|William D. Gann was born in 1878 in rural Angelina County, TX, where his father was a modestly successful cotton farmer. Although he received a limited formal education, attending school for only a few years, his devoutly religious mother taught him to read at a young age, using the family Bible as his textbook. |
Gann moved to New York at the turn of the century, eventually settling in Brooklyn, far from his east Texas roots, and apparently never looked back. He worked for many years as a stockbroker, but quit in 1919 to start a market research firm and to publish investment newsletters, most notably Supply And Demand. He also self-published several books, including Wall Street Stock Selector (published in 1930) and Forty-Five Years In Wall Street (published in 1949). In the late 1930s, Gann became interested in the Florida real estate market. He invested in residential and commercial properties in a small way, and split his time between Florida and New York.
His knack for ballyhoo has caused some to dismiss Gann as an untrustworthy source of market insights. The fact that he embraced spiritualism and astrology has not helped matters, nor has his claim that he derived many of his ideas from a study of "natural law" and of ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Babylonian mathematics.
In addition, he claimed to have special religious insights. For example, in a 1927 advertisement for his self-published novel, Tunnel Thru The Air, Gann claimed to have discovered "the cycles and rules found in the Bible for forecasting the future of nations and (of) stock and commodity markets." Such boasts seem out of place when developing an objective scientific approach to the stock market. Yet Gann had many original ideas that have inspired a legion of successful investors for several generations.
GANN'S THEORIES AND STRATEGIES
Swing trading can be distinguished from daytrading in that the investor's expectation is to hold a stock for up to a few days (but typically not more than four or five). Gann was interested in swings of about 3% to 4%.
"Do not trade or invest if motivated by hope, greed or fear," Gann declared. Instead, rely on an analysis of stock price trends. "Do not buck the trend," he asserted, "never buy or sell if you are not sure of the trend. " He added, "When in doubt, get out, and don't get in when in doubt." In addition, he cautioned against placing more than 10% of a portfolio in any one security.
To determine a trend, Gann relied on price changes over time, focusing on the ratio of price changes to units of time as reflected in the angle of the trendline when it is charted. For example, a 1:1 ratio means that in one unit of time (usually a trading day, which Gann referred to as a "degree"), the stock moved up or down one point. When charted, the result is a line at a 45-degree angle, which Gann asserted is the strongest indicator of a continuing trend. As he believed that the significance of a trend is shown by its angle when charted, his followers refer to "Gann angles." Other angles indicative of the strength of a trend, according to Gann, are (in order of importance) the angles created by ratios of 2:1, 1:2, 4:1, 1:4, 8:1, and 1:8.
Gann believed that the angles formed over 30-day periods would ideally show the resistance and support levels. Alternatively, if the 30-day period was not conclusive, Gann recommended that 90-, 120-, 180-, 240-, 270-, and 360-day periods be used. He also stated that the overall market moves in various cycles that range from 10 to 100 years in length.
Gann noticed that every fifth year of a decade (every year ending in a zero or a "5") was a bullish year for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which was true from 1905 until 1995.
Most investors find that it is harder to make the decision to sell a stock than it is to buy. Gann advised flexibility: "When you make a trade, your object should be to make profits and there is no way that you can determine in advance how much profit you can expect. ...The market itself determines the amount of your profit, and the thing that you must do is to be ready to get out and accept a profit whenever the trend changes, and not before."
Gann advised that stop-loss orders should be used to prevent large losses on a particular trade and that they should also be used to preserve gains. "Never let a profit run into a loss," he declared.
The mathematical formulas and geometric principles set forth by Gann are frequently complicated and ambiguous, which have caused numerous and sometimes contradictory interpretations to be developed. The fact that he referred to trading days as "degrees" while also focusing on the mathematical degrees of an angle formed by a trendline only adds to the complication.
In 1944, Gann had a heart attack, which slowed him down. In 1955, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and returned to Brooklyn to live with his son. He died soon after, leaving a large trove of literature for future investors to mull over.
James A. Maccaro is an attorney and freelance writer. He has written articles for Newsday, Ideas on Liberty, The Massachusetts Law Review, and other magazines. His law journal articles have been cited in several legal decisions, including by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and by the US Supreme Court.
Current and past articles from Working Money, The Investors' Magazine, can be found at Working-Money.com.
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