Basic Tenets of the Elliott Wave Principle
“The Wave Principle” is Ralph Nelson Elliott’s discovery that social, or crowd, behavior trends and reverses in recognizable patterns. Using stock market data for the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) as his main research tool, Elliott discovered that the ever-changing path of stock market prices reveals a structural design that in turn reflects a basic harmony found in nature. From this discovery, he developed a rational system of market analysis.
Under the Wave Principle, every market decision is both produced by meaningful information and produces meaningful information. Each transaction, while at once an effect, enters the fabric of the market and, by communicating transactional data to investors, joins the chain of causes of others’ behavior. This feedback loop is governed by man’s social nature, and since he has such a nature, the process generates forms. As the forms are repetitive, they have predictive value.
Elliott isolated thirteen “waves,” or patterns of directional movement, that recur in markets and are repetitive in form, but are not necessarily repetitive in time or amplitude. He named, defined and illustrated the patterns. He then described how these structures link together to form larger versions of the same patterns, how those in turn are the building blocks for patterns of the next larger size, and so on. His descriptions constitute a set of empirically derived rules and guidelines for interpreting market action. The patterns that naturally occur under the Wave Principle are described below.
The Five Wave Pattern
In markets, progress ultimately takes the form of five waves of a specific structure. Three of these waves, which are labeled 1, 3 and 5, actually effect the directional movement. They are separated by two countertrend interruptions, which are labeled 2 and 4, as shown in Figure 1. The two interruptions are apparently a requisite for overall directional movement to occur.
At any time, the market may be identified as being somewhere in the basic five wave pattern at the largest degree of trend. Because the five wave pattern is the overriding form of market progress, all other patterns are subsumed by it.
There are two modes of wave development: impulsive and corrective. Impulsive waves have a five wave structure, while corrective waves have a three wave structure or a variation thereof. Impulsive mode is employed by both the five wave pattern of Figure 1 and its same-directional components, i.e., waves 1, 3 and 5. Their structures are called “impulsive” because they powerfully impel the market. Corrective mode is employed by all countertrend interruptions, which include waves 2 and 4 in Figure 1. Their structures are called “corrective” because they can accomplish only a partial retracement, or “correction,” of the progress achieved by any preceding impulsive wave. Thus, the two modes are fundamentally different, both in their roles and in their construction, as will be detailed in an upcoming section.
The Complete Cycle
A five-wave impulse (whose subwaves are denoted by numbers) is followed by a three-wave correction (whose subwaves are denoted by letters) to form a complete cycle of eight waves. The concept of five waves up followed by three waves down is shown in Figure 2. The eight-wave cycle
shown in Figure 2 is a component of a cycle of one degree larger, as shown in Figure 3. As Figure 3 illustrates, each same-direction component of an impulsive wave, and each full cycle component (i.e., waves 1 + 2, or waves 3 + 4) of a cycle, is a smaller version of itself.
It is crucial to understand an essential point: Figure 3 not only illustrates a larger version of Figure 2, it also illustrates Figure 2 itself, in greater detail. In Figure 2, each subwave 1, 3 and 5 is an impulsive wave that will subdivide into a “five,” and each subwave 2 and 4 is a corrective wave that will subdivide into an a, b, c. Waves (1) and (2) in Figure 3, if examined under a “microscope,” would take the same form as waves and . Thus, waves of any degree in any series always subdivide and re-subdivide into waves of lesser degree and simultaneously are components of waves of higher degree. We can use Figure 3 to illustrate two waves, eight waves or thirty-four waves, depending upon the degree to which we are referring.
The Essential Design
Now observe that within the corrective pattern illustrated as wave in Figure 3, waves (a) and (c), which point downward, are composed of five waves: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Similarly, wave (b), which points upward, is composed of three waves: a, b and c. This construction discloses a crucial point: that impulsive waves do not always point upward, and corrective waves do not always point downward. The mode of a wave is greatly determined not by its absolute direction but by its relative direction. Aside from four specific exceptions, which will be discussed later in this booklet, waves divide in impulsive mode (five waves) when trending in the same direction as the wave of one larger degree of which it is a part, and in corrective mode (three waves or a variation) when trending in the opposite direction. Waves (a) and (c) are impulsive, trending in the same direction as wave . Wave (b) is corrective because it corrects wave (a) and is countertrend to wave . In summary, the essential underlying tendency of the Wave Principle is that action in the same direction as the one larger trend develops in five waves, while reaction against the one larger trend develops in three waves, at all degrees of trend.
