largely involve trading trends, breakouts, retracements and volatility in an index
- Indices are inextricably linked to market events, but don’t all respond to the same events in the same ways
- With us, you can trade on indices via spread bets or CFDs in real-time or using options and futures
- You can also invest in indices’ performance by buying index-tracking ETFs on our share dealing platform
1 Negative balance protection applies to trading-related debt only and is not available to professional traders.
This information has been prepared by IG, a trading name of IG Markets Limited. In addition to the disclaimer below, the material on this page does not contain a record of our trading prices, or an offer of, or solicitation for, a transaction in any financial instrument. IG accepts no responsibility for any use that may be made of these comments and for any consequences that result. No representation or warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of this information. Consequently any person acting on it does so entirely at their own risk. Any research provided does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation and needs of any specific person who may receive it. It has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and as such is considered to be a marketing communication. Although we are not specifically constrained from dealing ahead of our recommendations we do not seek to take advantage of them before they are provided to our clients. See full non-independent research disclaimer and quarterly summary.
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