When To Sell
by Sunny J. Harris
Anyone can initiate a trade. It's when you exit that
A monkey or a thrown dart can get you into a trade. It's
the exit that really counts! When you hear the latest stock
tip, you rarely think about when to get out; it's the getting in a
stock that everyone focuses on. Here are eight brief thoughts on
"when to sell."
When You Need Money
A perfectly valid reason to sell stocks is "needing the money."
There are as many reasons to need money as there are people, of
The problem, however, is when your need comes at a time when the
market is unfavorable. When that happens, you may sell, and feel
miserable as the stock continues to rise after you sell. Everyone's
been through it.
The real lesson, if you have to sell because you need money, is
not to invest money that you soon will need. You have to be
able to separate living expenses from investments. It's the
difference between money and capital.
When You Think It Is Ahead of Itself
Another perfectly valid reason for selling is when you think the
stock has simply gotten more valuable than it really should be. This
is often a hard determination to make, as many companies
continue to grow and perform after they are "ahead of themselves."
If you want to hold the stock for the long-term, selling when the
stock is ahead of itself often means you forget to buy back in when
the stock is more properly valued. They rarely become "cheap" once
they've gotten ahead of themselves, unless they collapse.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the realization that a stock is
"ahead of itself" comes long after the stock has already peaked, and
When It Doubles
An old adage in the market is that you should sell half
your holdings when a stock doubles.
This is a purely emotional reason to sell a stock. But for many,
it works. It allows you to feel like you have received all of your
money back and that the money you now have in the market is "house
The concept of "house money" is purely emotional. It is always
But if selling half makes it easier for you to hold long term,
which was your goal in the first place, then sell half when your
initial position doubles.
When Your Nerves Can't Take It Anymore
Let's face it. Sometimes you buy a stock that takes you for an
Instead of increasing in value in a slow steady rise, the price
dips and bounces and every night you can hardly believe how much
your holdings have swung in value. Maybe you can't sleep.
If holding the stock makes you so uncomfortable that you can't
think about reasons why the stock will move one way or the
other, and you only think about how many dollars are lost or won in
a single day, you are being distracted.
When that's the case, consider holding less volatile stocks. Know
yourself. Don't hold stocks that you can't hold comfortably.
When You Reach Long-Term Capital Gains
Stocks held for more than one year are eligible for long-term
capital gain treatment. This preferential treatment taxes gains at
20% (or 10% if your income is in the 15% bracket), far lower than
income tax rates (these figures are as of early 2001 and may, of
On the day your holdings become long-term, your return instantly
jumps by approximately one-third. If your gains are $100, your
after-tax gains become $80, instead of $65.
If you decide you want to sell a stock, and you are very near the
one year holding period, it's often worth waiting until you reach
the long-term holding day.
When You Find Something Better
Another perfectly valid reason to sell is when you find a better
Perhaps the risk/reward ratio is more favorable, or you just
understand the new investment more deeply. When this happens, there
is nothing wrong with selling your current holdings, even if you
still feel positive about the stock. You just found something
better, that's all.
It isn't like dumping your current "significant other" for
"someone better." That practice is frowned on in relationships, but
is often rewarded in the market.
When You Lose Faith
Things don't always work out. Sometimes, you are just plain
wrong. When it finally dawns on you that you did make a mistake,
it is best to sell, regardless of how much money you lost. Holding
on to a position simply to recover your initial capital is usually a
recipe for even greater losses.
When Your Premise Is Fulfilled
This is what it's all about: picking a stock because of a
reasoned, well-thought investment premise, and things work out
exactly like you expected, or better. When this happens you have
every right to feel smart and take your profits.
But, as you can see, it isn't the only reason to sell. And you
shouldn't feel like selling for some other reason is failure. The
other reasons are valid also.