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Quantifying Volatility: How to Match Your Trading to the Market with the Average True Range Indicator in MT4

Reading time: 9 minutes

This article is going to discuss what exactly the ATR indicator is, what it measures, and how to use it with MetaTrader 4 (MT4). This article will also look at how it can be used as part of a trading system. Many technical analysts are adept at judging a market by simply eyeballing a chart, though there is always a drawback in this method of maintaining consistency.

Average True Range Indicator in MetaTrader 4

It isn't that it is difficult to look at a chart and spot periods that are more volatile than others — that is, where stretches occur when the market is more active, and price movements occur more rapidly.

But what do we do when we want a more qualitative approach to gauging market volatility? When trying to assign a numerical measure to volatility, the most direct value to look at is the range of the market — which is how much the market moves within a given time. The most obvious way to measure range is to look at the difference between the highest price and the lowest price in one time frame, and then call that the trading range.

Simple, right?

Well, not always. One of the best-known technical analysts to first write at length about using volatility as an indicator was J. Welles Wilder. In his 1978 book 'New Concepts in Technical Trading', he introduced many cornerstones of modern technical analysis, including the Relative Strength Index (RSI), the Average Directional Index (ADX) and the Parabolic SAR Indicator (PSAR). Among this deluge of influential indicators was one designed expressly for the purposes of measuring volatility — the Average True Range Indicator (or ATR indicator).

What is the ATR Indicator?

J. Welles Wilder developed his indicators while looking at the commodity markets. He realised that solely looking at the day's range was too simplistic as a measure of volatility. This is because of the way in which commodities frequently go limit up or limit down — or gap in price from the previous day's close to the new opening.

This meant that to adequately reflect the true volatility of the market, he needed to consider the previous day's close as well as the current high and low. Proceeding from this realisation, he defined the true range as being the greatest out of the three following values:

  1. The distance between the current high and the current low
  2. The distance between the previous close and the current high
  3. The distance between the previous close and the current low

Wilder then proposed taking an average of this value over several days in order to provide a meaningful representation of volatility. Logically enough, he called this the Average True Range.

The ATR Equation

The ATR for the current period is calculated as follows over 'N' periods:

  • ATR = Previous ATR (n-1) + True Range of current period

As the equation requires a previous value of ATR, we need to perform a different calculation to obtain an initial value of ATR. This is because for the initial ATR we will, by definition, have no previous value to use. For the initial ATR, we simply take the arithmetic mean of the true range over the prior 'N' periods.

So what value should you use for 'N'?

If you average over a greater number of days, you obtain a slower volatility indicator. If you use a fewer number of days, you will have a fast volatility measure. Wilder recommended using 7 or 14 days for optimal performance, depending on which trading system he was using.

As we shall see, 14 is the default value used in MetaTrader 4. We don't really have to worry too much about the calculation method, of course, as MetaTrader 4 will perform all of the calculations for you. If you want to read more about volatility in general, you might enjoy our article on using a Forex volatility indicator:

Using a Forex Volatility Indicator

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The ATR Indicator in MT4

ATR comes with the standard package of indicators available when you install MT4. There is, therefore, no need to make a separate ATR indicator MT4 download. If you want to add a wider selection of tools and indicators in one simple download, you should consider installing the MetaTrader 4 Supreme Edition plugin. It's a plugin that's been specifically developed by industry professionals — and offers an extensive range of useful tools, which are above and beyond the default indicators you have at your disposal with the standard version of MT4.

You will find the ATR indicator listed in the 'Indicators' section of MT4's 'Navigator'. When you launch the indicator, the only variable you really need to think about is the ATR Period. This is the number of periods over which MT4 calculates the average. As shown in the screenshot below, the default value is 14, which is an excellent choice to begin with.

ATR listed in the Indicators section of MT4's Navigator, the default value is 14, which is an excellent choice to begin with

Source: MetaTrader 4 - Selecting the ATR period

Once you click 'OK', a graph displaying the value of the ATR appears beneath your main chart. This is shown below in an hourly USD/JPY chart, with a 14-hour ATR applied:

hourly USD/JPY chart with a 14-hour ATR applied

Source: MetaTrader 4 - USD/JPY Hourly Chart with a 14 Hour ATR applied - Data Range: March 20, 2017 - March 27, 2017 - Please Note: Past performance does not indicate future results, nor is it a reliable indicator of future performance.

The peaks on the ATR chart above show more volatile trading times; the troughs indicate less volatile periods. Hovering your cursor on the line chart will provide you with the exact value of the ATR at that particular point in time.

How to Use the ATR Indicator in Trading

Wilder originally proposed an ATR trading strategy that was a core part of his trend-following volatility system. The rules assume you have entered a trade following the trend — for example, buying into a market making new highs each day. The rules of this ATR trading system are reasonably simple to follow, and effectively dictate where to stop and reverse your position, here are the steps involved:

  • Multiply the ATR by a constant. Wilder recommended 3.0 as the constant and called the resulting value the ARC
  • Find the significant close (SIC). This is the extreme favourable close in the preceding 'N' days
  • Square and reverse your position one ARC from the SIC

This was designed to be used with daily values, and for these rules, 'N' was set at 7, to give a sufficiently fast reaction to volatility. In a broad sense, you can use the ATR as a guide to appetite in the market for pursuing price moves. For example, if a market moves higher, it is only if a strong appetite remains for further buying that the range will continue to extend. Should ranges narrow, some may interpret that as suggestive of declining interest in terms of pursuing the net directional movement.

ATR Indicator Tutorial

The video below provides a step-by-step tutorial of how to use the ATR indicator:

Other ATR Trading Uses

Because it gauges market volatility, you can also use the ATR as a tool for guiding stop and limit placement, and also for position sizing. These uses are probably more prevalent these days than as a generator of trading signals. The famous Turtles — a group of novices who achieved great trading success in the eighties after just a few weeks training — used the ATR for position sizing. They did this to normalise the Dollar volatility of their positions. Their trading rules called for them to trade on any one of more than twenty different contracts, based on price movement.

As they did not know which positions would win or lose, they needed to adjust for the volatility of the different markets. This prevented, for example, taking a large loss just because that contract happened to move more than the others. They specifically used the 20-day ATR. The higher the value, the smaller the position they took and vice versa.

ATR Indicator in Summary

The ATR indicator was originally designed with commodities in mind, but today it is widely applied to stocks and Forex. The 'Turtles' mentioned above, for example, traded a cross-section of bond, commodity, and Forex futures, and used the ATR as their position-sizing tool for all. ATR Forex sizing works just as well as ATR commodity sizing, because volatility is a universal market concept.

Because the ATR does not measure direction and simply considers the magnitude of range, it has limited utility as a means for generating trading signals. However, it is a useful tool for providing an idea about how much a market may move. This, in turn, informs key trading decisions such as position size and stop placement. To find out how it can aid you in these areas, why not experiment using the ATR indicator in our risk-free demo trading account, and see what works best for you?

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This material does not contain and should not be construed as containing investment advice, investment recommendations, an offer of or solicitation for any transactions in financial instruments. Please note that such trading analysis is not a reliable indicator for any current or future performance, as circumstances may change over time. Before making any investment decisions, you should seek advice from independent financial advisors to ensure you understand the risks.

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