The Dead Cat Bounce Back Strategy

Day trader at a computer
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A stock just gapped down more than 5% on the open, relative to the prior closing price, and is continuing to fall. Soon the stock is down 8%, but then it starts to rally. Some investors who were thinking about buying the stock yesterday jump in, thinking the stock is a bargain at a 5% to 8% discount.

Day traders who went short early in the morning cover their short positions, helping to fuel the bounce. Soon, the price is back near where it opened, but still down 5% on the day. That's when the price plummets lower once again, as those who hadn't sold their shares that morning are relieved to do so near the opening price.

This is a dead cat bounce. Here's how to make money on it.

What Is a Dead Cat Bounce?

In the simplest terms, a dead cat bounce is a sharp decline, followed by a failed rally and further decline. Like with all charting patterns, the exact parameters of a dead cat bounce are somewhat up for interpretation. However, there are four general features to look for as you learn how to best define a dead cat bounce for yourself.

Gap Down

For a dead cat bounce to occur, a stock must gap lower (dip at the open) by a significant percentage. As a general rule of thumb, 5% might be a good number to look for, but it depends on how the stock performs on a typical day. If a stock is always volatile, then a 5% gap down might not be all that unusual. For stable stocks that hardly move much on a day-to-day basis, then a 5% gap down—perhaps even a 3% gap down—would deserve attention.

Sustained Decline

The price must continue to decline for at least five minutes after the opening bell—preferably longer. As with the gap percentage, five minutes is just a guide. The point is that the price needs to continue falling after the open. If the price doesn't keep falling after the gap down, then it isn't a dead cat bounce and you shouldn't try dead cat bounce trading strategies on it.

The Dead Cat Bounce

After the sustained decline, the namesake bounce starts to occur. This bounce should get close to the initial gap down opening price. For example, if a stock opened down 5% at 9.20, then declines to 9, a dead cat bounce trader will watch for the price to get close to 9.20 again. The price may not hit the opening price perfectly, so traders must remain flexible and study the price movement carefully.

Decline Resumes

After the dead cat bounce, the price plummets again. At this point, the dead cat bounce has completed its pattern, and traders will watch for the best exit points.

Shorting a Dead Cat Bounce

The gap downs that start a dead cat bounce are usually due to fundamental news that came out overnight, such as an earnings release. The dead cat bounce trader watches the price fall, and when it starts to bounce, they get ready to go short.

Why short? Because the "cat is still dead." Just because the stock bounced doesn't mean it's going to keep surging. Significant damage was done to the stock price, the underlying issues with the company are still there, and investors are still scared. A bounce is a second chance for those scared investors to unload shares, which will push the stock price lower and create an opportunity for short-selling day traders.

Watch for the price to rally back into the vicinity of the open price. Remember, the area around the open price is likely to be a resistance level, but this is just a guide. You want the price to come close to the open price but it may stay below or go just above. Once the price enters the vicinity of the open price, be on high alert for taking a short position.

Take a short position only once the price starts to drop again. By waiting for the price to start dropping after nearing the open price, the day trader has more confirmation it actually is a dead cat bounce.

You can use a stock screener to see the stocks which have gapped down in the morning. Every stock screener should have some filter that helps you find the top losers of the day. Remember to set this to a percentage, rather than a dollar amount—a $40 drop might be an insignificant dip for one stock and a huge gap down for another.

Stop Losses and Price Targets

Dead cats that bounce eventually return to where they bounced from. While no strategy works all the time, if the price respects the open and declines off of it, it will often retest the low price created before the bounce (the morning low). Therefore, the initial price target for the short position should be just above the prior low. Ideally, you would exit part of the position there.

If the price starts to rally again, exit the rest of the position. Or, if the price breaks below the low of the day, hold onto the remainder of the position and exit at the first sign of a bounce. A tight trailing stop works well in this situation.

When the short position is taken, place a stop-loss order just above the recent high which occurred just before you went short. Remember, we are waiting for the price to turn lower, which means there must be a high point above our entry price before we enter. This stop loss is a guide, so making slight adjustments is acceptable.

The stop should be out of reach of normal fluctuations while still keeping risk-controlled and allowing the profit potential of the trade to outweigh the risk.

Shoot for trades that offer at least a 2:1 reward/risk ratio. If the stop loss is $0.50 above your entry price, for instance, then the first target should be $1 or more below the entry price.

The Bottom Line

The key level in a dead cat bounce trade is near the open price of the original gap down day. Often, the price will retest this level the same day, offering day traders a chance to get short soon after spotting the gap down.

The gap down level will often remain significant days and weeks into the future, as well. It may serve as the resistance level for several days until there is a breakthrough, at which point it could become a support level. Therefore, even if you aren't a day trader, it's worthwhile to pay attention to any dead cat bounces to see if they provide swing trading opportunities.