December is off to a strong start. Just four trading sessions into the month, and the S&P 500 has already posted its biggest single-day rally since the election, pushing the big stock indices to fresh all-time highs Wednesday.
Even better, in a year where market breadth has been pretty awful, most stocks are actually participating in the upside here. More than 400 of the individual stocks that make up the S&P 500 are higher than they started the month, dragging the proportion of S&P stocks that are up year-to-date to more than 80%.
Just a couple of months ago, around half of all S&P components were down in 2016 -- and many were down a lot. In short, it's been hard to miss the upside pressure that's been pulling the vast majority of stocks higher lately. That bullish momentum isn't showing any signs of slowing down after yesterday's big up-move in the markets.
To take advantage of that positive price trajectory, we're turning to the charts for a technical look at five big stocks that are breaking out.
First, a quick note on the technical toolbox we're using here: technical analysis is a study of the market itself. Since the market is ultimately the only mechanism that determines a stock's price, technical analysis is a valuable tool even in the roughest of trading conditions. Technical charts are used every day by proprietary trading floors, Wall Street's biggest financial firms, and individual investors to get an edge on the market. And research shows that skilled technical traders can bank gains as much as 90% of the time.
Every week, I take an in-depth look at big names that are telling important technical stories. Here's this week's look at five big stocks to trade...
Up first on the list is $35 billion industrial gas supplier Praxair (PX) . Praxair hasn't just been performing alongside the rest of the stock market in the last month -- shares have actually been pretty strong all year long, rallying 22.6% on a total returns basis in 2016. Don't worry if you've missed out on that rally in Praxair; shares are signaling another leg higher thanks to a classic continuation setup that's showing up in shares.
Praxair is currently forming an ascending triangle pattern, a setup that's formed by horizontal resistance up above shares at $122.50 and uptrending support to the downside. Basically, as Praxair bounces in between those two technically significant price levels, it's been getting squeezed closer and closer to a breakout above that price ceiling at $122.50. Shares effectively closed at that level in Wednesday's session, which puts a breakout buy signal squarely in traders' sights Thursday. Keep a close eye on how Praxair trades around that level.
Relative strength, the line down at the bottom of the stock chart, provides some extra evidence to be bullish about in Praxair. This stock's relative strength line has been in an uptrend stretching back to January, indicating that Praxair continues to outperform the broad market, even now. Once $122.50 gets materially taken out, it's time to buy.
We're seeing the exact same price setup right now in shares of $90 billion industrial United Technologies (UTX - Get Report) . Like Praxair, UTX has been forming an ascending triangle pattern -- in this case, though, it's been much shorter-term. Shares of UTX cracked their $109 resistance level in Wednesday's price session, a move that clears the way for more upside ahead.
What makes that $109 price tag so important for UTX? In a nutshell, here's why the ascending triangle pattern works: the $109 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 been more eager to step in and take gains than buyers have been to buy. That's what makes a breakout above $109 so significant - the move means that buyers are finally strong enough to absorb all of the excess supply above that price level. And with that barrier to upside out of the way, shares are free to move higher.
From here, assuming UTX can carry over that upside into today's session and keep its head above $109, it makes sense to buy. If you decide to pull the trigger, good risk management dictates parking a protective stop on the other side of UTX' prior swing low at $107.
A triangle of a different sort is coming into play this month in shares of retail behemoth Walmart Stores (WMT - Get Report) . Walmart has been another market-beating performer this year, up about 18.5% since the start of the year -- and now, a symmetrical triangle is pointing to the possibility of another round of gains in Walmart this winter.
Walmart's symmetrical triangle is a continuation pattern that's formed by a pair of converging trendlines. The buy signal comes on a push through that upper blue line on the chart, currently just below $71. Consolidation patterns like the symmetrical triangle are common after big moves like the one we've seen in recent months. They give investors a chance to catch their breath and figure out their next step. Since the pattern in Walmart was preceded by an uptrend, shares are statistically more likely to exit the price pattern to the upside, too.
Another factor to think about in the Walmart trade is volatility. Specifically, the constricting action of Walmart's symmetrical triangle is setting shares up for a volatility squeeze. Since volatility is cyclical, periods of very low volatility are typically followed up by a swing to high volatility. And as shares move into the tighter range of this pattern, the exit is likely to be fast. Keep a close eye on Walmart from here. The break above $71 is the signal that it's time to buy.
Things are looking pretty clear-cut in shares of $23 billion Indian bank ICICI Bank (IBN) . This large-cap financial firm is basically flat on the year, but that stat masks a well-defined uptrend that's been in play more recently. Since bottoming back in late February, ICICI Bank is up nearly 50% -- and it's still bouncing its way higher in a well-defined uptrending channel.
The uptrend in ICICI Bank is a price pattern that's about as basic as they get. The pattern is formed by a pair of parallel trendlines that have identified the high-probability range for this stock to remain stuck within, and it's managed to corral about 99% of IBN's price action since March. Every test of the bottom of the channel over that uptrend period has provided a low-risk, high-reward buying opportunity in IBN. So, as shares bounce off of that same support level for a fifth time here, it makes sense to buy December's bounce higher.
Actually, 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, invalidating the upside trade). Remember, all trend lines do eventually break, but by actually waiting for the bounce to happen first, you're ensuring ICICI Bank can actually still catch a bid along that line before you put your money on shares.
Last on our list of potential big-cap breakouts is $160 billion home improvement retailer Home Depot (HD - Get Report) . 2016 has been a less-than-amazing year for Home Depot shareholders, as shares have basically spent the year trading sideways until rolling over in August and dropping more than 10% from peak to trough. That's the bad news. The good news is that Home Depot's price action is finally looking "bottomy" thanks to classic reversal setup.
Alongside some other notable retail stocks, Home Depot has been forming a pretty textbook example of an inverse head and shoulders pattern since September, a price setup that signals exhaustion among sellers. The pattern is formed by two swing lows that bottom out at approximately the same level (the shoulders), separated by a lower low (the head). The buy signal came on a move through Home Depot's neckline at the $131.50 level, which finally happened yesterday.
Price momentum, measured by 14-day RSI at the top of HD's chart, adds some extra evidence that buying pressure is building right now. That's because our momentum gauge has been making a series of higher lows over the course of the inverse head and shoulders pattern, a bullish divergence that's a leading indicator of a change in Home Depot's trend. If you decide to buy yesterday's breakout, consider parking a stop on the other side of the 200-day moving average.