To Sell or Not to Sell (Your Stocks)

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Advice is Plentiful on When to Buy Stocks, But When Should You Sell?

During the fourth quarter of 2022, stocks have climbed dramatically. The Russell 2000 small cap index is up double-digits in percentage, and the S&P 500 is approaching a ten percent increase. This is a welcome run-up over such a short period of time. The sudden move has investors, some of whom still hold paper losses, asking themselves, do I sell now, do I add to my positions, or should I sit tight and wait?

Information on when to buy into a position is abundant. Advice on when to decide your assets are better off elsewhere is much less available. There is just less demand from readers on the topic.

Selling Considerations

First off, one does need to consider their financial plan. Is this money that is needed within the next few months, or can the value of the position or positions change without much impact on future plans? Also, is there a better use for the proceeds? If the position one is holding is still the best use of funds, then the answer, net of any emotions, may be to hold.And emotions can make for bad decisions.

Some investors that were about to pull the trigger on the sale of a position weeks ago when stocks were falling may find their position has regained much of the loss, but now they are back in greedy mode, hoping for more, despite being able to get more.

Let’s take a level-headed look at the factors involved in making the decision regarding selling.

Opportunity Cost

One fundamental question should ask themselves regularly is, do I think the risk-reward of each position and all positions taken together are best for the portfolio? If not, depending on tax consequences, if it’s determined that other opportunities might perform better, then it should be of little concern if the stock is up or down from where it was purchased. In fact, depending on what kind of investor you are, it may make sense to lighten up with the plan to re-evaluate if prices fall again.

One way to get a handle on this is to determine, does the stock underperform in a rising market. Does it fall at a faster pace than the market when the market is falling? The answers to these questions can help identify if the position should be cut loose and may be replaced by a better performer.

Moving Averages

Investors can look to moving averages for a hint as to whether the position might be overbought or oversold. Which moving average you use should be based on the expected holding period and also what works best for the stock you are reviewing. For a seldom traded portfolio with longer-term positions, its common to use a 200-day moving average, but depending on the stock’s past performance, the investor may wish to overlay different averages to guide their thoughts on whether the stock might give back recent gains and fall back in line with past performance.

Time Horizon

Many investors skip the step of determining the expected holding period before a purchase of an investment. This is like leaving for a trip without any directions to get you started. If you didn’t do this before your purchase, do it now. Ask, when do you think this will pay-off, what is the anticipated pay-off, and how do I identify if something has changed and the holding period should change? Investors with a long-term time horizon could find that over the years, they can avoid missing the up periods if they don’t get too intent on missing down periods. If your holdings closely follow the S&P 500 index, it may be down 18% this year, but last year it was up nearly 27%, and that could be a compounded increase from the 16% it was up the prior year.

If instead, your holding period is short, you may know within weeks, days, or minutes if you met your goal or if it is not playing out as expected. At that point, if you would not enter the position (whether you made money or not), getting out may be wise. Smart traders know that if they don’t stick to their plan, even if rewarded, they might be reinforcing a bad behavior that will cost them down the road.

Other Considerations

A large percentage of portfolios managed by self-directed investors are qualified accounts; that is, they are tax-deferred, so any gain does not cost the account holder until funds are taken from the account. This largely takes the tax impact question out of the decision to sell or not. However, if it is a taxable portfolio, it’s important to consider whether the tax consequences and the sale are still worthwhile. In some cases selling at a loss may even help offset gains in some other area of the portfolio owner’s financial condition.  

It’s wise to consult a tax professional to review your specific financial and tax situation before selling a stock or investment for tax purposes.

If you have made a mistake and purchased the wrong ticker, it isn’t likely the shares fit your parameters and the best time to sell is usually immediately.

Change in Ownership

Sometimes it may make sense to sell a company if it has been acquired or merges with another company. Often before an event like this, the stock price rises well above the overall market movement. The question once again is, is this the best use of one’s investible assets? The new fundamentals and cost-saving synergies between the two companies may place it in a more competitive or more profitable position, in this case, not taking the sudden profit could pay off long term.  

Selling a Portion

Did the stock you are holding just shoot up 5%-10%, and you think it is likely to back-off but don’t want to miss out if the euphoria surrounding it continues? Why not make selling a portion, perhaps with the idea that you will re-enter for that portion if the price does drop? In this way, you stand the chance of capturing some of the original run-up, and while you may miss further upward momentum, you have left yourself the opportunity of buying the shares back at a lower price from which they were sold.

Take Away

The decision on whether or not to sell an investment should be held up against the plan you had when you purchased it. Far too many investors make sensible plans entering a trade, but once in and it is either rising or falling, a less sensible side often takes over. Fear and greed are powerful emotions that can undo a good strategy.

Paul Hoffman

Managing Editor, Channelchek



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