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BUYING LOW AND SELLING HIGH IS A LOT HARDER THAN IT SEEMS

Buying stocks may get the attention, but experts say too many investors overlook the importance of building and monitoring a complete portfolio -- and knowing when and what to sell.

"Selling and construction are just as important as buying, but buying gets 90 percent of the attention," said David King, portfolio manager of the Putnam New Value Fund.

A key, experts said, is for investors not to spend their time caught up in the excitement of finding a new buy at the expense of monitoring what they already have.

"Too many people in my opinion look at what they're going to invest new money into rather than looking at their whole portfolio," said Kenneth Janke, chairman of the National Association of Investors Corp., which works to educate investors and
investment clubs.

Although buy-and-hold is the oft-repeated mantra, some experts stress a buy-and-don't-forget approach, reminding investors that selling is sometimes necessary.

Experts agree the first step in sell decisions is to take the same approach as in buy decisions, but with the opposite outlook.

Rob Roquitte, portfolio manager of the Harris Insight Small Cap Value Fund, ranks stocks based on cash flow, earnings and other valuation measures; strong and improving fundamentals, and investor interest.

He buys when readings are favorable and sells when they're deteriorating.

"We tend to take as much of the emotion and subjectivity out of the decision-making as possible," he said.

Experts stress the importance of selling based on the numbers, not on your heart.

When it comes to cashing in profits, many investors set price targets when they buy and sell some or all of their position when the stock reaches that level.

But some experts said that can be taken too far, because shares may well continue to go up. Research suggests that stocks individual investors sell tend to outperform those they buy.

"You have to be flexible to realize, 'I was way too optimistic on that price target or way too pessimistic,' so you have to reassess," King said.

Janke said he believes in hedging some profits, but warns that if you sell all the winners, what you have left are the dogs.

"One of the big mistakes in selling stocks is . . . because they've got a profit," he said.

Experts stress that investors have to watch fundamentals, particularly in the context of the overall market.

"I do think it's a tough game for an individual, simply because if you set a price target for yourself, what you also need to be paying attention to is the rest of the market and what's happening in that sector," Roquitte said.

Research shows investors are particularly reluctant to sell losers, hanging on in hopes of a rebound that may never occur.

"We become emotional about the stocks we buy," said Janke. "You fall in love with it, you feel you made the right decision. You don't want to admit you made a mistake to begin with. . . . That's sad. We all make mistakes.

"It's the emotional part is what it really amounts to. None of us like to say that we're wrong."

Although some investors use stop-loss orders to sell at a certain price -- say, a drop of 10 percent or 20 percent -- to cut their losses, many experts advise against it.

"If you try to use stop losses, you usually end up selling a lot of things," said Carl Marker, portfolio manager of the IMS Capital Value Fund. "It sounds good on paper, but in practice . . . it doesn't work very well."

Janke urges a longer-term view. Stock prices have normal fluctuations, he said, and selling a stock bought at $30 a share just because it falls 10 percent, to $27, can be shortsighted.

"That shouldn't be a big deal. It might be more of a buying opportunity than a selling opportunity," he said.

Investors who look for bargains, experts said, need to think about selling when the stock no longer fits that category.

"The most obvious reason as a value investor to sell a stock is it becomes expensive," King said. If you buy a stock at eight times earnings and it goes to 30 times earnings, he said, "That's always the fun and easy one."

Potential negative factors also can play a role in sell decisions, including management turnover, restatements, litigation, a change in the legislative or regulatory outlook, or a rash of insider sales.

As important as knowing what and when to sell, of course, is knowing when and what not to sell.

Don't, for example, sell out of boredom.

"You shouldn't sell just to do something," Janke said. If you bought a good, growing company at a decent price, he said, "the best time to sell is never."

And experts urge investors to relax, giving up the futile quest of trying to time the market perfectly.

"None of us are going to buy stocks at the absolute low and sell at the absolute high," Janke said.

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