Neither does Figure 3 imply finality. As before, the termination of yet another eight wave movement (five up and three down) completes a cycle that automatically becomes two subdivisions of the wave of next higher degree. As long as progress continues, the process of building to greater degrees continues. The reverse process of subdividing into lesser degrees apparently continues indefinitely as well. As far as we can determine, then, all waves both have and are component waves.
Variations on the Basic Theme
The Wave Principle would be simple to apply if the basic theme described above were the complete description of market behavior. However, the real world, fortunately or unfortunately, is not so simple. The rest of this chapter fills out the description of how the market behaves in reality.
All waves may be categorized by relative size, or degree. Elliott discerned nine degrees of waves, from the smallest wiggle on an hourly chart to the largest wave he could assume existed from the data then available. He chose the names listed below to label these degrees, from largest to smallest:
Cycle waves subdivide into Primary waves that subdivide into Intermediate waves that in turn subdivide into Minor and sub-Minor waves. It is important to understand that these labels refer to specifically identifiable degrees of waves. By using this nomenclature, the analyst can identify precisely the position of a wave in the overall progression of the market, much as longitude and latitude are used to identify a geographical location. To say, “the Dow Jones Industrial Average is in Minute wave v of Minor wave 1 of Intermediate wave (3) of Primary wave of Cycle wave I of Supercycle wave (V) of the current Grand Supercycle” is to identify a specific point along the progression of market history.
When numbering and lettering waves, some scheme such as the one shown below is recommended to differentiate the degrees of waves in the stock market’s progression:
Motive waves subdivide into five waves with certain characteristics and always move in the same direction as the trend of one larger degree. They are straightforward and relatively easy to recognize and interpret.
Within motive waves, wave 2 never retraces more than 100% of wave 1, and wave 4 never retraces more than 100% of wave 3. Wave 3, moreover, always travels beyond the end of wave 1. The goal of an impulse is to make progress, and these rules of formation assure that it will.
Elliott further discovered that in price terms, wave 3 is often the longest and never the shortest among waves 1, 3 and 5. As long as wave 3 undergoes a greater percentage movement than either wave 1 or 5, this rule is satisfied. It almost always holds on an arithmetic basis as well. There are two types of motive waves: impulses and diagonal triangles.
The most common motive wave is an impulse. In an impulse, wave 4 does not enter the territory of (i.e., “overlap”) wave 1. This rule holds for all non-leveraged cash basis markets. Futures markets, with their extreme leverage, can induce short term price extremes that would not occur in cash markets. Even so, overlapping is usually confined to daily and intraday price fluctuations and even then is extremely rare. In addition, the actionary subwaves (1, 3 and 5) of an impulse are themselves motive, and subwave 3 is specifically an impulse. Figures 2, 3 and 4 all depict impulses in the 1, 3, 5, A and C wave positions.
As detailed in the preceding four paragraphs, there are only a few simple rules for interpreting impulses properly. A rule is so called because it governs all waves to which it applies. Typical, yet not inevitable, characteristics of waves are called guidelines, which are discussed in an upcoming section. A rule should never be disregarded. In many years of practice with countless patterns, the authors have found but one instance above Subminuette degree when all other rules and guidelines combined to suggest that a rule was broken. Analysts who routinely break any of the rules detailed in this section are practicing some form of analysis other than that guided by the Wave Principle. These rules have great practical utility in correct counting, which we will explore further in discussing extensions.
Most impulses contain what Elliott called an extension. Extensions are elongated impulses with exaggerated subdivisions. The vast majority of impulse waves do contain an extension in one and only one of their three impulsive subwaves (1, 3 or 5). The diagrams in Figure 4, illustrating extensions, will clarify this point.
Often the third wave of an extended third wave is an extension, producing a profile such as shown in Figure 5.
A truncated fifth wave does not move beyond the end of the third. It can usually be verified by noting that the presumed fifth wave contains the necessary five subwaves, as illustrated in Figures 6 and 7.
