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Monday, February 23, 2009

Trading Mistakes (Part 1)

Just about everyone knows the grisly statistics about options trading: 90% of all naked option players (no, that doesn't mean they trade in the buff, only that they buy uncovered puts or calls) end up losing money. But hardly anyone knows the equally grisly statistics about equity trading: 80% of all stock investors end up losing money.
But how can that be, you ask? Over time, the stock market is a sure thing, a guaranteed way to make money. It's so easy. All you have to do is buy good stocks and hold them. Everybody says this, pundits, brokers, financial advisors, the media, the historical record itself. No one who simply bought and held the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 has ever lost money over a 20-year time span. Right? Yes, right. Now go find me someone who bought and held for 20-years. You should be able to find a few, about 20% to be precise. The other 80% lose money.

How does this happen? A couple of ways. Primarily, it happens because no matter how resolute people think they are about buying and holding, they usually fall into the same old emotional pattern of buying high and selling low. Investors are human beings. Human beings naturally want to be in the winning camp, and human beings naturally seek to avoid pain. When things are most euphoric in the investment world, at the top of a long bull market, these human beings are in there buying. And when things are most painful, at the end of bear market, these human beings are in there selling. In fact, it's usually the final capitulation of the last remaining "holders" that sets up the end of the bear market and the start of a new bull market. As Sy Harding says in his excellent book "Riding The Bear," while people may promise themselves at the top of bull markets that this time they'll behave differently, "no such creature as a buy and hold investor ever emerged from the other side of the subsequent bear market." Statistics compiled by Ned Davis Research back up Harding's assertion. Every time the market declines more than 10% (and "real" bear markets don't even officially begin until the decline is 20%), mutual funds experience net outflows of investor money. Fear is a stronger emotion than greed. Most bear markets last for months (the norm), or even years (both the 1929 and 1966 bear markets), and one can see how the torture of losing money week after week, month after month, would wear down even the most determined buy and holder. But the average investor's pain threshold is a lot lower than that. The research shows that It doesn't matter if the bear market lasts less than 3 months (like the 1990 bear) or less than 3 days (like the 1987 bear). People will still sell out, usually at the very bottom, and almost always at a loss.

So THAT is how it happens. And the only way to avoid it is to avoid owning stocks during bear markets. If you try to ride them out, odds are you'll fail. And if you believe that we are in a New Era, and that bear markets are a thing of the past, your next of kin will have my sympathies.

But people lose money in other ways, too, even during the strongest of bull markets. Let's look at some of the more common trading mistakes to which people are prone. Many of them are related, part and parcel of the same refusal to pay proper attention to risk management. If you recognize your own actions in some of these, join the club. Over the years, I've committed every sin on the list at least once. Still do on occasion.

-- Letting small losses turn into large losses.

A whole myriad of mistakes accompany this one. Refusing to take a loss at all. Overbetting. Catching falling knives. Averaging down. Etc., etc.. At root, it's probably because the average investor pays little mind to risk management. In a way, it's understandable. The majority of those in the market today have only come into the market during the last 5 to 7 years. They have never really experienced a serious bear market. The only investing world they know is that of an ongoing bull market, where it's ALWAYS okay to buy the dips, where a stock that craters ALWAYS comes back. But SOMEBODY bought UBid at 121. And SOMEBODY bought eBay at 234. I hope it wasn't you. You should only be buying stocks that are in an ongoing uptrend (hopefully not TOO far along however), or those that are bottoming out following a stiff correction. In other words, when you buy a stock it should be with the expectation that it will go up (otherwise, why buy it?). If it goes down instead, you've made a mistake in your analysis. Either you're early, or just plain wrong. It amounts to the same thing. There is no shame in being wrong, only in STAYING wrong. If a stock does not quickly begin to move in the direction you envisioned when you purchased it, you should begin to question your reasons for owning it and you should immediately put it on a short leash. If it doesn't turn in relatively quick fashion, get rid of it. You can always go back in later, when it really turns. This goes to the heart of the familiar adage: let winners run, cut losers short. Nothing will eat into your performance more than carrying a bunch of dogs and their attendant fleas, both in terms of actual losses and in terms of dead, or underperforming, money.

-- Refusing to take a loss at all.

I simply don't understand the way some people think. From whence came the idiotic notion that a loss "on paper" isn't a "real" loss until you actually sell the stock? Or that a profit isn't a profit until the stock is sold and the money is in the bank? Nonsense. Your stock and your portfolio is worth whatever you can sell it for, at the market, right at this moment. No more. No less. People are reluctant to sell a loser for a variety of reasons. For some it's an ego/pride thing, an inability to admit they've made a mistake. That is false pride, and it's faulty thinking. Your refusal to acknowledge a loss doesn't make it any less real. Hoping and waiting for a loser to come back and save your fragile pride is dumb. Your loser may NOT come back. And even if it does, a stock that is down 50% has to put up a 100% gain just to get back to breakeven. Losses are a cost of doing business, a part of the game. If you never have losses, then you are not trading properly. Most pros have three losers for every winner. They make money by keeping the losses small and letting the profits build. You should be almost happy to take a loss. It means that you have jettisoned an underachiever stock and have freed up that dead money to put to better use elsewhere. Take your losses ruthlessly, put them out of mind and don't look back, and turn your attention to your next trade.

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