When is the right time to sell an investment? It’s a tough decision that individuals have a difficult time making but it’s one of the most important decisions that you will have to make as an investor. Often time the decision to “buy” an investment is much easier. You gather information on a given investment, look at the trends in the market acting on that investment, assess the risk versus reward trade off, and you put your strategy to work. Deciding to sell has a lot more emotions involved which frequently causes investors to make the wrong decision. Let’s look at some of the most common scenarios.
When do I sell a big winner?
First scenario is “the rocket ship”. You purchased a stock and the stock price has gone through the roof. It’s made you a ton of money on paper, you proudly boast to your friends and co-workers about the price that you bought it at, and in certain instances it has been a life changing financial event. The mistake investors make here is they get into what we call “the teddy bear syndrome”.
Teddy bear syndrome…..
Have you ever tried to take a teddy bear away from a five year old……good luck. As adults, we often fall into the same behavioral pattern with very successful investments. Individuals typically have a strong emotional attachment to their most successful investments. But you will frequently hear many legendary investment managers make comments like: “Investment decisions are not emotional decisions. You have to remove your emotions from the decision-making process.” Let’s say you bought $10,000 of XYZ stock at $10 per share and five years later it’s now selling at $890 per share turning your $10,000 into $890,000. Do you sell some of it, maybe all of it?
Here is the key question……..
“If you had that $890,000 in cash in your hand today, would you invest all of it back into XYZ stock at $890 per share?”
Most people would say “No!! That’s crazy. I would diversify that $890,000 across a number of holdings and the stock has already gone up so much”. Continuing to hold a stock is the same decision as buying a stock. But doing nothing is easier because we feel like we are not making a decision, we are just “continuing to hold”. Remember, it’s easy to sell a stock that has lost money. It’s much more difficult to sell a stock that produced a gain.
“If I sell the stock, I’ll have to pay tax on the gain.”
Question: Would you rather pay taxes on a gain or lose money? Usually if you are paying taxes it means that you are making money. If I sold the stock holding in the example above, I would have an $880,000 long term capital gain and at a minimum would pay around $132,000 in long term capital gains tax at 15%. This would leave me with $758,000 cash in hand from a $748,000 gain plus $10,000 original investment. What if instead of selling I continue to hold the stock and to no fault of company XYZ the economy goes into a recession? The stock goes from $890 a share to $500 a share. Now my total investment is worth $500,000 instead of $890,000. It’s still a good investment because I bought it at $10,000 and it’s still worth $500,000 but if I sold it at $500 per share I would still pay tax on the gain, now a smaller amount of gain, and be left with around $425,000. That poor decision cost me $333,000 after tax.
The fallen star
Most investors have been here at one point or another. You purchased a stock that rose in value dramatically but for whatever reason the stock lost all of its early investment gains and your investment is now underwater. Many investors will say “It’s a good long term holding so I’m just going to wait for it to come back.” While we are all familiar with the buy and hold strategy, there is a risk and opportunity cost with this strategy. The risk being that it may never come back to its original value. The opportunity cost is the money invested in that underperforming company could be growing somewhere else instead of just “waiting for it to come back”.
You must ask yourself the same key question that was listed above: “If I had that money in my hand today, would I invest all of it in that stock?” If the answer is “no”, you should probably sell some or all of it. Do not hold a stock solely based on a target share price. I will hear people say, “Well I bought it at $55 per share so I’m going to wait until it at least gets back to that price.” That is not an investment strategy. You must look at the fundamentals of the company, their competitors, global market conditions, company management, the company’s strategy, and their financials to really come up with a price target for the stock.
The inherited gem
It’s a common occurrence that individuals will inherit stock from a family member and they know that family member had a strong emotional attachment to the stock because they either work for the company or they never sold a single share during their lifetime. It’s easy to feel that selling the stock is in some way selling the memory of that family member. I will often hear comments like: “My dad worked for the company and held that stock for 40 years. He would be rolling in his grave right now if he knew I was thinking about selling his stock.” This frequently happens because the generation before us had pension plans to support them in retirement and did not have to sell stock to supplement their income or they came from a generation that was very frugal about spending money. Your needs and circumstances are probably very different from the person that you inherited the stock from so you need to look at that investment holding from your financial standpoint.
I work for the company……..
If you work for a publicly traded company then there is a good chance that you own shares of that company in an employee stock purchase plan, retirement plan, options plan, or brokerage account. Since you work for the company it usually means that you have “drank the kool-aide” and believe in the company’s mission, vision, and you feel like you have more control over the fate of your investment. Remember, even though you work for that company it’s still one company and attaching too much for your net worth to one investment is very risky. It’s even more risky for employees because if something negatively impacts the company not only is your employment at risk but so is your total net worth if a large portion of your investment portfolio is tied to the company that you work for. Make sure you periodically calculate a total of all your investment holdings and compare that to the amount invested in your company’s stocks to make sure you stay balanced in your overall investment approach.
Ask yourself the easy question…….
While making the decision to buy, sell, or hold an investment is not always an easy one. Finding the right answer may be as easy as asking yourself: “If the amount invested in that stock was in cash and in my hand today, would I invest 100% of it back into that stock holding?”
Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.