Truncation gives warning of underlying weakness or strength in the market. In application, a truncated fifth wave will often cut short an expected target. This annoyance is counterbalanced by its clear implications for persistence in the new direction of trend.
DIAGONAL TRIANGLES (WEDGES)
A diagonal triangle is an impulsive pattern, yet not an impulse, as it has one or two corrective characteristics. Diagonal triangles substitute for impulses at specific locations in the wave structure. They are the only five-wave structures in the direction of the main trend within which wave four almost always moves into the price territory of (i.e., overlaps) wave one. On rare occasions, a diagonal triangle may end in a truncation, although in our experience, such truncations occur only by the slimmest of margins.
An ending diagonal is a special type of wave that occurs primarily in the fifth wave position at times when the preceding move has gone "too far too fast," as Elliott put it. A very small percentage of ending diagonals appear in the C wave position of A-B- C formations. In double or triple threes (see next section), they appear only as the final "C" wave. In all cases, they are found at the termination points of larger patterns, indicating exhaustion of the larger movement.
Ending diagonals take a wedge shape within two converging lines, with each subwave, including waves 1, 3 and 5, subdividing into a "three," which is otherwise a corrective wave phenomenon. The ending diagonal is illustrated in Figures 8 and 9 and shown in its typical position in larger impulse waves.
When diagonal triangles occur in the fifth or C wave position, they take the 3-3-3-3-3 shape that Elliott described. However, it has recently come to light that a variation on this pattern occasionally appears in the first wave position of impulses and in the A wave position of zigzags. The characteristic overlapping of waves one and four and the convergence of boundary lines into a wedge shape remain as in the ending diagonal triangle. However, the subdivisions are different, tracing out a 5-3-5, or 5-3-5-3-5 pattern. The structure of this formation (see Figure 10) does fit the spirit of the Wave Principle in that the five-wave subdivisions in the direction of the larger trend communicate a "continuation" message as opposed to the "termination" implication of the three-wave subdivisions in the ending diagonal. This pattern must be noted because the analyst could mistake it for a far more common development, a series of first and second waves, as illustrated in Figure 5.
The main key to recognizing this pattern is the decided slowing of momentum in the fifth subwave relative to the third. By contrast, in developing first and second waves, phenomena such as short term speed of movement and breadth (i.e., the number of stocks or subindexes participating) often expands.
Markets move against the trend of one greater degree only with a seeming struggle. Resistance from the larger trend appears to prevent a correction from developing a full impulsive structure. The struggle between the two oppositely trending degrees generally makes corrective waves less clearly identifiable than impulsive waves, which always flow with comparative ease in the direction of the one larger trend. As another result of the conflict between trends, corrective waves are quite a bit more varied than impulsive waves.
Corrective patterns fall into four main categories:
Zigzags (5-3-5; includes three variations: single, double, triple);
Flats (3-3-5; includes three variations: regular, expanded, running);
Triangles (3-3-3-3-3; four types: ascending, descending, contracting, expanding);
Double threes and triple threes (combined structures).
A single zigzag in a bull market is a simple three-wave declining pattern labeled A-B-C and subdividing 5-3-5. The top of wave B is noticeably lower than the start of wave A, as illustrated in Figures 11 and 12.
Occasionally zigzags will occur twice, or at most, three times in succession, particularly when the first zigzag falls short of a normal target. In these cases, each zigzag is separated by an intervening "three" (labeled X), producing what is called a double zigzag (see Figure 13) or triple zigzag. The zigzags are labeled W and Y (and Z, if a triple).
A flat correction differs from a zigzag in that the subwave sequence is 3-3-5, as shown in Figures 14 and 15. Since the first actionary wave, wave A, lacks sufficient downward force to unfold into a full five waves as it does in a zigzag, the B wave reaction seems to inherit this lack of countertrend pressure and, not surprisingly, terminates near the start of wave A. Wave C, in turn, generally terminates just slightly beyond the end of wave A rather than significantly beyond as in zigzags.
Flat corrections usually retrace less of preceding impulse waves than do zigzags. They participate in periods involving a strong larger trend and thus virtually always precede or follow extensions. The more powerful the underlying trend, the briefer the flat tends to be. Within impulses, fourth waves frequently sport flats, while second waves rarely do.
