Orderbook Reading 101

Orderbook reading is a key component of my trading toolbox. It is a technique I developed myself, back in 2014, and one that there is little-to-no quality information on online. (Seriously, Google “orderbook reading” and you’ll be shocked by the lack of resources.) In my book, I dedicated an entire 5,000-word section to orderbook reading, and, given the lack of material readily available elsewhere, I figured that it might be useful for anyone interested in the technique to have a primer written; if you find orderbook reading compelling, you can take a look at the more advanced material in the book.

Of course, I don’t doubt that there were others who had dissected the orderbook in a similar way to myself prior to 2014, and I don’t take any credit for the concept of orderbook reading; but it is the one technique that I learnt entirely via my own experience, with no help from resources such as those one would look to when learning other aspects of technical analysis. Now, I say it is an aspect of technical analysis, though strictly that isn’t true. TA is exclusively concerned with the chart, but orderbook reading resides in that grey area between fundamentals and technicals. The technique itself feels more like technical analysis, intuitively, but given that it is not derived from the chart, the analytical grey area is where it will remain.

So, what is orderbook reading? In short, it is the study and subsequent analysis of the ledger of orders for any given market. Orderbooks contain a list of all the buy and sell orders currently placed within a market on a specific exchange, and it is this transparency on which I learnt to capitalise. By studying the orderbook, one can often find clues as to the plans of those manipulating price. This can add confluence to our technical targets for entries and exits, as well as boost confidence in the validity of our positions.

But what’s the process? Below, I’ve outlined a breakdown of what I tend to look for when studying an orderbook:

  • There are three key components to orderbook reading: Order Depth, Order Patterns and Time. In this post, we will be looking at the first two.
Order Depth:

This is the simplest form of orderbook reading, and is predicated on studying the value of the orders in the bid and ask (buy and sell) sides of the orderbook.

  1. Pick any given market on any given exchange. Ideally, you’ll want to use exchanges that provide the most transparency with their orderbooks. Bittrex and Cryptopia are two exchanges that I like to use.
  2. Calculate the total value of orders in both the altcoin itself and Bitcoin for the bid-side and ask-side of the orderbook. For example, Vertcoin on Bittrex currently has ~20 BTC-worth of orders in the bid-side, totalling ~28,800,000 VTC. It has ~9.5 BTC-worth of orders in the ask-side, totalling ~100,000 VTC.
  3. At this point, you want to calculate the average order size in both sides of the orderbook. Using the above values, the average buy order is 69 satoshis. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, at surface-level, and we’ll come back to it in a second. The average sell order, however, is 9500 satoshis, or ~30% above current prices.
  4. A quick thing to note before we continue is that, from this point, one can also make another surface-level analysis based on the total Bitcoin values of the bid and ask sides: given 20 BTC-worth of buys and 9.5 BTC-worth of sells, it is evident that there is greater demand than supply. This, as mentioned, is surface-level, and does not account for orderbook manipulation, which I won’t go into here.
  5. Returning to our average order values, why is it that the average buy order for Vertcoin is so low relative to current prices? If we inspect the latter pages of the orderbook, we find a buy order worth 1.13 BTC at 4 satoshis, totalling ~28,200,000 VTC. This explains everything. At your discretion, you can then discount this order from the calculations. Doing so would give us ~600,000 VTC remaining in the buy side at a total of ~18.87 BTC, which equates to an average buy order of 3145 satoshis. Far more insightful a figure.
  6. Now, the ask-side calculation also comes with a caveat. Despite there being less than 10 BTC-worth of orders listed, we can see, if we look to the last page shown, that we are only being shown 20 pages of data – in this case, orders up to ~11,000 satoshis. Undoubtedly, there will be orders above that point, but this is a disadvantage of Bittrex; it only shows 20 pages of orderbook data for either side. Cryptopia, and many other exchanges, offer full transparency of the orderbook.
  7. Another point to note is that these values are dynamic, as orderbooks are dynamic. Consistent monitoring and study is required in order to garner a more accurate understanding of order depth.
Order Patterns:

Order patterns are perhaps the most complicated aspect of orderbook reading, as they illuminate much of the manipulation that occurs in altcoin markets. Whilst I won’t go into the more advanced stuff here, it is significant to highlight the four types of order pattern: clean orders, bot orders, walls and, for lack of a better term, non-clean orders or messy orders.

Clean Orders: a clean order is simply an order that is unusually perfect, mathematically. These are often orders comprising of multiples of 5s or 10s that occur at regular intervals in the orderbook. For example, buy orders of 50,000 Vertcoin at 5000 satoshis, totalling 2.5 BTC, with corresponding orders at 1000-satoshi intervals. These are indicative of significant price-levels for the market-maker; perhaps levels at which accumulation is taking place. On the ask-side, you may find similar patterns of clean orders that are set up as future targets for price-action. Again, this is simplistic, and not taking into account orderbook manipulation, but it is obvious to see how this can be useful when looking for entries and exits.

Bot Orders: a bot order is one that defies human ability in its execution. Often, algorithms are in place to bid up a buy order or push down a sell order. This is easily noticeable and you have likely experienced it yourself. Recall a time when you’d place a buy order at the top of the orderbook, only for it to be displaced within milliseconds by another buy order; this is a bot order. The purpose of these orders can be two-fold: either to drive you to make irrational decisions (as we’ll discuss in the next section) or to beat you out for the purposes of active and immediate accumulation or distribution.

Walls: Most are familiar with walls. A wall is an unusually large order in the orderbook. However, most tend to react in the most irrational manner when it comes to these orders. Large buy orders being pushed and pulled near current prices are often viewed by the masses as the perfect time to enter, lest one miss out on what must be an imminent bullish move. Large sell orders are viewed as the perfect time to exit, lest we lose all our money when the market crashes and burns. This is orderbook manipulation at its finest. Buy walls are an attempt at causing irrational market participants to buy up the orderbook, and vice-versa  for sell walls. This allows for better pricing to be had for the puppet-master for both accumulation and distribution purposes.

Non-Clean Orders: much like clean orders, non-clean orders are about determining symmetry and patterns in the orderbook. However, they are more difficult to notice, as, unlike their clean counterparts, they are comprised of seemingly random numerical values. For example, an order of 24879.284733 Vertcoin at 6435 satoshis might appear in the orderbook. This order would seem irrelevant to most, but perhaps you notice another order of that exact same amount at 5733 satoshis… and another at 5210 satoshis. Coincidence? I think not. Non-clean orders, such as these, are simply a more discrete way for market manipulators to mark out significant levels for future reference.

Note these various orders down as and when you come across them – and you will come across them – and you’ll begin to piece together a trail of footsteps that must be left by those manipulating price.

I hope this post has proved somewhat insightful and piqued your interest in orderbook reading. For anyone compelled to learn more, there is an advanced section in my book that goes into far more detail.


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