Monday, January 2, 2012

Chapter 2: How to lose less with a Stop-loss

"More money has probably been lost by investors holding a stock they really did not want until they could 'at least come out even' than from any other single reason" - Philip A. Fisher.

You should re-read the quote above. If you have been investing in the stock market for any length of time, you have surely succumbed to the 'coming out even' fallacy at least once.

Truth is, ‘Mr. Market’ does not know at what price you bought a stock or fund. Nor does he care. But you do, and that is the root of the problem.

I'm presuming that you performed due diligence in selecting a particular stock or a fund - carefully studying past performance, dividend records, peer comparisons. And yet, in spite of your best efforts, you pick a loser. It happens. All a part of the game.

This is when your investing mettle will be tested. Will you swallow your pride and get out? Will you soldier on, 'knowing' that you've picked a winner that will surely make you rich soon? Or will you become a 'long term investor' simply because your short-term plans have got nixed?

A neat little device, called a 'Stop-Loss' level, may save you the blushes. How does it work? Before you buy a stock or a fund, you should decide how much loss you will be able to tolerate. For an expensive stock, your loss tolerance may be less. For a cheaper fund it may be more.

As a conservative, long-term investor, I like to set a stop-loss level of between 15% and 30% of the buy price.

Let us say I'm planning to buy a stock for Rs. 100, and set the stop-loss at 20%. If the stock falls to Rs. 80 or below, I'll not wait and sell immediately - thus ‘stopping my loss’ at Rs. 20 per share.

What if the stock price rises to Rs. 120? Do I have a huge grin on my face and brag about my stock-picking skills to all and sundry? I'll be lying if I said, 'No'. But what I also do is set a 'trailing stop-loss'.

What's that? It means increasing the original stop-loss level by the same percentage as the rise in the stock's or fund's price. In our example, we will raise the stop-loss level to Rs. (120 - 24 =) 96.

If the stock moves up to Rs.200 (this happens usually in bull markets - but also some times in sharp bear market rallies), the stop-loss level will now be Rs.160.

Stop-loss levels not only help you to limit your losses, but a trailing stop-loss will protect your profits as well. Should the stock price suddenly fall to Rs.150, your stop-loss level will be 'triggered' and you will sell off, still making a profit of Rs. 50 per share (that you bought originally at Rs. 100).

The foregoing discussion has been written from the point-of-view of a conservative long-term investor. I have nothing against those who trade stocks on a daily basis, but I do not recommend trading to new or inexperienced investors. But if trading is what gets you excited, you may want to set 'tighter' stop-losses.

In the 2008 bear market, the Sensex fell more than 60% from its January 2008 top of 21200. But many small investors were facing much bigger losses because of their penchant for buying smaller and ‘cheaper’ stocks and funds.

The two lessons from such a traumatic experience are:

(1) most stocks or funds that seem a bargain are not; better stick to proven performers and market leaders;

(2) even if you've chosen the wrong stock or fund, applying a disciplined stop-loss mechanism will limit the losses.

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