Three types of 3-3-5 corrections have been identified by differences in their overall shape. In a regular flat correction, wave B terminates about at the level of the beginning of wave A, and wave C terminates a slight bit past the end of wave A, as we have shown in Figures 14 and 15. Far more common, however, is the variety called an expanded flat, which contains a price extreme beyond that of the preceding impulse wave. In expanded flats, wave B of the 3-3-5 pattern terminates beyond the starting level of wave A, and wave C ends more substantially beyond the ending level of wave A, as shown in Figures 16 and 17.
In a rare variation on the 3-3-5 pattern, which we call a running flat, wave B terminates well beyond the beginning of wave A as in an expanded flat, but wave C fails to travel its full distance, falling short of the level at which wave A ended. There are hardly any examples of this type of correction in the price record.
HORIZONTAL TRIANGLES (TRIANGLES)
Triangles are overlapping five wave affairs that subdivide 3-3-3-3-3. They appear to reflect a balance of forces, causing a sideways movement that is usually associated with decreasing volume and volatility. Triangles fall into four main categories as illustrated in Figure 18. These illustrations depict the first three types as taking place within the area of preceding price action, in what may be termed regular triangles. However, it is quite common, particularly in contracting triangles, for wave b to exceed the start of wave a in what may be termed a running triangle, as shown in Figure 19.
Although upon extremely rare occasions a second wave in an impulse appears to take the form of a triangle, triangles nearly always occur in positions prior to the final actionary wave in the pattern of one larger degree, i.e., as wave four in an impulse, wave B in an A-B-C, or the final wave X in a double or triple zigzag or combination (see next section).
COMBINATIONS (DOUBLE AND TRIPLE THREES)
Elliott called sideways combinations of corrective patterns “double threes" and “triple threes." While a single three is any zigzag or flat, a triangle is an allowable final component of such combinations and in this context is called a "three." A double or triple three, then, is a combination of simpler types of corrections, including the various types of zigzags, flats and triangles. Their occurrence appears to be the flat correction's way of extending sideways action. As with double and triple zigzags, each simple corrective pattern is labeled W, Y and Z. The reactionary waves, labeled X, can take the shape of any corrective pattern but are most commonly zigzags. Figures 20 and 21 show two examples of double threes.
For the most part, double threes and triple threes are horizontal in character. One reason for this trait is that there is never more than one zigzag in a combination. Neither is there more than one triangle. Recall that triangles occurring alone precede the final movement of a larger trend. Combinations appear to recognize this character and sport triangles only as the final wave in a double or triple three.
All the patterns illustrated here take the same form whether within a larger rising or falling trend. In a falling trend, they are simply inverted.
GUIDELINES OF WAVE FORMATION
The guideline of alternation states that if wave two of an impulse is a sharp retracement, expect wave four to be a sideways correction, and vice versa. Figure 22 shows the most characteristic breakdowns of impulse waves, both up and down. Sharp corrections never include a new price extreme, i.e., one that lies beyond the orthodox end of the preceding impulse wave. They are almost always zigzag (single, double or triple); occasionally they are double threes that begin with a zigzag. Sideways corrections include flats, triangles, and double and triple corrections. They usually include a new price extreme, i.e., one that lies beyond the orthodox end of the preceding impulse wave.
DEPTH OF CORRECTIVE WAVES
No market approach other than the Wave Principle gives as satisfactory an answer to the question, "How far down can a bear market be expected to go?" The primary guideline is that corrections, especially when they themselves are fourth waves, tend to register their maximum retracement within the span of travel of the previous fourth wave of one lesser degree, most commonly near the level of its terminus. Note in Figure 23, for instance, how wave 2 is drawn ending at the level of wave four of 1.
Elliott noted that parallel trend channels typically mark the upper and lower boundaries of impulse waves, often with dramatic precision. Analysts should draw them in advance to assist in determining wave targets and to provide clues to the future development of trends.
To draw a proper channel, first connect the ends of waves two and four. If waves one and three are normal, the upper parallel most accurately forecasts the end of wave 5 when drawn touching the peak of wave three, as in Figure 23. If wave three is abnormally strong, almost vertical, then a parallel drawn from its top may be too high. Experience has shown that a parallel to the baseline that touches the top of wave one is then more useful.
