BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Health care stocks have provided some of the best performance of the year in 2015. Year-to-date, the popular iShares Dow Jones U.S. Healthcare ETF (IYH) - Get Report is up 10.5%. Meanwhile, the big S&P 500 index is barely above breakeven.
That's no fluke. Since the calendar flipped to 2015, health care stocks have been persistent outperformers. And individual industries within the sector, such as healthcare providers and biotech stocks, have generated even bigger gains.
The good news is that if you've missed the rally in healthcare stocks so far, there's still time to get in. In fact, some of the biggest stocks in the healthcare sector look ready for breakout moves this summer.
To figure out which ones are flashing "buy", we're turning to the charts for a technical look at five technical setups from the sector.
In case you're unfamiliar with technical analysis, here's the executive summary: technical analysis is a way for investors to quantify qualitative factors, such as investor psychology, based on a stock's price action and trends. Once the domain of cloistered trading teams on Wall Street, technicals can help top traders make consistently profitable trades and can aid fundamental investors in better planning their stock execution.
Without further ado, let's take a look at five technical setups worth trading now.
Up first is $50 billion biopharmaceutical company Shire (SHPG) - Get Report. Like the rest of the industry, Shire has been outperforming the rest of the market in a big way this year, up more than 21% since the calendar flipped to January.
This week, shares are knocking up against a long-term breakout level. Here's how to trade it.
Shire is currently forming an ascending triangle pattern, a bullish price setup that's formed by horizontal resistance up above shares at $260, and uptrending support to the downside. Basically, as Shire bounces in between those two technically-significant price levels, it's been getting squeezed closer and closer to a breakout above our $260 price ceiling. When that happens, we've got our buy signal.
Relative Strength, (not to be confused with RSI at the top of the chart) adds some extra confidence to the upside in Shire right now. That's because relative strength continues to be in an uptrend this summer, indicating that this stock isn't just moving higher -- it's still outperforming the rest of the market long-term.
As long as that relative strength uptrend remains intact, expect Shire to keep on beating the rest of the market too.
We're seeing the exact same price setup in shares of $8 billion biotech firm United Therapeutics (UTHR) - Get Report. Like Shire, United Therapeutics has been forming a textbook ascending triangle pattern over the last few months. In this case, the breakout level to watch comes in at $190 resistance.
Why all of that significance at that $190 level? It all comes down to buyers and sellers. Price patterns, like this ascending triangle pattern in United Therapeutics, are a good quick way to identify what's going on in the price action, but they're not the actual reason a stock is tradable. Instead, the "why" comes down to basic supply and demand for United Therapeutics' stock.
The $190 resistance level is a price where there has been an excess of supply of shares. In other words, it's a spot where sellers have previously been more eager to step in and take gains than buyers have been to buy. That's what makes this week's breakout above $190 so significant -- the move means that buyers are finally strong enough to absorb all of the excess supply above that price level.
It's not just human health care that's getting buoyed this summer. Shares of veterinary medical equipment provider Idexx Laboratories (IDXX) - Get Report are starting to look bullish too. Even though shares have slid more than 10% since the start of 2015, this $6.2 billion healthcare stock is starting to show signs of a bottom. The buy trigger comes on a push through resistance at $70.
The price setup in Idexx Labs is a double bottom, a bullish reversal setup that looks just like it sounds. The double bottom is formed by a pair of swing lows that bottom at approximately the same price level. The buy signal comes on a breakout above the peak that separates that pair of troughs. For Idexx Labs, that's our $70 resistance price. It's important to be reactionary and wait for the breakout to happen; shares have been flirting with that price level in recent sessions, but there's still some selling pressure up above $70.
Momentum, measured by 14-day RSI at the top of the chart, adds some extra confidence to Idexx Labs' upside. That's because our momentum gauge has been making higher lows during the pair of bottoms in the price action. That's a bullish divergence that indicates buying pressure is building below the surface.
Earnings on July 30 could be the catalyst to make Idexx finally catch a big above our $70 ceiling.
At a glance, Gilead Sciences (GILD) - Get Report has had a rough month. Since the end of June, this $165 billion pharma stock has shed about 10% of its share price, a big drop after otherwise solid performance to start the year.
But it's a little early to call Gilead's rally over. Zoom out on the chart a bit, and things start to look pretty attractive heading into this week. And the good news is that you don't need to be an expert technical trader to figure out what's going on here.
Gilead has spent all of 2015 bouncing its way higher in an uptrending channel. The setup is formed by a pair of parallel trend lines that have enveloped this stock's trading range since last winter. Put simply, every touch of trendline support has been an ideal buying opportunity in shares of Gilead, and shares are testing that level again this week. From here, it makes sense to buy the next bounce off of support.
Waiting for that bounce is important for two key reasons: It's the spot where shares have the most room to move up before they hit resistance, and it's the spot where the risk is the least (because shares have the least room to move lower before the channel breaks, and you know you're wrong).
Remember, all trend lines do eventually break, but by actually waiting for this bounce to happen first, you're ensuring Gilead Sciences can actually still catch a bid along that line before you put your money on shares.
Last up on our list of health care breakout trades is $17 billion medical device maker Edwards Lifesciences (EW) - Get Report. Edwards Lifesciences has spent most of 2015 forming a not-so-textbook inverse head and shoulders pattern. The fact that this price pattern is a little unconventional doesn't change the trading implications here. In fact, this setup actually already broke out earlier this month.
Now a "throwback" is giving traders a second chance at a low-risk entry in this trade.
Edwards Lifesciences' inverse head and shoulders is formed by two swing lows that bottom out around the same level (the shoulders), separated by a bigger trough called the head; the buy signal came on the breakout above the pattern’s “neckline” level. That's the $150 level in Edwards. After rallying in the first half of July, shares have been reversing course with a throwback.
A throwback happens when a stock breaks out and then moves back down to test newfound support at that former price ceiling level -- in this case, our $150 price level. And while throwbacks look ominous, they’re actually constructive for stock prices because they re-verify the stock's ability to catch a bid at support. For that reason, it’s best to think of a throwback as a buying opportunity in Edwards Lifesciences, not a red flag.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.