The question of whether to expect a parallel channel on arithmetic or semilog (percentage) scale is still unresolved as far as developing a definite tenet on the subject. If the price development at any point does not fall neatly within two parallel lines on the scale (either arithmetic or semilog) you are using, switch to the other scale in order to observe the channel in correct perspective. To stay on top of all developments, the analyst should always use both.
Within parallel channels and the converging lines of diagonal triangles, if a fifth wave approaches its upper trendline on declining volume, it is an indication that the end of the wave will meet or fall short of it. If volume is heavy as the fifth wave approaches its upper trendline, it indicates a possible penetration of the upper line, which Elliott called “throw-over." Throw-overs also occur, with the same characteristics, in declining markets.
In normal fifth waves below Primary degree, volume tends to be less than in third waves. If volume in an advancing fifth wave of less than Primary degree is equal to or greater than that in the third wave, an extension of the fifth is in force. While this outcome is often to be expected anyway if the first and third waves are about equal in length, it is an excellent warning of those rare times when both a third and a fifth wave are extended.
At Primary degree and greater, volume tends to be higher in an advancing fifth wave merely because of the natural long term growth in the number of participants in bull markets.
LEARNING THE BASICS
The Wave Principle is unparalleled in providing an overall perspective on the position of the market most of the time. Nevertheless, the Wave Principle does not provide certainty about any one market outcome. One must understand and accept that any approach that can identify high odds for a fairly specific outcome will produce a losing bet some of the time.
What the Wave Principle provides is an objective means of assessing the relative probabilities of possible future paths for the market. What's more, competent analysts applying the rules and guidelines of the Wave Principle objectively should usually agree on the order "of those probabilities." At any time, two or more valid wave interpretations are usually acceptable by the rules of the Wave Principle. The rules are highly specific and keep the number of valid alternatives to a minimum. Among the valid alternatives, the analyst will generally regard as preferred the interpretation that satisfies the largest number of guidelines and will accord top alternate status to the interpretation satisfying the next largest number of guidelines, and so on.
Alternate interpretations are extremely important. They are not "bad" or rejected wave interpretations. Rather, they are valid interpretations that are accorded lower probability than the preferred count. They are an essential aspect of using the Wave Principle, because in the event that the market fails to follow the preferred scenario, the top alternate count becomes the investor's backup plan.
The best approach is deductive reasoning. Knowing what Elliott rules will not allow, one can deduce that whatever remains must be the most likely course for the market. By applying all the rules of extensions, alternation, overlapping, channeling, volume and the rest, the analyst has a much more formidable arsenal than one might imagine at first glance.
Most other approaches to market analysis, whether fundamental, technical or cyclical, disallow other than arbitrarily chosen stop points, thus keeping either risk or frequency of stop-outs high. The Wave Principle, in contrast, provides a built-in objective method for placing a loss-limiting stop. Since Elliott Wave analysis is based upon price patterns, a pattern identified as having been completed is either over or it isn't. If the market changes direction, the analyst has caught the turn. If the market moves beyond what the apparently completed pattern allows, the conclusion is wrong, and any funds at risk can be reclaimed immediately.
Of course, there are often times when, despite a rigorous analysis, the question may arise as to how a developing move is to be counted or perhaps classified as to degree. When there is no clearly preferred interpretation, the analyst must wait until the count resolves itself, in other words, to "sweep it under the rug until the air clears," as Bolton suggested. Almost always, subsequent moves will clarify the status of previous waves by revealing their position in the pattern of the next higher degree. When subsequent waves clarify the picture, the probability that a turning point is at hand can suddenly and excitingly rise to nearly 100%.
The ability to identify junctures is remarkable enough, but the Wave Principle is the only method of analysis which also provides guidelines for forecasting. Many of these guidelines are specific and can occasionally yield results of stunning precision. If indeed markets are patterned, and if those patterns have a recognizable geometry, then regardless of the variations allowed, certain price and time relationships are likely to recur. In fact, real world experience shows that they do. The next section addresses some additional guidelines that are helpful in the forecasting exercise.
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